Where rainforests meet mountains, a special type of ecosystem known as ‘cloud forests’ prevails. The rare and beautiful cloud forests that flank the eastern and western slopes of Ecuador’s Andes are one of the country’s little know gems. Just 2 hours drive from Quito they make a wonderful addition to a Galapagos cruise, providing an excellent taste of tropical forests, with a very pleasant year round climate.
Filled with orchids, ferns and bromeliads, waterfalls and crystalline rivers, butterflies and perhaps most notably some of the best and easiest bird watching in the world, with beautiful tropical birds that will thrill both the novice and experienced bird watchers alike.
“Everything was an absolute joy.”
These trips are simply to show you some of the possible ways you could include the cloud forest in your Galapagos and Ecuador holiday. The great thing about Ecuador’s cloud forest, is that it is just 2 hours drive from Quito, so potentially if time is tight, you could even go for just one day (although we definitely recommend one night if possible, and 2 nights or more is even better!).
Accounting for just 1% of global woodland, these rare and beautiful forests enjoy incredibly high biodiversity levels. According to Rainforest Rescue, Ecuador’s cloud forests are considered the single richest hotspot on the planet, containing approximately 15-17% of the world’s plan species including thousands of species of orchids and nearly 20% of its bird diversity.
Cloud forests occur within tropical or subtropical mountainous environments, where the atmospheric conditions allow for a consistent cover of clouds. More correctly termed pre-montane/subtropical rain forests, Ecuador’s cloud forests cloak the slopes of Andes Mountains from between around 900 and 2500 meters.
For first time visitors, often the most striking thing is how the trees in cloud forests are almost always covered in ferns, bromeliads, mosses and other plants. Although cloud forest trees are shorter than in a rainforest they can often appear lusher.
Cloud forests are swathed for much of the year in cool mists formed as the humid air (from the Pacific to the west and Amazon to the East) chills as it hits steep slopes of the Andes. This mist and cloud provides up to 40% of the water the cloud forest receives (compared to rainforests who receive almost all their water from precipitation). This means large amounts of water is deposited directly onto vegetation, providing an almost constant source of above ground water and creating a perfect habitat for epiphytes (sometimes known as air plants) that is plants that grow on other plants.
According to the New York Botanical Gardens, the diversity of epiphytes (the plants that grow on other plants) is higher in the cloud forests of Ecuador, Colombia and Peru than anywhere else on the planet. Since it is located on the equator, the plants of Ecuador’s cloud forests areas bloom year round.
As well as a wealth of bird species Ecuador’s cloud forests are home to iconic species such as the Spectacled Bear, Jaguar, Sloth, Howler Monkey, puma and many other species.
One of our favourite areas of Ecuador’s cloud forest to visit is Mindo. Mindo is a town, a river and also an area on the western slopes of the Andes.
At an elevation of 1,300 meters above sea level Mindo is located at the midpoint between the highland Quito area and the Pacific coast and so has birds that occasionally visit from both the Coastal and the Sierra regions, which is one of the main reasons why there are over 400 species of birds can be seen in the immediate area around Mindo. If we include areas that can be visited in a day trip from Mindo, this number rises to an estimated 550 species.
These birds include an array of humming birds as well as iconic species such as the Cock of the Rock, Giant Antpitta, Club-Winged Manakin, Toucan Barbet and Torrent Duck to name but a few.
The cloud forests areas cooler and generally more lush than the Amazon region, the unique climate of the cloud forest allows lots of epiphytes (plants living on other plants) to grow, which means orchids, ferns, bromeliads and mosses growing on branches of trees in the cloud forest.
Cloud forests are typically characterised by having clear, fast moving rocky rivers running through them, compared to the larger, silt laden and slow moving rivers of the Amazon region. Trees are typically much larger in the Amazon, vs the cloud forest. Whilst the Rainforest area is typically flat, the cloud forest areas lie on the slopes of the Andes which means they can be steep in parts, which offers some great hiking and viewpoints!
The cloud forest is a year round destination, like most of Ecuador. The rainy season in the western cloud forest areas is typically between January until May, with a lot of the precipitation in the form of mist and rain. However, the rain is usually pretty predictable during this time and starts at around 2pm and continues for a few hours, allowing plenty of time to schedule any activities.
Actual temperatures depending on the altitude of the forest you are visiting, the higher you go, the cooler they are, but typically they are very pleasant during the day and cool at night. The highest temperatures in Mindo, which is the cloud forest area that most of our guests visit, the highest daytime temperatures are around 27 °C (80F) and lows at night of around 13 °C (55F), pretty much all year round. In the dry season (June through December) when rain is very scare and sporadic, moisture levels are still maintained in the forest by mists that condense on the slopes of the Andes.
This is a suggested list of what is helpful to bring for the cloud forest:
Read more about Ecuador and Galapagos trips in our expert blog posts.