Mindo is a showcase for Ecuador’s beautiful nature and biodiversity.  This is the place you want to go to check-off your once-in-a-life-time bird list.  And since it’s only 1.5 hours from Quito, and in the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest, Mindo is a favorite destination for all kinds of other adventures too.  My friend and fellow volunteer, Maddie (from Chicago) and I spent a couple of days here to get a taste of all there was to offer. 
First, we took a cable car across the gorge to see the canopy of the cloud forest.  Then we hiked a long trail from waterfall to waterfall.  As luck would have it…. it was raining hard enough that I didn’t want to take out my camera.  So, you’ll have to believe me when I say that all the waterfalls were beautiful and swimmable on a warmer day!  
Then, to escape some of the rain, we took a chocolate tour at the artisanal Mindo Chocolates.  Here we learned about how cacao is grown and processed into many yummy chocolate products.   Since chocolate is king here, I did a little googling and came up with some interesting facts from a few different web sites:                                                     
Cacao has played a very important roll in Ecuador´s history and economy since the 1800’s.  Although Ecuador only produces 4% of the world’s cacao, it is responsible for 70% of the production of the world’s “fine flavor” cacao.  This cacao, and the chocolate it creates, is so famous for its floral aroma profiles, that it is in a class of its own called Arriba Cacao.  This is the cacao that is required and coveted by the European and American industries for fine chocolate production and contributes more than US$ 700 million annually to Ecuador´s economy. 
In Ecuador, cacao trees grow at lower elevations in the Amazon or closer to the coast.  This Mindo company had some trees growing nearby only as a display.  I was amazed to learn that the trees flower and grow pods along their trunk and branches.  I also learned that the majority of cacao grown for lesser-quality milk chocolate is derived from genetically modified trees with short life spans. 
Some of Ecuador’s fine-cacao trees will live to over 80 years old!  All good reasons to buy 
high-quality, organic dark chocolate.  (And it goes better with wine!)
We cut into the cacao fruit and got to suck the pulp off the seeds – very sweet!
The Mindo Chocolatiers remove the pulp from the seeds by fermenting them between leaves.
The bi-product of this is a yummy chocolate flavored vinegar. 
The seeds are then air-dried in this greenhouse.
The outer shells get separated and are used as a fertilizer for the nearby farmers while products from the seed itself are separated into a chocolate paste (used for all sorts of culinary purposes), a powder (think chocolate milk), cocoa butter (think white chocolate), and nibs, which are melted and used to make high-quality chocolate bars. 

The chocolate is poured into molds on this cold temperature table for it to set immediately into bars.  Afterwards, it is packaged and sent out to stores world-wide.

At the end of the tour, they sat us down with a large tray of chocolate drops varying in % of sugar and flavors such as chile, ginger, and coffee.  And then our tour guide walked away!!!  We sampled, and sampled and sampled.  As we waddled out, we agreed, this was the best chocolate tour ever!

Luckily, the next morning was sunny, and one of the most popular activities to do in Mindo is to visit the Mariposaria, a butterfly farm, garden and educational center.  Since I fancy myself in a bit of a transformation like a butterfly, this was a highlight of my visit.  I took hundreds of pictures, so I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I do!  All of these butterflies are native to Ecuador.

Next time I go to Mindo, I think I’ll try zip-lining, 
canyoning or even a little birding.
But I might have to go visit the butterflies and 
take another chocolate tour, too!