Ecuador… head in the clouds
Ever wondered what it’s like to float among the clouds? Escape to the sophisticated sanctuary of Mashpi Lodge and you will find out. Cloaked in the mists of the cloud forest in the province of Pichincha, this is an enchanting experience which should not be missed on a trip to Ecuador.
We rattled on down the track, splashing through mud, puddles and gushing streams. It was dark: pitch black, which only enhanced the extraordinary sounds of the night emanating from the forest. I could distinguish the raucous call of frogs but otherwise the cacophony was indistinguishable to my untrained ears.
The day had started in the foothills of the Andes, near to Otavalo. We passed over the Equator line just north of Quito, catching a quick glimpse of the Middle of the World Monument, then travelled down, down, down into ever more luxuriant landscape. The vegetation grew higher, greener and thicker, plants multiplying at a rate of knots. Thin wisps of mist started to gather among the foliage, collecting into great swathes of cloud which clung to the hillsides. It grew thicker until we were engulfed in whiteness. I could make out small settlements in the gathering gloom: colourful wooden shacks and dirt tracks. One village was remarkably lively, caught in the excitement of a weekend football match.
Since these last glimpses of civilisation, our minibus had continued to bump along in the dark on a rough track into the depths of the forest. The vegetation was now close, dank and all encompassing. Suddenly, we came to a clearing and, like an alien ship, the lights of shone through the dripping darkness. In contrast to the surrounding confusion of the forest, I saw clean lines, prominent angles and huge panes of glass, through which shone a welcoming glow. Inside, the same polished edges with minimalist decor and occasional highlights of warm colour created a spacious elegance yet convivial atmosphere. After a gourmet dinner of Ecuadorian specialities, I went to bed ensconced in pure comfort, concealed in my cloud forest cocoon.
Early the next morning I dreamt that I was suspended amid the treetops…until I realised that my eyes were open and this was no foolish fancy. Floor-to-ceiling windows gave me the perfect viewpoint from my bed onto the green canopy outside. Raring to get out there and discover the forest, I rushed out of bed (a rare occurrence) for a spot of early birdwatching from the lodge’s observation platform. From here I could get a better idea of where we were. Set upon a ridge, Mashpi Lodge looks down into numerous verdant valleys where the cloud formations are ever-changing. It’s odd how such a contemporary-looking building blends so well with the surrounding nature. Perhaps it’s because of the painstaking thought that has gone into the construction and maintenance of the lodge. Built using sustainable materials, much of the building was pre-assembled before being transported to the site to avoid unnecessary impact upon the forest. From the lighting, the waste water and the food to the staff employed here and wider research projects, everything is considered in light of how it will benefit the environment and the community.
After a nutritious buffet breakfast we ventured out with our expert naturalist guide. Squelching along the trails, we brushed past gigantic ferns, skirted enormous tree trunks, marvelled at the huge varieties of mosses, lichens and fungi, and the sudden bursts of colour from bromeliads. Briefly, we grouped around a snake in the middle of his mid-morning snack, a pair of frog’s legs still twitching from its gaping mouth. The whoop of howler monkeys often pierced the air, but you’d be lucky to spot the peccaries, pumas and monkeys which make their home here. Stealthily creeping under cover of the forest, the mammals of Mashpi are elusive. However, the sheer profusion of life is apparent and more astounding on a micro level.
Once we had seen the forest from below, we took a trip up high via the Observation Tower. Much like scaffolding, this metallic flight of stairs takes you above the treetops. It requires a good head for heights and a certain level of fitness, but the rewards are worth it. From this height the features of a cloud forest can be appreciated: mountainous terrain with thick, lush vegetation thriving in the cool, moist climate. Just next to the Observation Tower is the Sky Bike (stick with me): a simple and easy-to-use structure which seats two people, one in front of the other. The person seated behind pedals the contraption across a length of cable stretched over a small gorge. As I glided slowly and silently through the trees and then out over the river below I saw the forest from the point of view of the toucans, parrots, woodpeckers and tanagers which take to the air here.
After an energising buffet lunch, we made tracks to the Life Centre, a place of learning and research, but also of relaxation, where we sat back on comfy chairs on the spacious wooden decking and enjoy the encroaching colours of sunset. At dusk the adjoining butterfly sanctuary came alive. Huge owl butterflies with wing patterns resembling eyes fluttered above us and treated our heads and shoulders as perching points. Out on the decking again we watched a colourful toucan carefully feed on a morsel of plantain left out on a feeding platform. As night slowly descended, the shreds of drifting clouds transformed into pink candyfloss ribbons.
Trekking back by torchlight to the lodge, I noticed that the incessant sounds of the forest had, once again, turned up a notch. The expertise of our guide becomes even more apparent as, in the clammy blackness, he searched out the nocturnal wildlife: tiny tree frogs clinging tenaciously to twigs and leaves, the hairy legs and bright eyes of a tarantula reflected in my torch beam, and fox fire – a luminous fungus which glows in the dark.
My stay at Mashpi was an illuminating and liberating experience, bringing me back to the essentials of existence on our planet whilst also treating me to life’s little luxuries, and – above all – reminding me of the importance of preserving and protecting such areas of beauty and biodiversity which are essential to life on Earth.
Discover the Mashpi Lodge with Cox & Kings, either on the luxury Ecuador & Galapagos in-style tour, or on a tailor-made journey. Call a Latin America expert on 020 7873 5000 for more information, or learn more about the Mashpi Lodge here >