Explore Nature Around Quito with Mindo’s Waterfall Hike

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An aerial view of the waterfall hike and surrounding forest from the gondola

The small mountain town of Mindo is a perfect getaway from the city of Quito. Located only 2 hours away, it boasts amazing hikes, a bird sanctuary, an orchid garden, and chocolate tours. For those of you looking for a nice half-day hike, look no further than Mindo’s Santuario de Cascadas, which leads you through tropical cloud forest to several beautiful waterfalls.

Getting There

There are two main ways of getting to Mindo: booking transportation with a tour, or taking the bus. In either case, prep for the trip by bringing hiking shoes (this hike is a real one so don’t just come in flip flops and then slip and fall to your death), a swimsuit, some food, and some cash.

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Waiting to ride the gondola across the valley to the waterfall hike

The tour option: This is better if you want to do multiple activities in Mindo and you’re short on time, since it will work on your schedule. You can book a tour to at nearly any agency in Mindo, but I’d recommend Gabby Segova’s Ecuador Family Tours; we booked our Galapagos cruise through her and couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful person to help us.

The bus option:  The bus may not work for those on a tight schedule, but it’s cheaper ($3.10 as of December 2016) and great if you have a couple of days to spend exploring Mindo. There are a couple of bus lines that run to Mindo, but all but one drop you off outside of town and you have to flag a ride to finish the trip. Only the Flor de Valle line, which leaves from Terminal Ofelia, goes into Mindo itself. It departs Quito->Mindo and Mindo->Quito only a few times a day, so double check the schedule at Terminal Ofelia. For those of you planning a day trip to Mindo with the bus, the ride takes 2 hours; if you’re on the 8:00 am (first) bus out, you have 7 hours to explore Mindo before you have to catch the last bus out. Buy your ticket for the last bus in advance (i.e. when you first get into Mindo), because it can sell out.

It’s a 15-minute ride from the town to the entrance to Santuario de Cascadas. Pick-up trucks here double as taxis, so flag one and ask to go to “Tarabita y Santuario de Cascadas Mindo” or just “Cascadas del Mindo”. It’s not a cheap ride ($6.00 in 2016), so share it if you can.

The Hike

The hike is only accessible by gondola, which costs $5.00 a person to cross — that includes the trip back, so don’t worry about paying again when you return. At busy times you might find yourself waiting for 20-30 minutes for the gondola. The ride itself takes only a couple of minutes, and while the picture below might seem scary, this type of transport is fairly routine in mountainous parts of South America. If you’re afraid of heights then sit, don’t stand, and definitely don’t look down.

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Riding the gondola

There are two hikes you can do from where the gondola drops you off: a 45-minute hike with one waterfall (left when facing the gondola building) and a 1-3 hour hike with six waterfalls (right when facing the gondola building). We chose the six-waterfall hike because we wanted a longer walk, so the rest of this post will focus on that hike.

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Hikers make their way down the steep trail

The first part of the hike was a pretty steep downhill trail with semi-formed stairs that can get pretty slippery when wet. It was mostly packed earth when we visited, but workers along the trail were building new safety rails and steps, so it looks like either the locals or the park service is investing in improvements.

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Workers lay rebar for a railing along the trail

The first five waterfallswere the most crowded so we hiked on through to the last waterfall and had our own private swimming pool. When another group finally caught up with us nearly an hour later, we packed up and worked our way backward, visiting each waterfall.

None of these falls are Niagra or Iguazu, but each has its own personality formed by the flow of the water around the rocks. For those completionists out there (like me), here’s a list of the waterfalls from closest to furthest from trail start:

Cascada Nimbillo

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This is the busiest waterfall, with a dedicated (but somewhat run-down) changing area. We saw a lot several families swimming and playing near this waterfall.

Cascada Ondinas

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A small waterfall that has a small wooden seat near the edge. The pool is shallow, so it’s better for having a picnic or relaxing than getting wet.

Cascada Guarumos

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This waterfall had a fairly deep pool, but I don’t remember seeing anyone swim here. It’d be a great place to check out on the next trip.

Cascada Colibries

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This shy waterfall is veiled by canyon walls, but if you wade upstream a bit you can get a great photo opportunity. It’s popular with visiting locals for photos, so you may have to wait for a few minutes to get your shot.

Cascada Madre

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The penultimate waterfall is surprisingly busy for how far it is from the trailhead. It’s got several easily accessible and deep pools, so it’s popular for swimming and soaking in.

Cascada Azul

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This waterfall is the least busy, since most people stop at Cascada Madre. Several pools around the area are deep enough to soak in, although there’s not much space to swim. We had this waterfall all to ourselves for an hour before other hikers showed up.

The Wildlife

I’m a biologist, I can’t help myself. Here here is some of the amazing wildlife we found on our hike:

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A shield bug (Pentatomoidea) on a leaf.
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Mushrooms grow from a woooden post along the trail
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A caterpillar on a leaf
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A longwing butterfly (Heliconius, probably H. melpomenes) drinks water from a concrete post along the trail.
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Tiny white mushrooms grow in the leaf litter of the forest floor.

Parque Tayrona, Colombia’s Caribbean Gem

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An indigenous dwelling in Tayrona National Park.

Parque Tayrona is arguably Colombia’s most famous national park. It’s a huge swath of beachfront jungle in the northeastern corner of the country, and boasts tropical rain forest, cloud forest, dry forest, reefs, and seagrass ecosystems all in one neat little area. In addition, it’s home to several indigenous Colombian tribes (the Arhuaco, Kancuamo, Kogi, and Wiwa), pre-Hispanic dwellings, and sacred sites. Combine this with the park’s remoteness (it’s a 2 hour bus ride away from the nearest city – Santa Marta), and it’s no wonder this park is a dream destination for so many travelers.

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A white-faced capuchin in the trees.

But all that tourist attraction breeds a host of problems, from maintaining the park’s natural ecosystems to respecting the indigenous people that live there. While there are a list of rules and instructions given to every person that enters the park (see explanation below), there aren’t nearly enough park rangers and things like the plastic bag ban are rarely enforced. Tourists are also sometimes a bit too excited to see the indigenous peoples, leading to a lot of pictures without permission. We watched one guy take a picture over the fence of a woman bathing her children. In any other place, this guy would get the cops called on him. Things like this culminated in the infamous park closure in 2015, where the indigenous people called for the closure of the park to cleanse it of trash and “bad energies”. And as of writing this blog, there’s been enough trouble in less than two years that they’ve closed the park again starting January 28, 2017..

That isn’t to say don’t visit. But if you do, have a healthy dose of respect for both the nature and people of the park.

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The “Pumpkin Patch” (Hapalopus sp. “Colombia”) tarantula in the wild. People keep them as pets in the U.S.

Getting There from Santa Marta on a budget

The cheapest way to get to Tayrona Park from Santa Marta is the public bus, which costs 7000 pesos and takes around 2 hours. Pick it up in the market area of Santa Marta–ask the locals in the area for “Parque Tayrona” and they’re usually happy to help.

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Stoytcho on the hike into the park.

There are two ways you can do the park: a day hike on the west side, or hiking into a campsite on the east side and staying several days. I’ve heard it’s also possible to take boats between the two points, but we didn’t hike the west side, so all of the instructions below are for hiking into a campsite on the east side of the park. If you’re camping in the park, don’t expect to find much in the way of camp supplies in Santa Marta. We couldn’t find fuel for our stove, so we bought cold food from the local grocery store Éxito.

When you arrive at the park, you’ll enter an area where you’ll hear the Spanish-only introduction and rules from the guide. The basics are the standard park rules:

  • Don’t take things from the park and don’t damage the wildlife.
  • Don’t litter. Pack out as much as waste as you can carry.
  • Camp only in designated areas.
  • No fires in the park.

Two special ones particularly worth highlighting are:

  • Swim ONLY at designated beaches. Don’t swim at Arrecifes, Canaveral, or other beaches, where there are strong currents and people have drowned.
  • Don’t bring plastic bags into the park. This one is poorly enforced, but well-intentioned as this comprises a large portion of the park’s litter.

This is also where you can book a campsite at Arrecifes in advance—no others can be booked until you arrive onsite. Once you’ve listened to the introduction, you get a small ticket. Bring this with you to the entrance kiosk to the park, pay the entry fee (41,000 COP or around $14 USD), and you’ll be allowed in. From there, spend the 3000 pesos ($1 USD) to take the bus for an hour to the trailhead. From here you’ll hike for at least 1.5 hours in the rainy season – going is slow because of the mud. There’s a shorter horse trail you could also take, but it’s more treacherous and you’ll have to watch out for horses passing you.

As a side note here: there are reports on Wikitravel of guards checking your bags and potentially stealing from you. There weren’t even guards who checked our bags when we came through. A bigger threat is theft at campsites; we lost a towel, and there were other reports while we were there of missing items. Some campsites have lockers to prevent this.

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A tree frog at the campsite in the park. These species are susceptible to absorbing pollutants through the skin (i.e. your sunblock/bugspray).

Stay

During our stay, we found four campsites in the park: two run by the park staff (Arresifes and Cabo San Juan), and two run privately. We’ve marked the four campsites to the best of our knowledge on the map below:

All four have spaces for tents and hammocks for rent. The park-run sites are Arrecifes, the first campsite you encounter after the 1.5 hour hike in, and Cabo San Juan, the campsite at the end of the trail, about 2.5 hours hike in. The two private campsites are in between: the first is just south of Arrecifes, and although its name escapes me it’s slightly cheaper than Arrecifes. Bukaru is further along—cross the river at the north end of Arresifes beach and then travel upriver.

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The morning wakeup call on our tent.

Eat

To save money, we brought food with us and ate out in the park only once a day. All of the food we brought with us could be prepared without a stove, because while we had a stove, we were unable to find a fuel canisters for it in either Cartagena or Santa Marta (we were able to find a fuel canister, but it was the European style, if that helps you prepare). Cold meals consisted of bread, peanut butter, and Nutella to make sandwiches, mixed nuts and candy as snacks, and some apples for fruit. We also carried mini-croissants from the grocery bakery as an impulse-buy which turned out to be extremely helpful, as they could be dipped into the peanut butter and Nutella directly, while our sandwich bread fell apart unless we applied these gently with knives. Because we had a water purifier, we didn’t worry too much about carrying in drinking water, so we simply filled 2 of our 1L bottles and purchased a large 5L bottle. The total cost of all food and water at our local Exito was 53,000 pesos, or about $18 USD. It’s hard to spend long days hiking or swimming without a hot meal, though, so we also budgeted for one meal a day. These meals are 2-3 times more expensive than those you find in Santa Marta, running 12,000-30,000 pesos a person ($4-10) at a meal shack and even higher at the nice restaurant in Arrecifes campsite. We learned a few things eating out:

  • The cheapest meals overall were at the second campsite (the first private one), just south of Arrecifes. The arroz con pollo here was while cheap, not very good. In contrast, somehow their pasta Bolognese was quite tasty and cost only 15,000 pesos.
  • Tea is available at both the Arrecifes campsite (5000 pesos, large cup) and the nearby cheap campsite (3000 pesos, small cup). It was perfect for when it got cold during the rain or evenings.
  • The most delicious fried fish is the pargo rojo at the third shack, the one just east of the river crossing. For 30,000 pesos we could get a huge fried fish, salad, plantains, and rice, and this meal was often large enough to feed both of us.
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The pargo rojo with salad and patacones (mashed salted plantains).

Do:

Tayrona is famous for both ocean and land recreation, but in the rainy off season ocean activities like diving and snorkeling wane due to poor ocean visibility. Swimming is still lovely on the beaches it’s allowed (La Piscinita, La Piscina, Cabo San Juan). We found La Piscinita to be the most fun, as it has a steep 2 ft drop that causes waves to break directly on the shore. The beach to the west of this, La Piscina had decent visibility and seagrass, making it one of the few places you could snorkel and see fish in the rainy seasons.

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People playing in the waves at La Piscinita.

Hiking is the other great thing to do, although there are only two major trails in the park and both originate at Cabo San Lucas, a one-hour hike in from Arrecifes. The inland trail here is 2.5 km and leads to Pueblito, a small traditional village where a handful of indigenous people still live. We’ll have a post on this later. The beach trail leads to more beaches and supposedly a dock. Here you can supposedly take a boat to the other side of the park and hike out to a bus stop on the western trail, which has distinctly different dry tropical forest. In most locations there are separate human and horse trail. Some of the horse trails are shorter and faster, but horses have right-of-way on these trails and they’re covered with horse feces, so take them at your own discretion.

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The Pueblito Trail.

The conditions for hiking in the rainy season can get rough if you’re not prepared—expect a lot of mud and plan to do parts of it barefoot or in water shoes like crocs. If you’re not in easily washable shoes, save yourself trouble and just take them off. In some parts of the trail to Cabo San Juan the mud can be mid-calf deep, and watch where you place your feet on the trail as there can be holes greater than knee deep between the roots. I had the unfortunate distinction of plunging a leg into one of these holes and got drenched with mud:

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Me after stepping into a mud hole. Note that my entire left leg is covered in mud–that’s how deep the hole was.

Leave:

To get out of the park, you can either take a boat to the western side of the park and hike out, or hike out the way you came in. Buses stop hourly at both places until around 5:00 pm or when darkness falls. Cram yourself into one of them and ride back to Santa Marta.