History of Mindo Part 2: Birdwatching
In this second part we will share more about birdwatching in Mindo, an activity that has become our main tourist attraction for international visitors and, therefore, a pillar of our economy. We hope that this information contributes to the growth of national tourism to the Mindo area and the Chocó Andino de Pichincha Biosphere Reserve, since the protection of these true life sanctuaries can only be sustainable when their own people appreciate, value and respect them.
To learn more about the history of Mindo in the mid-twentieth century and its transformation to a tourist destination, read here the first part of the interview with Efrain.
Below, we reproduce one of the questions to introduce today's topic:
Question: How was birdwatching tourism growing in Mindo?
Efrain: One of the most important events happened in 1994 when the first Christmas Bird Count was conducted in Ecuador. 12 people participated in three different routes and recorded a total of 220 species. That was when Mindo began to show its potential as an important birdwatching destination. 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. In 2000 we celebrated our first world record – the first place in the Christmas Bird Count with 348 species spotted in one day. These recognitions began to sow the interest in birds nationwide, and in 2005 counts began to be carried out in other areas of the country. In addition, Mindo continued to occupy the first place in the Christmas Bird Count from 2006 to 2010.
Q: How did you develop the necessary knowledge and skills to be one of the most recognized bird guides in Mindo?
E: In 1997, when the interest in birds in Mindo was barely taking off, 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, Hugolino Oñate, 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 – we collected three individuals of each species to do the genetic and behavioral study, and we also collected the plants that these species visited.
During that experience my interest in birds grew as I understood their behavior, nesting and other things that I did not know before. It also helped me to understand better the science behind birdwatching by knowing about the individuals of each species and their particularities. It was nice to see them before, but I didn't go deeper into the subject. Now I could distinguish and understand their differences. Kasuya published his article and included me in the authorship. He even invited me to continue his research project in Latin America, but I was very young and at that time I did not see myself traveling and studying birds and plants.
I had acquired the knowledge of guidance in 1991, during the first national course for tourism guides. But those of us who have trained to be bird guides have done so independently – observing, making field trips, researching and studying the available books, which were very scarce back then. Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, we have much more resources and possibilities to learn about other species in different areas without having to be in the field all the time.
Q: And your experience as a bird guide?
E: In 1999 I met Molly, my wife and co-creator of Casa Divina Lodge and SabinaTour Operator, when she contacted to do some research for her thesis at Pacaso y Pacaso, a foundation a group of friends and I started for the conservation of the area. We had a mutual friend in Quito and he gave Molly the number of the Mindo telephonic central, which was the only means of communication we had with the city. My sister worked there and precisely the day Molly called, I was replacing her, so I answered the call and we talked for a while. Later we met in Quito for me to explain in detail our project, and she came to spend some time here while doing her research.
She then decided to stay in Mindo and together we started thinking on how to develop sustainable tourism in the region and attract more international tourists. In 2001 we bought land and went to the US to work and make enough money for building our business, always having in mind the idea of promoting a different, more conscious tourism, of egalitarian economy and respect for nature. Casa Divina Lodge opened its doors in 2008 and, although the beginning was difficult, our motivation and optimism always help us to move forward and keep growing.
At the beginning, besides working in the construction of our facilities and supporting the operation of the lodge, I also guided naturalist and birdwatching tours for other tour operators in the area. I gained more and more experience, and in 2008 we started operating our own private tours. Since 2015, due to the new Tourism Law of Ecuador, we opened tour operator SabinaTour, of which I am the Chief of Operations.
Q: How do you see your future as a birdwatching guide?
E: I have been a tourism guide for more than 20 years and I have been a birding guide for more than 15 years. At this moment I want to slow down and share my knowledge in another way. In the past years, during the Christmas Bird Count I have been guiding the groups of young students, since it is them who must know well and fall in love with this profession to continue promoting responsible tourism in our region. I am guiding fewer local tours with Sabinatour and I’m actively involved with different public and private groups, in which new ways of approaching tourism in Mindo and the Andean Chocó are discussed, in order to promote conservation and egalitarian economy above all.