By Tori Keating
This is rain like I have never before seen in my life- torrential rain like the very definition of cats and dogs. And I am so drenched through that there seems little point to the poncho I have been given which now has tributaries instead of rivulets cascading through its oversized folds. I’m not cold, or at least I’m laughing too hard to notice if I am. It’s difficult to open my eyes for the rivers running down my face, but I manage, half squinting, to look through the bucketing rain towards the other side of the forest canopy, mostly shrouded in mist, to roughly where I think I am headed. Suspended high above the ground my travelling buddy and I- she at the back and me rather sneakily at the front where there is no work to be done- are about to set off on a bike ride like no other. We’re attempting a `sky bike’- one of National Geographic Traveller magazine’s 101 most `it’ things to do in travel right now. Hanging 70 metres above the ground on a cable suspended 220 metres across the canopy I might find in other circumstances (read clearer and drier) this ride thrilling and a little vertigo inducing but, in the pouring rain which is blocking out much of my view, I find this utterly hilarious, refreshing and entirely exhilarating.
I am travelling in beautiful Ecuador- a country famous for its Galapagos Islands and tragically less well known for its incredible inland bio diversity, delightful traditional people and fascinating scenery and culture. Wonderful archaeology abounds in the many artefacts found in museums and recently uncovered historical sites, regional cuisines and family traditions are passed down through generations, and awe-inspiring experiences are waiting to be discovered in places like the Cotapaxi Volcanic National Park, Cuenco, Otavalo, Quito and Banos- the self-proclaimed adventure capital of Ecuador.
I’m blessed to be discovering one of the very special ones- Mashpi Lodge- a lodge so extraordinary National Geographic have awarded it with their very discerning stamp of approval, naming Mashpi Lodge of the Unique Lodges of the World.
Now, I’m often accused in my day to day life of having my head in the clouds and living with lofty expectations, and to an extent this is probably true. I dream of grandeur, serenity, style, self-effacing luxe travel, good food, excellent service, unique experiences, comfort and eco sustainability all rolled into one. Usually it’s conceivable to tick a few of these off in one journey but nigh impossible to achieve all in one go. In the middle of Ecuador’s Cloud Forest in the bio diverse hotspot of the Choco-Darien region- a green belt which hugs the Pacific coast of South America beginning in Panama and stretching down through Colombia and Ecuador to tickle the north of Peru- someone else had a similar dream and, through sheer hard work and a dedication to conservation, built Mashpi Lodge- the answer to all of my travel prayers.
Clinging to the edge of the Andean foothills some 3116 feet above sea level and only 3 hours north of Quito and the Equator is the stunning Ecuadorian Cloud forest, and hidden amongst the trees and surrounded by birdsong is Mashpi Lodge- a self-described `cocoon’ in the clouds. Mashpi truly is an enchanted place. Designed to blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape it is a sleek contemporary 5-star lodge which heralds a new era in sustainable building practises in Ecuador. With exterior walls built almost entirely out of floor to ceiling glass windows which bring the forest right into your room and public areas, the lodge was built off site, brought into the forest and then reconstructed so as to have as little impact on the area as possible. The lodge is minimalist in style with splashes of bright colour found in easily moveable dividing screens which allow the lodge to almost mould itself around individual guest requirements, sectioning off areas as required for families, private groups, VIP’s or one of the many documentary film crews who base themselves here to explore this remote part of the world.
Guest rooms are spacious and understated yet chic and natural. Earthy tones in the fixtures merge with the stunning vista outside. With one whole wall being entirely made of glass in the 19 Wayra rooms and a wraparound glass wall in the 3 Yaku suites offering breath-taking views of the forest, there is little point trying to compete with nature with oversized abstract art works or flamboyant and uncomfortable furnishings, so they don’t. Mashpi has truly been built to enhance their guests’ experience of the contiguous forest.
And because guests don’t stay at Mashpi to only observe the forest from the comfort of the cosy lodge (although you certainly can if that’s your fancy and no-one will bat an eyelid), Ecuador’s most dynamic hotel also offers some of Ecuador’s most dynamic sightseeing and wildlife spotting activities.
It’s important to note that birds are king here. While you may be fortunate enough to see vine snakes, massive electric blue morph butterflies which are a brilliant shock against the green forest as they fly through, spiders, howler monkeys, tree frogs or the elusive ocelots and puma (though don’t get your hopes up on these ones- there have only been one or two of each captured by the camera trap program since the lodge’s inception, and these were all at night in the middle of the forest where you don’t really want to have a chit-chat with a hungry cat), you are more likely to encounter families of toucans, moss backed tanagers, golden olive woodpeckers, broad billed marmots, immaculate ant birds, umbrella birds and any number of one of the other estimated 400+ native and endemic bird species which are reputed to call Mashpi home.
You’ll be introduced to all of these creatures by Mashpi’s naturalist guides who are super knowledgeable and somewhat superhuman. They can each recognise up to 400 different bird calls, spot a green tree frog on the underside of a leaf more than 8 metres away in the dark, differentiate between the hundreds of varieties of plants, orchards and flowers and even show you how to get the very best out of your camera to boot. They are just as instrumental to the allure of Mashpi as the wildlife itself.
They say the early bird gets the worm but at Mashpi the early bird gets the bird. A typical day in Mashpi begins with hot chocolate and cookies on the rooftop terrace very early in the morning as the forest awakens from its slumber. Here you’ll find some of the naturalist guides and other guests excitedly pointing out the birds who come near the lodge to greet the guests `good morning’. After breakfast you may find yourself enjoying a delightful visit to the fascinating hummingbird station- home to 32 different species of hummingbirds- or the educational Life Centre to get covered in butterflies as they seek out food (having them walk all over your face, arms and head is a strange but lovely experience).
Following a wonderful buffet lunch of carefully prepared local dishes you might climb the 30-metre-tall observation tower for a birds’ eye view of the forest canopy while tendrils of mist snake their way through tree tops as the cloud clears. You might like to trek through virtually untouched forest and creek beds in the sturdy gum boots provided free of charge, or, if you’re really lucky, you might get to take a refreshing dip under a thundering crystal clear waterfall with one of the attractive local naturalist guides (it’s a tough job this travelling game, but it’s a sacrifice this girl is willing to make).
And if you don’t want to step too far out of your comfort zone you can relax in the Jacuzzi with a wickedly decadent concoction from the bar, enjoy a massage in the small but beautiful spa or outside by one of the many waterfalls, or wait for the sumptuous 3 course evening meal which, like the breakfast and lunch, is included in your package, before calling it a day and falling into bed to drift off to the nocturnal symphony of the surrounding forest.
It is truly difficult when the time comes to depart Mashpi Lodge. Leaving is saying goodbye to new friends in the guise of guides and helpful local staff, sumptuous food, gorgeous scenery and the lap of eco luxury. I’ve never been a big fan of getting up before the crack of dawn unless it’s for something truly special but I’d happily wake up early for a few more days in Mashpi with a decadent hot chocolate as the sun rises over the forest and the birds come to greet me `buenos dias’.