Fresh off the white-knuckle drive from Ecuador's historic capital of Quito to its newest luxury eco-lodge, you could be forgiven for thinking you've just stumbled onto a real-world Jurassic Park. The only way to reach Mashpi Lodge is via a razor's edge road that twists through the Andes Mountains, eye-level with the clouds. The impressive gates that greet your arrival are 10 feet tall and cut from thick bamboo. And the giant jungle flora, exotic and colorful, looks like it was plucked straight from the cretaceous period.
It's enough to make you wonder if something really did survive Steven Spielberg's proverbial lost world. But what Mashpi represents is another kind of lost world altogether. A self-described "luxury cocoon in the clouds," Mashpi is a unique hybrid among eco-destination properties: part five-star hotel, part forest hideaway, and part scientific research station. It's a place where numerous rare South American species are slowly returning to the safety of a 3,212-acre protected biosphere that sits inside an even bigger 42,000-acre reserve. Guests come to experience this biodiversity hot spot up close and in comfort. The lodge's resident biologists and researchers come to study the reserve's abundance of unique wildlife.
'Places Like This Don't Exist Anywhere Else'
When I visited Mashpi Lodge in May, I was struck not just by the raw scenery but also by the reverence with which the property's naturalist guides hold it. "We know how remarkable a place like Mashpi is," I was told by Robby Delgado, my guide, whose area of scientific focus is the coevolution of species. "Places like this don't exist anywhere else."
It almost didn't exist at Mashpi, either. Thirty years ago, the entire area was owned by a timber company, and the spot where the steel-framed, glass-walled lodge now sits was cleared for lumber. Only recently have the area's displaced native species—including pumas, kinkajous, tropical butterflies, and some 500 species of birds—been reintroduced or returned on their own.
'He Sees Things No One Else Can See'
The sustainably built lodge at the heart of it all now employs four full-time naturalist guides. Guests are assigned one of them upon arrival at the lodge, and that naturalist accompanies them on all excursions throughout the stay. Each naturalist is also paired with a guide from the local community. My local guide, Jose Napa, has lived and worked in the area of the Mashpi reserve for more than three decades.
"He has super powers," Delgado said of Napa on one of our excursions. "He sees things no one else can see." In the first hour of my stay, Napa spotted a fluttering toucan, a colony of leaf-cutter ants, and a skittering green iguana in the branches over my head. He later pointed out a walking palm tree (yes, it really walks—albeit slowly), a golden tanager, a quick-pawed tyra stealing bananas, and a virtual rainbow of colorful hummingbirds whirring and whooshing through the misty valley.
The primary way of exploring the reserve, at least for now, is on the wooded pathways etched into the cloud forest's steep hills. Guests are given knee-high rubber boots to wear on all excursions, which come in handy in the rainy, muddy woods. Lined with fallen palm fronds, the narrow and often steep walking paths are a colorful patchwork of brown, green, and yellow leaves. Where the trail switches back sharply or leans precipitously close to a drop, handrails made of dried vines help keep guests from stumbling. At day's end, the rubber boots are hosed off and returned at the lodge entrance, where guests are met with a cool wet towel and a fresh fruit drink.
'Friend of Water'
Translated from the indigenous word, "mashpi" means "friend of water." It's an apt name given that there are more than 50 waterfalls here. My favorite of these drops 130 feet into an isolated swimming hole. Reaching many of the falls can be quite a hike, but soon traveling by foot will become just one option for exploring the reserve. The lodge is set to unveil its centerpiece attraction, a 1.5-mile aerial gondola, later this year. When completed, the gondola will offer quick access to currently out-of-the-way locations within the reserve, along with numerous jumping-on and jumping-off points. To minimize its environmental impact, all building materials for the gondola were transported by hand without the creation of new access roads that might disturb the delicate ecosystem.
For now, however, the best way to experience the cloud forest is via the lodge's one-of-a-kind "sky bike." Suspended from a 1,000-foot-long cable nearly 200 feet above the valley, this thrill-of-a-lifetime ride through the clouds begs comparison to yet another entry in the Spielberg oeuvre: not dinosaurs this time, but extra-terrestrials. Above the treetops, with nothing but green ridges cascading in every direction for miles, I couldn't help but think of the famous scene from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Peddling my bike across the sky is probably the most Zen travel experience I've ever had.
If You Go
A three-day, two-night stay at Mashpi Lodge starts at $1,296 per person based on double occupancy. This price includes all meals, guided explorations in English or Spanish, the sky bike, the aerial gondola (when completed), educational lectures, and field equipment such as rubber boots and rain ponchos.
Book your stay through Metropolitan Touring to receive complimentary transfers to and from your hotel in Quito. Metropolitan Touring's three-day, two-night Mashpi Lodge package also includes stops at both the Equator Monument and Latitude 0, a visit to the viewpoint of the dormant Pululahua Crater, and the opportunity to explore the archaeological site of Tulipe.
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(Photos: Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador.)