Only our headlamps light up the jungle, which is full of mysterious chirps and other noises coming out of the darkness. Our guide Estuardo Lima directs us to veer into a stream. We squelch along in our rubber boots through a dark forest in the middle of Ecuador, putting all our trust in Estuardo that we won’t get bitten by a bushmaster or other lethal critter. He beckons our group together, turns over a huge leaf and shines his light on a tiny green frog. As we continue to trudge through the stream, Estuardo expertly finds more nocturnal creatures, including walking stick insects, wolf spiders and a slender snake called an elegant snail-eater. It’s magical seeing these beautiful creatures out here in the night, and amazing that he can find them.
A nighttime rainforest walk is just one of the activities that happens at Mashpi Lodge, a gorgeous upscale ecolodge three hours from Quito.
Related: Experience wildlife and adventure at a Costa Rican ecolodge
Conservation and sustainability
The ecolodge is a little dot surrounded by almost 7,000 acres of the Mashpi Reserve. It opened in 2012 and is part of a strategy for protecting the Ecuadorian forest from logging. Mashpi is situated in the Chocó rainforest, which is down to a 10th of its original size, a victim of deforestation. The Mashpi Reserve, which surrounds the lodge, straddles the cloud and the rainforest. You might well be asking yourself, what’s the difference between a cloud forest and a rainforest?
According to the Cloud Forest Conservation website, both generally receive high levels of precipitation, and both produce their own precipitation. But much of the cloud forest’s precipitation comes directly from the clouds that filter through the trees. In fact, cloud forests even draw and filter clouds, a process biologists call lateral cloud filtration. The Mashpi Reserve snares clouds from the Pacific Ocean, and is especially influenced by the cold Humboldt Current and the warm Panama Current. If you’re a current nerd, you can read all about it here.
The Chocó rainforest in northern Ecuador is part of a broader biographical region stretching from Panama down to Peru. It’s teeming with life. The Chocó’s biodiversity includes more than 400 species of birds, 65 species of reptiles and 43 amphibian species.
“They hired the first biologist from day one, before the lodge even opened,” said Mateo Roldan, head of research and biology, toward our group when we visited the onsite biology lab.
Mashpi has a robust biology program to study and conserve all its critters. Roldan shows us photos from trail cams that picked up shots of the reserve’s five species of wild cats, among other nighttime prowlers. Since the lodge opened, the biology staff have discovered 13 endemic species, including glass frogs, fungi and an orchid. Biologists from around the world have visited and participated in rain and cloud forest research. Work on a biologist’s house is about to begin this spring, thanks in part to funding from the Hurtigruten Foundation.
Activities and wildlife
Activities at Mashpi invariably begin at the rubber boot station. The greenery is awe-inspiring, but this place is wet enough to drive some folks mad. Sometimes it drizzles, sometimes it pours. Mud is pretty much ubiquitous. You have to love nature and tolerate moisture to enjoy a Mashpi vacation. The free drying service also helps. Drop your wet clothes at the front desk, and they’ll deliver them dry to your room.
Every day, guests can choose between walks of various lengths and steepness, science talks, a visit to the onsite wildlife biology lab, birdwatching and unusual aerial activities. There’s a two-person skybike that you pedal through the canopy. Or you can ride the Dragonfly, a slow gondola that requires no effort and provides amazing sightseeing opportunities. Want to get a close-up look at epiphytes on trees and, if you’re really, really lucky, a sloth? The Dragonfly is for you.
The hikes can be surprisingly intense, as they may require walking in streams for a kilometer or so, or descending steep and muddy hills in waterlogged boots. Take the bamboo walking stick they offer! You may be rewarded at the end of a hike with a chance to jump in a waterfall pool.
I grew up in San Diego, famous for its zoo, and somehow thought I had at least heard of most animals. But I was unprepared when I saw the tayra, an apex predator and member of the weasel family. Other animals get out of its way when they see this black and tan badass stroll into a clearing. I got great views of the tayra and toucans at an area of Mashpi that guides stock with bananas. Turns out, a lot of critters appreciate a banana snack.
Food and rooms
Mashpi is a modern, glass-heavy ecolodge designed to let the forest and the light in. It has lots of serene areas inside and outside to stroll or sit, to look and listen. The Mashpi Lodge used Emmedue building techniques, which choose materials that counteract both cool and hot temperatures. Instead of heavy AC, the lodge strives for the same temperature inside and outside the building. About 95% of the furnishings were manufactured locally, employing people and cutting down on transportation costs.
The large rooms are furnished in a pretty, but simple way. Clearly the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on forest are the stars of Mashpi’s interior design. It’s tempting to just sit in the quiet of your room and endlessly stare out. You can also open a window to let in the jungle air and sounds, though guides warned us to do this sparingly, as tiny insects can penetrate the screen, making for an itchy night.
The dining room has walls of windows, making it one of the more beautiful places I’ve ever eaten. I greatly appreciated the lodge’s separate vegan menu, which made it easy to always find plenty to eat. Lunch featured a salad bar with lots of fresh vegetables and vinaigrettes made with local jungle fruits, as well as a regular balsamic. The coconut lemonade was a standout drink. Most of the people in my party got hooked on it. The food tended toward the highbrow, with the fine dining type meals at odds with the hiking attire, especially at lunch. The plating was a bit too pretty at times; when I ordered a bowl, it came deconstructed, with neat little piles of grated carrots, quinoa, corn and tempeh laid out side by side. During our last lunch, one of the people in my group was in heaven upon discovering there was a children’s menu from which she could order a normal pizza.
Guests can reserve a timeslot for the jacuzzi and yoga deck, which are a short walk from the main building. There’s also a library where you can hang out, read, use the self-serve espresso machine or attend talks given by guides or visiting biologists.
Go to Mashpi
For most people, visiting Mashpi means a long voyage and a lot of money. But if you’re able to go, it’s a worthwhile adventure. I’ll remember it as the place I first saw toucans in the wild, and as the best view I ever had from a hotel room.
Photography by Teresa Bergen