After touring the heart of Quito we arranged for two very different day trips from our base in the historic center.  The first was to Cotopaxi National Park to get up close to the active Cotopaxi volcano.  The second was to the Mindo cloud forest to view a more tropical landscape.

Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi is about 90 minutes outside of Quito.  On our way there, we stopped at a large food market in Machachi.  Because Ecuador is on the equator it has consistent temperatures and sunlight all year round which makes growing crops ideal.  We loved checking out all the goods and trying star fruit and freshly made empanadas.

Our next stop was Cotopaxi National Park.  When our guide stopped the car to pay our entrance fees, I hopped out as well to check out the view.

After a 75 year slumber, Cotopaxi woke up in June 2016 and began to spew ash and sulphur dioxide.  Cotopaxi is a popular destination for climbers who can summit the volcano, but it’s currently closed to climbers because of the volcanic activity.

I almost didn’t take the picture below because the clouds were mostly covering the volcano and I didn’t think it was a great shot.  Only a small portion of the snow near the top is visible.  Cotopaxi is a perfect cone-shaped volcano and I was hoping to capture that.  In hindsight I was glad to at least get this one picture because by the time we drove up closer it was completely covered in clouds.

Cotopaxi is the second highest point in Ecuador at 5,897 meters above sea level.  We were told to dress warmly so we scraped together all the jackets, sweatshirts & hats we had and layered them on.  The temperature was definitely cool, but the wind was especially fierce that day.  Our guide said it wasn’t always as windy – we just happened to go on a particularly windy day.

Our guide, Roberto, was an expert birder and set up a telescope so we could view the wildlife up close.
These are forced smiles in the wind. Some couldn’t even be bothered to look up.

We took a walk around Lake Limpiopungo.  Had it been more clear we would have had great views of Cotopaxi.

Cotopaxi is behind all those clouds.
In the event the volcano erupts…follow this sign.

After visiting the park, we stopped for a traditional Ecuadorian lunch at Hacienda San Agustin de Callo which was built on the site of a 15th century Inca fortress.  The current owner inherited the property from her grandfather, Leonidas Plaza, two-time president of Ecuador.  This hacienda is in the same family as Hacienda Zuleta further north where we stayed for 3 nights (post coming soon).

The wall below is meticulously carved volcanic stone which has survived from the 17th century.  It was truly impressive to examine the wall and see how well each stone fit together – no gaps, cracks, or airflow between the stones.

After lunch we had time to explore the grounds a bit more.

As we left the Hacienda, we noticed that the clouds had cleared enough to reveal the top of Cotopaxi.  We could clearly see the ash coming out of the center of the crater and blowing to the left – those are not clouds!  Although Cotopaxi was not an active threat while we were there it was still a bit unnerving to think that an eruption may not be too far off!

Mindo Cloud Forest

One day we were freezing on a volcano and the next day we were sweating in a humid cloud forest.  The Mindo Cloud Forest is about 2 hours northwest of Quito and is known for having over 450 species of birds, abundant orchid gardens, butterfly farms, and waterfalls.

Shortly before we reached the town of Mindo, we pulled off the road to see some Hummingbirds.  Since we have hummingbirds in our backyard at home I wasn’t sure how exciting the stop would be.  We sat in a little garden full of feeders and were entertained by the birds much longer than I thought.  We are used to plain brown hummingbirds, but here they were so colorful: green, purple, yellow, even iridescent blue!  They gave the kids a bird sheet so they could try to identify the different kinds (so many!) we saw in the garden.  The kids loved watching the birds race around and chase one another away from the feeders.  We ended up staying much longer than expected.

There are three hummingbirds in this picture…do you see them all?

Afterwards we got to tour the rest of the property to see the tropical cloud forest landscape and eat fruit straight off the trees!

The kids loved the “see through” butterflies!

We also stopped at a butterfly farm, Mariposas de Mindo .  After a short talk about the butterfly life cycle we were released into a large butterfly enclosure with thousands of butterflies that we could catch on our arms & hands.  We could see some butterflies being born right then!  After the butterflies hatch, they hang onto their cocoon for a few hours before flying away.

The butterflies were feeding on mashed up bananas set out in bowls.  We put some banana on our fingers (or some kids may have rubbed it all up & down their arms) and the butterflies would come to us.

This was another thing that the kids enjoyed much more than I expected.  In fact, we had to drag them out after more than an hour.  I could have spent more time in Mindo as we didn’t have enough time for everything.  I would have also liked to try rafting or tubing in the river, hiking to waterfalls, or a chocolate tour to see the process of starting with a bean and turning it into a chocolate bar.  Yum!  We only spent a half day in Mindo and then we stopped to see the equator at the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) on our way back to Quito which I included in this post here.

Up next:  Hacienda Zuleta and The Galapagos