Hot pools and streams in Mindo

Mindo and Papallacta: Cloud forests and hot springs

Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Friday 13 March 2020 Ecuador Leave a Comment

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Since Paul reported on our time in Quito, it’s my turn to give you an update on the three weeks that followed. I have split it into two – this first post focuses on two places we visited near Quito, the next one covers the Galápagos Islands.

Mindo

On Monday after we finished our Spanish lessons, we took an Aloag bus from Carcelen Bus Station in the north of Quito, heading to Santo Domingo de Los Colorados at 0945h. It dropped us off at the Y de Mindo junction of state road 28 (USD3 per person), from where we took a taxi (all taxis here are pick-up trucks) down into the village (USD3). There are Flor del Valle buses that go all the way into Mindo but their departure times didn’t suit us. These buses leave from Ofelia Bus Station (which is a short taxi ride away from Carcelen).

The next five nights, the Bio Hostal near the sports complex and close to the centre of the village would be our home. Our room was on the top floor, right above the entrance. While facing the street, we had our own balcony where we would often sit and enjoy the mountain views, watch birds feed on the flowers and lizards climb the trees around us, and kids play soccer in the garden opposite until dark. Our hosts made a huge and delicious breakfast for us every morning: fruit salad with granola and yoghurt, pancakes, scrambled or fried eggs, and bread rolls with butter and jam.

Tarabita Mindo Ecuador
This unique small-motor-powered (2002 Nissan!) cable car takes you soaring across a lush river basin over thick cloud forest to the Bosque Protector Mindo-Nambillo, where you can hike to a number of waterfalls.

After the full-on schedule of Spanish lessons and homework, and exploring Quito and its surrounds, we had purposely chosen to stay in Mindo for five nights, just to slow down and relax. Given its proximity to Quito, Mindo becomes quite busy on weekends, but since we arrived on a Monday, we only experienced a bit of the busyness on our last day/night. There is lots of outdoor stuff to do in Mindo including bird watching, tubing, zip-lining, canyoning, hiking and horse riding. It’s known as a bit of a birdwatcher’s paradise, thanks to its location half-way up the Western slope of the Andes, and the associated climate and cloud forest vegetation.

We weren’t super interested in visiting any of the mariposarios (butterfly farms) – we prefer to see animals in the wild / their natural habitat – or getting up before dawn to walk for miles and observe birds through telescopes – we saw many different bird species from our balcony and on our ‘normal’ walks. Instead, one day, we took a taxi the ~5km up to the Tarabita (a hand-powered cable car that crosses the Rio Nambillo ~150m above the valley). From the other side of the valley, you can hike to seven different waterfalls (though we managed only three as the hikes are quite steep and the humidity is high): Cascada Reina (one hour each way), Cascada Nambillo (20 minutes each way with plenty to see while there) and five waterfalls in a row with the closest 30 minutes each way (Cascada Ondinas) and the furthest >one hour each way (Cascada de Los Maderos).

Bio Hostal
Bio Hostal

One afternoon, we hired bicycles (USD5 per person for two hours) and headed out of town, riding along and across the Rio Mindo. Another evening, we signed up for a night walk with Eric from Mindo Night Walks. A taxi picked us up at 1900h and took us to Eric and Nick’s property (together with four other people). We then got torches and walked into the cloud forest looking for animals. We didn’t see any mammals (they sometimes encounter kinkajous, opossums, armadillos and bats) but we got to see plenty of frogs, insects (including the biggest cockroach I have ever seen… which was the size of my palm) and a small snake. It was super interesting even though it rained. We weren’t back in town until almost 2100h, so if you do it make sure you eat something beforehand as dinner will be late.

On Saturday morning, we took a Flor del Valle bus back to Quito’s Ofelia Bus Station and headed into the Centro Historico for one night at the Hostal Cultural. While we stayed in short-term rental accommodation near the Centro Historico when we first arrived, being right in the middle of it wasn’t the best experience. The hostel is simple and clean but the area is choked with people during the day, trying to sell all manner of things, and it always feels dodgy, especially at night. Anyhow, it was ideally located for us to do our laundry and take the trolley bus out to Quitumbe Bus Station in the south of Quito the next morning.

Papallacta

Where there is volcanic activity there are often hot springs, and Ecuador is no different. Papallacta near Quito and Baños near Ambato in the centre of the country are well known for their thermal baths. What we had read about Baños sounded super-touristy, so we decided to try Papallacta instead. Apart from the hot springs, Papallacta is adjacent to the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve, so we decided to stay for two nights to be able to do some hiking as well. There wasn’t much in terms of accommodation bookable over the Internet but, Ecuador being the cash economy it is, we thought that there would be lots more options we could check out once there… and we were right. There is the expensive hotel adjacent to the Termas Papallacta (and the cabins in the Termas) but there are several other hostels within walking distance of the Termas.

Walk around Papallacta Ecuador
Walk around Papallacta
Container Home in Papallacta Ecuador
Large container home in the Papallacta village

We had read about Hostal Antisana on the Lonely Planet website and on TripAdvisor (though the information and reviews were all a bit dated from 2013). While it sounded quite basic, the reviews were good enough for us to give it a try. They had rooms available at USD40 a night which included a very basic breakfast (that is, coffee and a bread roll with eggs and cheese) and the use of the two thermal pools in the garden (which were nice and cleaned the day after we arrived). The room was as expected and had a bathroom across the hallway. It was freezing cold at night (houses in Ecuador are often not well insulated and there is no heating), and we had to use the duvet of the second bed in our room to be warm enough, but where we were really let down was the indifference of our host (the older lady mentioned in the reviews was wonderful but her daughter or daughter-in-law was ‘running the show’). Our toilet cistern had no water on the second day of our stay which meant we could not flush at all. I mentioned it to her (in Spanish) and even showed her that the toilet flush didn’t work, but they didn’t do anything about it.

Anyhow, as we arrived around lunchtime, there was plenty of time in the afternoon to check out the Termas Papallacta. The Termas consist of a Balneario (costing USD8.50 entry per adult) and a Spa (costing USD22 entry per adult), each with a set of pools – I counted nine hot pools and three cold pools at the Balneario. However, given it was a Sunday afternoon, half of Quito seemed to be at the Balneario. It also rained quite a bit. Nevertheless, we stayed for about four hours, and towards sunset, the Termas emptied. If you plan to visit best choose a weekday or arrive late in the afternoon and stay until after sunset (the Balneario is open until 2230h) to avoid the crowds.

Hot pools in Papallacta Ecuador
Hot pools in Papallacta Ecuador is the reason we went there

The next morning, we were back at the Termas, booking a massage at the Spa for the same afternoon (you don’t have to pay the overpriced entry fee for the Spa to get a treatment) and then heading up into the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve for a hike. There is a ranger station next to the entrance to the Balneario, and from there, there are four or five different hikes between one hour and five hours in length, costing between USD2 and USD6 per person. As it started to rain again and given the altitude of 3,300 metres, we decided to start with the one hour / two-kilometre trail (Sendero de la Isla) which turned out to be a beautiful, easy walk along a small river with several small waterfalls, a variety of birdlife and beautiful scenery.

The other hikes are extensions of the first trail, continuing from the half-way point of the Sendero de la Isla (that is if you do any of the longer trails you do the Sendero de la Isla as well). Once back at the ranger station, we continued to walk downhill, all the way back to where the bus had dropped us off the day before (1.5 kilometres along fields and through various parts of the village). After lunch, we got a taxi back up to our hostel (USD2). The afternoon was spent enjoying the thermal pools in the garden of the hostel and trying to store some warmth for the second freezing cold night.

Would we come back to Papallacta? Probably. The landscape is beautiful; on a sunny day, you can see the volcano Antisana 15 kilometres away towering over the valley, there are lots more trails in the Eco Reserve to check out and many more thermal baths within close vicinity if you like chilling in hot water. However, we wouldn’t stay at Hostal Antisana again (refer to TripAdvisor).

Waiting for bus at Papallacta Ecuador
Waiting for bus at Papallacta Ecuador - it was something we have done a lot of in Ecuador

One other tip: Don’t bother to head all the way out to Quitumbe Bus Station to catch a bus to Papallacta. The bus takes about an hour or so to travel ‘back’ to Cumbaya and then out towards Papallacta. Instead, take a bus or taxi to the Scala Shopping Mall in Cumbaya (next to the Hospital de Los Valles) and grab a bus heading to Baeza, Tena or Lago Agrio from there (they are fairly frequent and all of them will drop you off at Papallacta). The trip out to Papallacta (from Quitumbe) took us almost three hours, while the trip back to Cumbaya took just over an hour. The added benefit was the stopover at the Shopping Mall which has (in Ecuadorian terms) superfast Internet and some outdoor clothing/gear stores (if you need supplies).

We had learned from our experience at Hostal Cultural in the Centro Historico and had booked a night at the Heritage Inn this time. The inn is located between the Mariscal and Florentina, just around the corner from our Spanish school. Our room was super clean with an ensuite bathroom, yummy breakfast, a quiet and safe yet central location close to laundry, supermarket and bank… we will definitely return to this little gem (refer TripAdvisor).

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