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An Ecotourism Adventure in Ecuador

Words by Sarah Lozanova
Leadership & Transparency
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My family has embarked on a month-long trip in Ecuador. With two young children by our side, we set out to gain insight into the culture and natural wonders. On the first leg of our journey, we arrived in the Mindo. Although a mere 45 miles west of Quito, it is a world apart.

On the western slopes of the Andes, this town is perched in a cloud forest and is near the Mindo-Nambillo Ecological Reserve. It is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world, known for its 500 species of birds, 40 species butterflies and 170 species of orchids. Lacking a road to Quito until the 1950s, the area was quite isolated until relatively recently. I was curious to see examples of ecotourism in this area, which previously was primarily dependent on dairy farming.

In the last couple of decades, the town has transformed into a tourist attraction, with numerous tour operators offering canopy excursions, horseback riding, birdwatching, nature walks and tubing trips. One of the most impressive examples of ecotourism I've encountered thus far is Hostal Jardin del Descanso.

Located on a small parcel of land just a couple of blocks from the main street, owner Rodny Zanipattini of Quito cleared the forest 20 years ago to create a soccer field and build a wooden home. "I started to think of how many trees were cut down to build the house, and the impact on nature," he explains. "My thinking changed significantly."

He had been bringing in plant species from Quito for his yard, but a local told him that using native species would attract more wildlife. Ten years ago, he teamed up with a group of local children to determine which local plants he should cultivate to attract wildlife, most notably birds.

"I couldn't imagine how many birds I would attract," Rodney explains. There have been 137 species of birds documented on his property. "When you help rehabilitate nature, it returns."

The backyard is a bird paradise, with numerous hummingbird feeders, banana trees and local flowering plants. He also provides papaya and yuca (a root vegetable) to keep his wild visitors happy. He says it is common to view 20 to 30 bird species in a 30-minute period, on a property that is a mere 3,000 square feet. Migratory birds, toucan, woodpeckers, parrots, hummingbirds, hawks, snakes, opossum and armadillo visit for tasty snacks, but there isn't enough space on the property for them to nest there.

Rodney now runs a four-bedroom hotel and a cafe. The nature viewing area is spectacularly displayed just off the back patio. He was approached several years ago to build a swimming pool in the area where birds now feast, but says, "I chose birds over girls in bikinis." The property does not operate a restaurant because Rodney is concerned that the noise would scare away the wildlife.

He is now working with his third group of 22 local children, ages 11 and 12, to teach them about wildlife. Motivated by a concern about the teaching methods used in the local schools, he sees a lack of hands-on learning about the stunning local nature.

The area is also known for butterflies, and Rodney recently started applying the same techniques to attract them to his property. He and a group of local children are discovering which plants attract butterflies. "I'm using the same method with butterflies that I did to attract birds," he explains. "I don't bring in pupae, but merely cultivate plants that will attract them."

Rodney has watched the town of Mindo change considerably over the last two decades, as the road to Quito has improved and dozens of restaurants and small hotels have opened. He sees both positive and negative impacts. Local children see the wealth that the tourists have and want this for themselves. Over the last decade, he has also seen numerous couples divorce and marry foreigners. But Rodney is pleased to see a greater interest by villagers in protecting the environment, as they understand that the economic benefits of tourism are dependent on it.

Image Credit: Kiril Lozanov

Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Green Builder, Home Power, and Urban Farm. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.

Sarah Lozanova

<a href="http://www.sarahlozanova.com">Sarah Lozanova</a> is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is a consultant for Sustainable Solutions Group and a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova