Editor’s note: Travel writer Chris Moss explores Ecuador’s Mashpi eco-lodge in the cloud forest north of Quito. It’s been called Ecuador’s most glamorous lodging option, even though it’s in the middle of a tropical wilderness, and has been reviewed by all the world’s top travel magazines. For naturalists with money (a week here will set you back $4,500 to $6,000) however, it’s paradise, with thousands of bird, animal and plant species within a short walk of your room.
By Chris Moss
“Welcome, Mr. Moss,” said the rather formal-seeming man with thinning hair. “Let me take you to your room.” I followed as he carried my case across a bare grey floor.
“This will be your home for four days,” he said. “Welcome to Mashpi.” And off he dashed.
In fact, the balding man was Roberto Mora, who, a couple of days later, would share with me his passion for chillies and cocktails. Far from being a Goldfinger-like figure, he was free-spirited and fun, especially for a hotel manager who has just been placed in charge of an $8.2 million enterprise – Ecuador’s Mashpi Lodge, a bunker of modernism that opened two years ago, in the middle of a cloud forest 100 miles north-west of Quito.
I was suffering a culture shock of the architectonic variety, for I’d spent the previous night in what was probably Ecuador’s most ancient guesthouse.
The Hacienda San Agustín de Callo is the family home of Mignon Plaza, daughter of a bullfighter, granddaughter of one president and niece of another. It is unique in comprising not only Spanish colonial and 19th-century Republican elements but also 15th-century walls erected by the Incas.
My rooms had two log fires and the design was fustian: cushions and blankets and antiques and paintings. It was cozy and a bit cluttered, but it was a man-made refuge in the volcano-fringed highlands, where the temperature can dip sharply after dark. Over robust red wines and a steak dinner in the dimly lit dining room, we – my girlfriend and I, two New Yorkers, a French wine merchant and, at the head of the table, Mignon – talked about politics, economics and culture; this was Old Ecuador.
Cut to Mashpi and you have, in a sense, the embodiment of New Ecuador. The hotel was financed by Metropolitan Touring, a firm whose chief executive is Roque Sevilla, the former mayor of Quito and a well-known environmentalist.
“I bought the land with a friend in 2001 to protect it,” he says. “Not only from agriculture and logging – this land used to be exploited as a logging concession – but also from gold miners. That was the beginning. The idea now is to share it with as many people as possible.” Many here means those with $1,296 to spare – the cheapest rate for the minimum two-night, full-board stay.
“Lodge” usually means rustic, earthy, organic. But Mashpi is cuboid and aggressive, a box containing 22 minimalist bedrooms and spacious open-plan common areas. Outside you are hot and sweaty; inside you find an air-conditioned film set, or a laboratory. You breeze across the cool Porcelanato tiling beneath a high-ceiling laced with exposed tubing. Staircases in a neo-industrial rust color lead up to the bedrooms, which are pared down, their main feature a huge window of tempered glass at one end to provide a window on the jungle. Roberto said you could breakfast in bed and watch toucans foraging for fruits.
The architect, Alfredo Ribadeneira, was commissioned to create a protective cocoon in the cloud forest. But his overarching challenge was to do this without felling thousands of trees. To this end, the steel structure was pre-assembled as far as possible in Quito and transported here. The hotel is on a narrow ledge on the spine of a hill and the topography determines its size and form. Most impressively, if you climb to the top of the observation tower a few hundred yards’ walk from the entrance and look down, Mashpi Lodge barely emerges from the canopy. All that striking design is tucked tidily away inside the canopy.
Once I’d got over gawping and gurning at the building, I decided it was time to see the jungle. David Yunes, the full-time guide, drove me out first to see the hummingbird theatre. Here water feeders filled with sugary liquid tempt a dozen hummingbird species of varied hue and size but all sharing the same manic nature: their wings flapping at up to 1,500 beats per minute, immediately burning up all the nectar (or sugar water) they can get their beaks into, so they just have to go and get a bit more, and more, and more. The birds were flashes of dazzling color in the otherwise green universe, as their fairy-tale names indicate: velvet purple coronet; green-crowned brilliant; violet-tailed sylph. I took gigabytes of photographs. All are blurred.
Jungles confound and even alienate tourists, eager as they are to observe and record. In the cloud forest you have to use your ears. The sounds of whirring cicadas, chattering toucanets and singing frogs were as enthralling as the sights.
Ecuador is number four in the world ranking for bird species, after Brazil, Peru and Colombia. And it is number one for bird species per square hectare, the standard land measurement in Latin America. What makes Mashpi special, said David, is the high concentration of types in the relatively small space of a 2,600-acre reserve. “To see a lot of the 1,600 bird species of Ecuador [of which 900 are resident] you’d generally have to travel all over the place. But at Mashpi you could see up to 600 right here in the reserve.”
This biodiversity is due to the fact that Mashpi is at the southern end of the Choco-Darien region, which stretches from Panama down along the western flank of the Andes. Some naturalists believe the meeting point of coastal, montane and equatorial climactic and topographical influences has even greater biodiversity than the forests of the Amazon headwaters.
The days rolled by in a haze of effortless birding, gentle strolls dressed up as hikes, botanical excursions and trips to the butterfly sanctuary. Mashpi made jungle adventure comfortable to the point of embarrassment and, despite all the sweating, I put on weight over the four-day visit. But slowly I began to soak up the environment and settle in.
One afternoon, after a lunch of salad and sea bass ceviche, we went out for a slow stroll up to a lagoon. Under the drizzle we studied the tiny (stinging) ants that inhabit the cecropia tree, a quetzal bird high in the canopy and the flowering sobralia, the world’s tallest orchid, which can grow more than 25ft high. David showed me an angel’s trumpet, a brugmansia shrub that exudes a sweet, soporific scent, and, he added (like T S Eliot in “Prufrock”), “is sometimes used in date rapes”.
Water was everywhere. When it wasn’t falling, it was rising. When it wasn’t flowing in cascades off cliffs, it was trickling underfoot. If it really hammered down, I’d stand under the broad leaves of an elephant-ear plant until the shower had passed. When the afternoon rains stopped, the cloud forest turned archetypal: cigar-smoke clouds drifting across the green, tree-filled valleys, and the near-dusk light turning orange, then violet, then grey.
Mashpi won’t be everyone’s idea of a jungle retreat. Environmentalists will be concerned about the glass; birds that fly low headbutt the tempered panes at speed and can be stunned, or even killed. The use of bait to draw in the otherwise evasive and eternally on-the-move hummingbirds is also controversial.
But in protecting a swathe of cloud forest and keeping out the farmers, lumberjacks and gold-diggers, Mashpi is offering far more than posh sheets and a spot of lazy nature watching.
There is pressure on Quito and its environs to spread beyond the valley where the main city lies. That means more and bigger roads and it would not be impossible to link up the cloud forests of the north west to the suburbs.
While Mashpi is here, bringing in enough money to sustain the hotel and the numerous zoological projects already in progress – including recording of felines and other endangered species – it provides a reason for keeping the reserve free from other, less kind human projects. The architecture – and it is astounding – is only the visible attraction; the real significance of Mashpi Lodge lies deep in the cloud forest.