History of Mindo Part 1: Tourism

History of Mindo Part 1: Tourism

History of Mindo Part 1: Tourism

Efrain Toapanta is the co-creator of Casa Divina Lodge and SabinaTour Operator, and has over 25 years of experience as a birdwatching and naturalist guide. He was born in Mindo - a small town in the cloud forest of Ecuador with and impressive diversity of birds, orchids, amphibians, and abundant sources of clean water - and has witnessed and starred in the great changes that this small place has experienced in the last 50 years.


In addition to being one of the most respected bird guides in the area, in an effort to record his valuable knowledge of Mindo's history we are presenting a 2 part blog that will focus on the growth of tourism and birdwatching in Mindo.

So for those who want to know more about this colorful town, you can learn more about it through Efrain's life!

Question: What was your childhood like in Mindo?

Efrain: My parents are from Tumbaco (in the outskirts of Quito) and they moved to Mindo in 1957, where they worked for a long time in one of the haciendas of this area. After some years, in 1966, they bought a land where they built their own farm and there I was born in 1970. We were self-sustainable - we had some cattle (pigs, chickens, cows), my father use to cut wood to sell and my mother would work in the garden. She actually loved to take us with her to work in the garden after school.

Together with my parents I learned many fundamental things that during childhood I did not enjoy so much, but now I understand its importance. We grew up without electricity and the products we bought were very few - rice, salt and panela, because everything else came from the farm. We had the meat at home and, since there was no energy for the refrigerator, we used to dry and smoke it. It was delicious and whenever we were hungry we only had to go and cut a piece of smoked meat.

Q: How was your adolescence in Mindo?

E: When I was a teenager, there weren't many activities in Mindo except for being on the farms and playing soccer. We used to walk in the park with my friends and passed time with the people, but the town was very small and isolated from the rest of the country. Traveling to Quito by bus took about seven hours!

I remember that the first time a group of foreigners came when I was about 16 years old. They came from Canada to volunteer for two months and I loved it because I started taking English lessons with them. I was fascinated to hear them speak another language and at that time I felt very motivated to learn English and travel to other countries.

Q: How did you get involved in tourism?

E: My friend Hugolino Oñate, who is now my brother-in-law, told me that he was working with the NGO Friends of Nature and invited me to participate. I went to some conservation workshops and began to understand the importance of our forest. At that time, Mindo's economy was mostly based on hunting and felling trees such as cinnamon and cedar for sale. These workshops motivated us to diversify the economy by introducing tourism as a sustainable alternative, but it was very difficult to think about that possibility. However, in 1988 the declaration of 19,200 ha of the Mindo - Nambillo forest as a protected area gave us hope.

In 1991 with my friends Hugolino Oñate, Milton Narváez, Segundo Román, Luis Mora and Amparo Pillajo, we thought about creating a more tourism-oriented organization in Mindo and thus Pacaso & Pacaso was born. That same year a course was held in Ecuador to train new tourist guides and we were part of it. That allowed us to know what was already being done in the country, in places such as Otavalo, the Cotopaxi National Park and other reserves and volcanoes that were in the process of tourism development, as well as the European tourism model. It was very interesting since this extended the panorama of what could be done in Mindo. I remember that at that time there were no hotels in Mindo and we set up a provisional camp and invited all our classmates. We went to the Nambillo waterfall, did some tubing, took them to eat delicious meals and they loved it and encouraged us to move on.

Q: And what happened next?

E: For us it was quite an odyssey. For example the tubing - at first we did it with small tubes, so each person and guide slid down the river in their own tube. People would fell and get hurt, so we looked for other options like buying bigger tubes and even a very expensive rafting boat that was damaged shortly after. A colleague had the idea of ​​putting the tubes together like a boat and so it finally worked: stability, larger groups and more security!

The first months were difficult. The few people who came wanted to hike to the waterfall or do tubing. As we were starting, we did not know how to charge for these services so we only asked for voluntary contribution. Many times they gave us nothing, so after around seven months of operating, we felt more secure and we decided to put a cost on the services to get to live from them.

We also asked the Mindo Parish Board for a space to build the Tourist Information Center, which we did ourselves with material from the area because that was all we had. It actually looked very friendly. At that time there were almost no cars in Mindo, so to go tubing or to the waterfalls we had to do everything by foot. By then there were only two stores in Mindo, but as the demand for hiking and tubing grew, people began to see the potential of tourism and to create their own businesses. This generated an important change in the point of view of the people, because before the owners of the farms were those who led the community as the survival of the community came from them.

Q: How was birdwatching tourism growing?

E: One of the most important events happened in 1994 when the first Christmas Bird Count was conducted in Ecuador. We continued to do it every year and more and more people joined, international tourism began to arrive and many travel agencies visited us with birding tours. We understood that we had to lean towards this activity so we should develop new skills, although it was not easy. At that time there was no bird guide for Ecuador (the first book was published in 2001), so I worked with the Colombian guide book.

In 1997, Mindo received the IBA (Important Bird Area) recognition from Bird Life International and this contributed to making it better known among the birdwatchers. Two years later, in 1999, I was lucky to work with Kazuya Naoki, a Japanese biologist who came to Mindo to do a research on tanagers for National Geographic. He stayed in the cabins we had with my brother-in-law in what is now known as the Orchid Garden, and I was his assistant during the investigation. I accompanied him in the collection of species and we collected three individuals of each species to do the genetic and behavioral study. We also collected the plants that these species visited. During this experience my interest in birds grew as I understood their behavior, nesting and other things that I did not know before.

Pacaso & Pacaso continued to promote tourism in Mindo and in 1999 there was an event that, although it was very hard, allowed us to be better known internationally. That year I met Molly when she contacted me to do her thesis research at our Foundation. She decided to spend some months in Mindo during which we fell in love, and she never left. Our dreams of creating a sustainable tourism business came true after a couple of years with Casa Divina Lodge. 

Before the end of the century, the OCP (Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline) plan to pass its new pipeline under the Mindo - Nambillo Protected Area was made public, without previous environmental studies having been carried out. Our Foundation and other local organizations protested against this project and did everything possible to prevent it. Molly, and various international environmental NGO’s, helped us to obtain financing to buy 800 ha of cloud forest for conservation and thus avoid the passage of the OCP through private property. We were visited by groups of environmental NGOs from various countries including Julia Butterfly, and most of the town was united for the same goal. But the situation was already becoming very well known and one night, when we had 24 people from our Foundation in the reserve, the police came and arrested them to warn us that the protests should end. They declared the issue as National Priority and we could not stop the passage of the OCP through this land.

At the end of the same year the Pichincha volcano erupted and Mindo appeared in the national media as one of the affected places. This really put us on the map of the country and the international environmental sectors. So, from the new millennium we began to receive many visits and tourism investment multiplied significantly. 

Q: That is to say that in 30 years Mindo's future changed completely…

E: For sure. All these changes have been good, but they also have their negative side. Before there was more community and people were united. Now we are more dispersed, but follow the same spirit of love and respect for nature. We have always combined conservation with tourism, since our focus is to promote the conservation of the forests to all who visit us. In addition, tourism has also attracted people from different parts of the country and the world, who come with new ideas and energize the economy, encouraging us to grow and become known.

Q: How do you see Mindo in the future?

E: One of my dreams is to see Mindo as an elegant destination, conscious and respectful of nature and community. I see Ecuador as a much more important destination in South America, where we take advantage of all our potential - which is great thanks to the tremendous diversity found in such a small territory. The tourists that come are always surprised by our country, so one of our challenges is to understand how to reach out and encourage everyone to continue visiting Ecuador and supporting our economic growth.

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