Mainland Ecuador has three general regions, Amazon, Sierra and Pacific Coast. If we took a journey, let’s say, starting at 0 meters elevation from Coastal Ecuador along the Pacific Ocean eastward, up and over the Andes, toward the Amazon Basin we would traverse through some of the most important life zones in Ecuador. First we would travel through Coastal Lowland Rainforest, then to Foothill forest and then as we climb we would reach Cloud Forest (or Pre Montane Forest). Above this lies Paramo and the Volcanic Peaks. Now on our descent on the Eastern slope of the Andes we first find Paramo, then Cloud forest, Foothill Forest and finally the Amazon Basin. So Ecuador has two Rainforests (Coastal and Amazonian), two Foothill Forests (Western and Eastern), two Cloud Forests (Western and Eastern) and Paramo. Of course I’ve not mentioned Dry Coastal Forest to the south and Coastal Mangrove. If we were driving on our imaginary journey it would have taken about 15 hours. Anyway, geographic diversity leads to biological diversity and Ecuador is definitely the proof with over 1,600 bird species, more frog and orchid species than any other country… overall amazing biodiversity!
What is a Cloud Forest and how is it different than a Rainforest? Well, our first Cloud Forest sensations will probably be… moist, cool, green, lush. These first adjectives are important to describe a Cloud Forest. Yes it is moist. The rainy season is from January until May, with a lot of the precipitation in the form of mist and also rain. Luckily the rain is pretty predictable during this time and starts at about 2 PM and continues for a few hours giving us plenty of time to schedule our day activities. Because of the higher altitude, Cloud Forests are cool. The highest temperatures in Mindo are around 80F and the low at night is around 55F… all year round! Because of the moisture and coolness (that slows evaporation), Cloud Forests are very green and lush. This unique climate allows loads of epiphytes, plants that live on other plants, to grow almost out of control! There are mosses on the trunks of trees, orchids between the mosses, ferns growing on branches, algae covering leaves… much mores so than in Rain Forests. In Mindo there is a distinct dry season for about 7 months (June through December) when rain is scarce and sporadic, but moisture levels are still maintained by mists that condense on the side of mountains.
So Cloud Forests are more lush and cooler than lowland Rainforests. Another difference is that Rainforests have larger, silt laden, slow moving rivers, while Cloud Forests are characterized by fast moving, clear rocky rivers. Both are diverse, but which is more diverse? Well it depends on what and where you look. Cloud forests have beautiful overlooks due to the irregular, mountainous terrain (no need for bird towers here!), while Rainforests are flatter and often separated by swamps, lakes or streams. This is important in the distribution of species. Rainforests are incredibly diverse but the plants and animals are more widespread while Cloud Forests, because of natural barriers, have many more range restricted or endemic species. If we look at epiphytes, such as Orchids, Cloud Forests are more diverse… at tree species, Rainforest. Bird species? It probably depends on the size of the area observed. If you expand out a little and include a few valleys and mountains, plus different elevations Cloud Forests probably hold more bird species. Remember this comes from someone living in a Cloud Forest!
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The best advice is to visit both on your trip to Ecuador!
While mammal species are difficult to see, over time we have spotted on the El Monte reserve: Central American Agouti, Ocelot, Margay, Red Brocket Deer, Paca, Tayra, Andean Coati, Three-Toed Sloth, and White-Fronted Capuchin Monkeys. There is also a high diversity of reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and other insects. Some of the interesting lizard species include the "Jesus Christ Lizard", which can walk on water and the very rare Proboscis Lizard. Frogs include various species of tree frogs, glass frogs, toads etc.
Almost from the very beginning human beings have placed huge demands on our planet. We can’t deny that, whether in his original form, hunting some animals to extinction or to the modern version where his hunger for natural resources is unprecedented, putting ever more pressure on forests, native species, world climate, local climate, cultures… well you get the picture.
So how do we lessen our impact on our planet?
Growing organic fruits and vegetables or buying them locally certainly helps. This reduces dependency on petroleum used for transport and pesticides and lessens the amount of carbon emissions. Our garden is all hand worked, which not only gives Jhon and Nacho a job but also eliminates the need for noisy, polluting, resource burning tractors or tillers, not to mention giving us all a chance for a great workout! Also, all kitchen wastes are composted and recycled back into the garden.
Having a spring that gravity feeds water down to the lodge and cabanas is not only convenient but also eliminates the necessity for a pump, not too mention providing clean, fresh, cool water.
We have also allowed most of El Monte’s Reserve to regrow sucking in a countless amount of CO2 while releasing O2. El Monte’s spin-off, the Mindo Biological Station (MBS), protects over 6,000 hectares of Primary Cloud Forest that holds a tremendous amount of CO2 and is part of the 19,200 hectare Mindo-Nambillo Protected Forest.
Lighting for the main house comes from 2 solar panels (which we are also able to use to charge camera batteries and laptops), kerosene lanterns and candles. A micro hydro electrical system provides lights for the cabaÃ±as. Alternative energy is here!
ECOLOGICAL AND COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Our goal at El Monte has always been to help preserve and protect the biodiversity and natural beauty of Mindo. Together with the people from Mindo we feel we have one of the best examples of ecotourism in the town of Mindo and in the protection of the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve (19,000 hectares). It is a pleasure to see the people progressing in education, health, ability to speak English and other languages, and to have a more stable financial economy, all while passionately defending the local environment. Mindo should be a basic model for like-minded communities here in Ecuador or all over the world.
At El Monte we have provided on-the-job training for river rafting and bird guides, cooks and gardeners. Some have remained with us, others have gone on to start their own businesses or work independently.
El Monte sponsors and founded the Mindo Biological Station and helped in the beginning of Sani Lodge (www.sanilodge.com). Our commitment to not expand our business has allowed us to work in adjacent and distant areas.
Sani Lodge (www.sanilodge) is an ecotourism lodge located deep in the Ecuadorian Rainforest. It is 100% owned and managed by a comuna of Kichwa. We at El Monte are proud to have helped start Sani and still work as advisors for the lodge. Hopefully you will have a chance to visit Sani on your trip to Ecuador… it truly is a once in a lifetime experience.
Our present “outside” Mindo project is on the coast in the area of the Mache-Chindul Reserve. This reserve is one of the last remaining areas to protect coastal Rainforest. We have bought and are planning to grow shade grown cacao (chocolate) and hope to motivate the locals to continue to do the same. This should take the pressure off of the remaining Pacific forest and slow the deforestation in the area.