Mindo’s Chocolate Tour

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Flowers on cacao trees at Mindo’s El Quetzal

You already know I love chocolate so much that I carried a DIY bean-to-bar chocolate-making project across three countries. Continuing this obsession, we we’ve been on the lookout since the start of our trip for a tour of a cacao plantation and the full chocolate-making process. Mindo Chocolate’s El Quetzal was the perfect opportunity to see small scale bean-to-bar chocolate creation in action, so during our day trip to Mindo we stopped by to take a tour.

El Quetzal serves as a storefront, café, and tour center for Mindo’s chocolate-making. You can go in and shop around while waiting for a tour to begin (they occur every half-hour as of Dec 2016), or you can grab a cacao-themed snack at the café. These include the standard fare of brownies and chocolate cake, but what you should really order is the cacao fruit smoothie – it’s a rare chance to taste cacao fruit, that sweet pineapple-mango flavored delight that surrounds each cacao bean and is lost in chocolate-making.

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The café at El Quetzal

The tour begins with a walk through the plantation behind the restaurant to demonstrate growing, harvesting, fermenting, and drying the cacao beans. While the bulk of Mindo’s beans are grown elsewhere, several cacao trees flourish on the Mindo plantation. The guide explains cacao’s growing conditions in hot humid environments and describes the Nacional and Criollo strains they use in their chocolate-making. The trees at the plantation display cacao pods in all states of development, from flower to full-size pod, which all sprout from the trunks of the trees in a natural phenomena known as cauliflory.

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A young cacao pod grows among flower buds

The next stop is an open greenhouse to see how cacao is fermented and dried. El Quetzal ferments its beans primarily on the main plantations, but the guide shows you the type of boxes and layering with banana leaves that occurs to keep the cacao at the perfect temperature during the two-day fermentation. They then show you the beans drying on mesh nets in the greenhouse—cracking one open reveals a nearly rich brown cacao nib, even before the roast. There’s hardly a trace of the original purple color found in cacao nibs before fermentation.

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Cacao beans dry in an open greenhouse

After learning growth and preparation of the bean, the guide walks you through the roasting and extraction of the cacao nib. El Quetzal has built much of its own chocolate-making equipment, including a rotating drum for roasting the cacao beans at a low temperature and a device that cracks the beans and separates them from the outer husk.

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Our guide shows us equipment for cracking cacao beans after roasting

Then it’s on to grinding and processing, where El Quetzal uses several ball mills to grind the cacao from the nibs into a smooth, dark chocolate liqueur. The liqueur is then further processed by a press that squeezes out the cacao butter, leaving behind the cocoa powder that we use in baking. Or the cacao liqueur is conched and mixed with cacao butter to make chocolate. All of this takes places in a heated room to keep the chocolate liquid and encourage formation of the shine that we’re used to in fine chocolate. Once poured into molds, the chocolate is moved to a cold room to set and mature for three days.

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The cold room where Mindo’s chocolate matures

Finally, it’s back to the café for the tasting flight of El Quetzal’s chocolates. It begins with the pure cacao liqueur served beside a homemade brownie, followed by 85%, 77% and 67% dark chocolate bars, both plain and with added flavors. Their chocolate is citrusy and tangy, pairing well with ginger and nuts. You wash the chocolate down with a sampling of cacao tea, made from the cacao husks after the nib is extracted.

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A brownie served with chocolate liqueur during the tasting

While wonderful, the tour and chocolate purchases were definitely a splurge for us. The chocolate-making tour is $10 per person (in 2016), which is the cost of about 2 meals for us in Quito. Chocolate bars are also on the pricier side, at $7 for a 50 g bar. But with their award-winning 77% bar and the amazing blend of the 67% chocolate and ginger bar, it’s hard to resist. And because it’s a mom-and-pop operation built from scratch, it couldn’t feel better.

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.