Got up at seven o’clock and made our way to the Bistro Latino restaurant downstairs for a delicious breakfast washed down with good hot Ecuadorian coffee. Outside, the weather was cloudy but fairly warm.
There were 12 of us who had booked for this day-long tour, and we boarded the bus around 8.00am and set off through the Monday morning rush-hour traffic. Today we were going to visit the “cloud forest” in the highlands, and our first stop was to a village and farmland which had grown in the crater of an extinct volcano, the Pululahua crater.
Our coach parked up and we all got out for a photo opportunity and to use the restrooms if we needed to. There were several viewing points and it was extremely picturesque to look into the valley from our high vantage point – what a fantastic place to live!
The Pululahua crater is completely inactive (its last known eruption was in 500 BC) and in its small dwellings it is inhabited mostly by farmers, with is a town called Nublin. The first settlers in the crater were the Incas. Later in the year 1825 the Dominicos monks settled in the crater to search for treasures, extract limestone and to sow the land. In 1905 with the Liberal Revolution the lands were confiscated by the government and later in 1979 given back to the farmers.
We stayed here a short while before continuing on our way; our next stop was to the Alambi Cloud Forest Reserve where there were 32 species of hummingbirds.
After about 20 minutes or so, our coach pulled over and we entered the Alambi reserve. We walked along some pathways cut amongst the trees and bushes, and arrived at a single-storey building which served as a guest house as well as the owner’s home. We were shown into the back ‘garden’ where some plastic chairs had been set out if you wanted to take a seat to watch the birds. Several feeders were attached to the many trees and bushes; these contained nectar and some of them were shaped like the trumpet-shaped flowers into which hummingbirds insert their long beaks in search of the nectar. While there are 32 species at the reserve, the guy told us that we would typically see 12-15 species.
Wow! There were loads of beautifully-coloured hummingbirds flitting around in the trees and bushes and settling on the feeders, which were numbered, so our guide could explain what we could see. Some of the hummingbirds were tiny, and as they flew their wings were just a blur; in some of the smaller breeds their wings can beat at 80 times per second. Hummingbirds can subsequently hover, and they are the only species of bird able to fly backwards.
We spent a good half-hour or so watching the hummingbirds and taking photos. The sun had come out now and it was fairly hot. We needed to use the loo and this gave us the chance to have a look inside the guest-house; it contained three twin-bedded rooms, a living room with a large fireplace and a kitchen and dining room, as well as the bathroom. It looked lovely and cosy and of course it was set in an idyllic location, in the middle of nowhere up in the highlands of Ecuador. What a gorgeous place to come and stay if you wanted to get away from it all and get closer to nature.
We took a guided walk through the gardens, which contained lots of fruit trees including bananas, oranges, mandarins, guavas and coffee. The owner went and picked some mandarins and gave us one each; it was the first time I’d ever had one straight from the tree – it was delicious and juicy.
We continued our stroll through the beautiful gardens in a large loop until we arrived back at our bus, then it was time for us to go to the next stop, the El Quetzel chocolate factory. Here we would learn how chocolate is made, from “bean to bar”.
The 12 of us entered the chocolate factory and were introduced to Jorge, our guide. He took us into a room where we were seated, six each side, at a long table, Jorge at the head. He then showed us a large cacao pod, which he opened up and let us try the fruit that surrounded the seed (similar to what we’d done at the Equator). Then he explained how the large seeds are dried, fermented and roasted in small batches; the roasting process is what imparts the distinctive caramelised “chocolatey” flavour we all know and love.
We were taken to a large “greenhouse” which was really just a large wooden frame with heavy duty plastic over it; simple but very effective as it was very warm inside. Here there were large wooden boxes containing the cacao beans and covered with layers of sacks; this builds up a tremendous heat and allows the beans to ferment. Afterwards the beans are spread out in wooden trays and allowed to dry naturally; after so long they are ready to be roasted. Roasting is done in large metal drums that rotate over a heat-source.
Pure 100% chocolate is bitter, so the purest chocolate that they sold was the 85% cocoa mass. We had the chance to taste three types, 85%, 77% and 67%. I liked the 85% chocolate the best, because I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth.
We also tried some of the dark chocolate with other added ingredients, such as ginger, coffee, salt and chilli peppers. They were all scrumptious, especially the ginger. We were also shown (and given the chance to try) other products and by-products of the cocoa process. These were tea brewed from the dried and ground up outer pod (which still contained a hint of chocolate as well as drinking chocolate powder and cocoa-butter skin softener. Jorge also explained to us how the empty outer pods were dried, painted bright colours, and used for decoration; in short, all of the pod is used.
After our very informative tour, we went to the shop and bought some 85% chocolate, some ginger chocolate and I also got a small pot of the cocoa butter to use as lip salve. All in all, an excellent visit.
We all got back on the bus for the next part of our tour, to a butterfly garden, ‘Mariposas de Mindo’. On arrival, the guide explained life-cycle of the butterfly, from eggs to caterpillar to chrysalis and metamorphosis to the beautiful butterfly. She explained how the various species of butterfly were bred here, not just for study purposes, but also to release into the wild.
We were then allowed into the butterfly garden, which was a very large, high-ceilinged room containing trees, bushes, a couple of ponds and some benches on which to sit. There were also some quieter, sheltered areas containing the chrysalises.
Inside, butterflies were flying around everywhere. There was the massive, distinctive “owl-eye” butterfly with its large spot which looked uncannily like an owl’s eye, hence its name. This was a large insect with an average wing span of 130mm, and there were a lot of these around; we even saw some brand new ones which had just emerged from their chrysalises and were waiting for their wings to dry. Amazing!
In all, there were over 25 species of colourful butterflies, some bright blue ones, orange and brown, pink ones and many others; unfortunately I didn’t make a note of all the species. Plates containing mashed banana (which the butterflies love) were placed around the garden, and on some of them we could see the butterflies feeding. If you put a small amount of banana mash on your hand and waited patiently, with any luck a butterfly would land on your and start eating out of your hand! This is what happened to Trevor, and indeed we saw other people with butterflies perching on their heads, shoulders, backs and even on the frames of one lady’s glasses! It was a lovely, colourful, tranquil place and we learned a lot.
When we came out of the butterfly garden we were all good and hungry and ready for a late lunch after 2.00pm. Our final stop, therefore, was at a pleasant restaurant where we were booked in for a four-course meal. The restaurant was set in lush grounds which contained more hummingbirds, flitting from tree to tree.
The meal was delicious; I started with a sort of fried pancake containing mixed vegetables and meat, accompanied by a spicy sauce. This was followed by a traditional potato soup, then the main course of chicken in a mushroom sauce with vegetables, and finished either with dessert of coffee. I chose the latter. We shared our table with Brian and Karen and spent a very pleasant hour in there.
Afterwards it was back on the coach for the 2-hour return journey to Quito and the Marriott Hotel. What a worthwhile trip it had been; everyone agreed.
Arriving back in the Marriott around 5.30pm, we decided we wouldn’t go to dinner, especially after our large lunch which we’d eaten pretty late anyway. We therefore went to the bar and enjoyed a cold beer before going back to our room and getting showered and changed and watching TV and resting for a while.
Then we returned to the bar where we saw Tom and Lee-Anne sitting in front of their laptop; Tom said they were looking at different cruises trying to decide which one to do next. We don’t have that ‘problem’ as we already have another three cruises booked, as well as a trip to Nepal! 😊
We had another couple of drinks each in the bar, and I was reluctant to return to our room because this was our last night in Quito, and indeed the last night of our holiday, as we were flying home tomorrow afternoon. Tempus fugit – it seemed no time at all since we’d arrived here.
We went back to our room around 11.00pm, and set the alarm for 7.30am. We had the morning at leisure tomorrow and we wanted to make the most of it. We slept very well after an excellent day.