For a cloud forest, it was unusually sunny. This is what happens when you visit in the dry season. There’s still plenty of water, you just won’t find your feet sliding so much on muddy trails. This is my first time in Mindo. I can imagine the wet season well enough, having traveled to other cloud forests, such as Podocarpus in Southern Ecuador and Monteverde in Costa Rica. Either way, these types of places, usually nestled in the shadows of rolling green mountains, make you feel as though you’ve stepped out of time. That’s one of the reasons Mindo was on our syllabus.
Mindo is located on the western slope of the Andes at about 1500 m elevation, about a 3-hour drive to the northwest of Quito. It gets it’s moisture from the Pacific – about 100 inches per year in all. We are here in one of the driest months – only about 2.5 inches fall in August. You could visit in March, and find yourself inundated with more than 16 inches.
It’s lush and green, without being overly hot and humid and feels absolutely perfect for us. Mindo is a mix of cascading waterfalls that merge into foaming rivers, brilliant birds, butterflies, and orchids, and, surprisingly, chocolate shops. Quite simply, it’s paradise. How could it not be one of Ecuador’s vacation hotspots? And it’s not just a destination for foreigners. It’s also a popular weekend destination for Quiteños.
This was the one stop on our journey through Ecuador where my students had a full day to themselves. I think it’s fair to say that no one got bored. But when paradise is on your curriculum, how do you actually facilitate learning? How do you prompt learning from zip-lining, inner-tubing, and chocolate tasting in a place that seems designed to help you forget the rest of the world?
Mindo’s geography, climate, and famed biodiversity make it unique to any other place we would visit, and for that reason, I wanted it on the itinerary. There is so much to learn in a cloud forest. The challenge for me, as always, was to provide enough guidance that they would discover on their own what makes Mindo unique, but not so much that they would miss things I couldn’t have anticipated.
What did I hope they would learn about on our Mindo visit?
- Mindo offered a great chance to bring some basic meteorology in our course. I wanted these students to learn why Mindo receives so much rainfall, and what role the mountains play in that. I also wanted them to think about why there is a dry season in August. I gave a mini-lecture on the climate of Mindo when we got back to Quito, but I wish I had found a way to do this earlier in our visit. And I wish I had had a better a topographic map of the area, or, at the very least, good internet that would let me tap into weather and climate models to show prevailing wind directions at different levels in the atmosphere.
- I wanted them to explore the diversity of vegetation and get a glimpse of the abundance of diversity of insects and birds in this area. I hoped they would notice how the vegetation is adapted for so much rain – so different than anything we see in Colorado. And along these lines, I wanted them to come up with some ideas about why this place hosts such a diversity of life.
- I wanted students to pay attention to the topography that makes for such rocky, cascading rivers, and how these rivers cut through the rock. We were visiting the Amazon much later in the trip, and I hoped they would be able to make a comparison. How did the bedrock and soil differ? What types of rocks were there? This is also where I wish I had understood more about the geology ahead of time, to give them some context for what they were about to see, and some pointers on what to look for – wherever their free time took them in Mindo.
- I wanted them to observe the role of tourism in this rural community and what impacts and benefits it has for this area. This was really an ongoing theme through the trip. I think I could have better prepared students to think about this with some reading ahead of time.
Our group dispersed in every direction once we arrived in Mindo. I was eager to do a hike, and a few students came along with me. The Tarabita is a locally-famed cable car that takes hikers across a deep valley, to a set of trails linking together a series of waterfalls. You could easily spend the better part of a full day here, taking time to swim in the pools beneath the waterfalls.
I wished I had been able to take all of my students on that hike – and I wish I had been better armed with a knowledge of what we would find. There is so much potential for learning here that I wasn’t quite ready to grab. I think that’s a big challenge with faculty-led study abroad programs. These programs are booming in popularity, and we have support to create these programs, but unlike preparing for a class on campus, you can’t always be ready for what will come up. But maybe that’s part of what makes it so fun to teach.
I encouraged students to keep a journal throughout the trip – a place to record observations and reflect on what they saw. For me, journaling has always been a way to process what I’m learning, and I wanted students to be able to use it as a tool as well. Some people feel quite comfortable journaling – but I’ve learned that the process of reflective journaling is something that some people need to be taught. I often write snippets of observations in my journal, but becoming an objective observer is something that takes practice. I’m still working at it. I loved discussing with students what they chose to write about and why. This will be a much larger part of my next trip abroad with students. And Mindo will definitely be on the itinerary again – I think I’ll be much better prepared for it.