Sitting among the cloud forests of Ecuadorian Chocó, Mashpi Lodge puts guests in the thick of incredible biodiversity for close encounters of the wild kind
While gazing out into the misty forest through the two-storey glass wall, enjoying a deliciously smooth local coffee, something catches my eye as it creeps across an outdoor table. Shiny, black and the size of a child’s shoe, a strangely prehistoric looking beetle with a giant set of pincers ambles along, about a metre on the other side of the glass.
I’m not the only one to notice. A guide comes out and gently scoops the beetle up, asking if I would like to touch it before he relocates it to a safer spot. The beautiful (and I use that term loosely) scarab turns out to be a rhinoceros beetle, and the first of many incredible creatures I will discover during my three days at Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador.
There is a good reason for this abundance. At 950 metres above sea level, Mashpi Lodge is located on a 1200-hectare private reserve at the heart of the Chocó Forest, a biodiversity hotspot that stretches from Panama down through Columbia before spilling into northern Ecuador. More specifically, it is nestled between cloud forest and rainforest, two types of ecosystems that are highly rich in species and biodiversity. Cloud forest is similar to rainforest, but located at a higher elevation where the temperature is cooler, the mist is magical and – an unexpected bonus – there are very few mosquitos. Although it seems a world away from the Ecuadorian capital, the lodge is officially located in the Metropolitan District of Quito.
Once a logging concession, the private reserve was purchased in 2001 by Roque Sevilla, a former Mayor of Quito as well as an environmentalist, and chairman of Metropolitan Touring, one of Ecuador’s leading tour operators. Sevilla’s original aim was to protect the area and his ethos has never wavered. You will still find biologists and botanists on site working on scientific studies and discovering new species and Mashpi Lodge, which opened in 2012, is one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.
Only properties with an emphasis on sustainability and protecting the local culture and ecosystem are included in this selective portfolio, and Mashpi certainly fits the bill. It was built using recycled steel, glass, stone and timber; constructed mostly offsite to protect the surroundings; and runs on hydroelectric power. Meanwhile, about 80 per cent of staff are from local communities, many of them former loggers. This has helped the community transition from one that relies on deforestation to one that understands and actively supports conservation.
Thankfully, the guides that have grown up exploring this forest also happen to be very comfortable with all of the creepy crawlies that live here, as I find out on our first night walk. They pick up and closely inspect snakes without a care, allow scorpion spiders to scuttle up their arms, and let tarantulas come within centimetres in order to get a good photo. We are a little less adventurous, but no less impressed, examining the eerie glow of the foxfire fungi and inspecting the translucent bodies of glass frogs.
A visit to Mashpi Lodge is all about being enveloped in nature, from the 23 guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows that gaze straight into the dense jungle, to the abundant outdoor activities, tailored to suit all fitness levels.
Each morning after an early breakfast we head out for a half-day hike. Donning knee-high rubber boots provided by the lodge (don’t even think about using your own shoes; they will be covered in mud and unrecognisable when you’re done), we head out to the forest in search of wildlife and waterfalls. Our guide Bryan seems to have a sixth sense for spotting everything from frogs the size of my pinky fingernail to camouflaged snakes, stick insects, and even howler monkeys hiding in the tree tops. He also knows dozens of bird calls and can answer every nature question I throw at him.
The two waterfalls we visit, Glass Frog and Healing, are both sensational swimming spots and we wallow around for ages, enjoying the heavy-duty massage of the pounding falls on our back. Blame it on global warming, but we have clear skies for nearly the entire stay (rainfall can reach up to six metres per year), which makes the hiking and swimming very pleasant.
When we return to the lodge, we are welcomed at the door with moist hand towels and a cold juice before we dig into to a delicious lunch buffet. Meals are a modern take on traditional Ecuadorian cuisine and standouts include the fresh ceviche, seared tuna with local spices, octopus with white truffle oil, and Ecuadorian goat stew. Desserts showcase local ingredients such as premium Ecuadorian chocolate, coffee, and traditional creme caramel and tres leches (three milk) cake. And don’t miss out on the popcorn served throughout the day. I don’t know what they do to it; it’s not salty, it’s not sweet, but it’s fresh and absolutely delicious!
After lunch it’s a visit to the spa, soak in the Jacuzzi, or quick siesta, before heading out again. More adventure follows with a ride through the tree canopy on the ‘Sky Bike’, an aerial bicycle for two that uses pedal power to glide you 200 metres across the gorge, stopping when you like to check out birds or just enjoy the silence of the forest.
Legs too tired from the morning hike? Try the ‘Dragonfly’, a two-kilometre open-air cable-car system with gondolas that float far above the canopy (more than 200 metres at its highest point), giving you a bird’s-eye view of the forest and its inhabitants.
Surprisingly, despite all of the hiking and physical activity, instead of feeling tired I feel recharged and eager to keep exploring. One of the most amusing experiences takes place at the Hummingbird Garden, where the world’s tiniest birds dart around like mini drones, zooming close and at high speed. They love the colour red – it mimics nature’s flower buffet – and land on my red phone case more than once while I try to film the action. There are nearly 20 species that commonly call this area home and they come in a range of colours from deep violet to emerald green.
This area is also frequented by several types of toucans and a weasel-like mammal called a tayra. I’ve never really understood the obsession of birdwatching, but now I fear I’m becoming a ‘bird nerd’ myself. The Life Centre is another area worth exploring with its large deck perfect for viewing more wildlife, and the education centre with butterfly conservatory.
The past three days in the forest have been full of nature and adventure, but it’s time for the bumpy ride back to central Quito to see a different side of Ecuador, where cobblestone streets, Baroque churches, local artisans and colonial architecture prevail.
The windy journey takes about 3.5 hours (take motion sickness tablets if you tend to get sick), but is beautiful and crosses the equator. Quito is located at almost 3000 metres above sea level in the foot hills of the Andean Mountains. I’m staying at the stylish Casa Gangotena, considered one of the most luxurious hotels in Ecuador. Previously the private residence of the Gangotena family, the boutique 31-room Relais & Chateaux property is ideally located in the historic Plaza San Francisco. Art Deco-style rooms are elegant, featuring high-pressed metal ceilings, towering windows and white marble ensuites.
The in-house restaurant offers a ‘cocina mestiza’ menu, which translates loosely to “mixed kitchen”, but in fact refers to the unique blend of indigenous Ecuadorian cuisine and Spanish specialties. Speaking of blends, the mixologist is more than happy to suggest the perfect cocktail for us, which we enjoy on the rooftop overlooking the plaza. The succulent whole roasted pork cooked over a wood fire together with a pear-infused pisco cocktail was the perfect ending to our trip. Too full for dessert, we opted for local specialty, chocolate con queso: a steaming mug of hot chocolate using the best Ecuadorian cacao, accompanied by salty farmer’s cheese. This may sound like a strange combination, but the contrast of salty and sweet as the cheese melts into the chocolate is divine.
Sadly, our stay in Quito is too short. We have fallen in love with Ecuador and its genuinely warm and friendly people. There is so much we didn’t have time for, from towering volcanos to unique wildlife in the Galapagos. Oh well, something to save for the next trip.