Hotel Review: Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador
Travel writer Robb Pritchard visits a hotel like no other in the heart of the untouched Ecuadorian cloud forest.
With dripping jungles, glacier-capped active volcanoes, beautiful beaches and ancient conquistador city centres, if you didn’t know it already, Ecuador is an absolutely stunning country. It’s only about the size of England but touches the Pacific and straddles the Andes mountain range while the other third is covered with the sweltering Amazon basin. All of the zones of various elevations make this one of the most ecologically and biologically diverse countries in the world.
Everyone knows about the Amazon rainforest and the issues it faces from what decades of illegal logging activity has done, but there is another forest in South America equally as important and sadly equally as threatened. The Choco cloud forest is a thin strip of jungle on the western side of the Andes that stretches some 5000km down from northern Columbia all the way to northern Peru. It’s a rich subtropical world of near constant mist as the warm, wet air of the Pacific meets the foothills of the Andes to create daily deluges. Today, only a quarter of the forest as a whole is left, and in Ecuador, where unregulated logging has been allowed to run rife, it’s down to a mere 17%.
What is left though is absolutely breath-taking and after a bit too long in the city of Quito with lungs full of traffic fumes and eyes full of concrete vistas I was more than ready for a couple of days relaxing in a luxury hotel in the wilderness… it didn’t quite work out like that though. As I was soon to come to learn, in many ways Mashpi Lodge is not like other hotels…
It’s a lovely drive down in the official minibus from the city, the elevation change from 3000m down to 1600 is pleasant and the scenery, viewed over plenty of sheer drops, gets greener and greener. But then the tarmac runs out and it’s half an hour drive on dirt roads through more and more remote villages until we pull up at the main gate… where it’s another 20 minute drive on a muddy 4×4 track down to the hotel! Mashpi Lodge isn’t just located conveniently close to the forest, it’s built right in the middle of the virgin jungle! If I hadn’t seen the photos I’d have been anticipating a straw hut by a waterfall or something… but the building is something quite special. It’s huge but when you get out of the bus its wedge shape fools the eye into making you think that it’s much smaller.
Inside with a welcome glass of juice at first the lofty lobby feels like an airy avant-garde art gallery. In a way, I suppose it is… with the exhibit being mother nature herself. But it’s not my room I head off to first. Mashpi, being so unlike anywhere else I’ve ever stayed, the first thing for new arrivals to do is have a 20 minute briefing about the reserve. Also while guests of other hotels might lounge by the pool or take day trips out to near by points of interest, here the small group of people forcing wet boots off their feet and shaking out sodden ponchos looked like proponents of some extreme form of jungle-based sport. They were just guests coming back from one of the guided walks our host had just told me about, and I would be looking like them very soon.
This massive project is the brain child of Roque Sevilla, the former mayor of Quito and well known conservationist. He understood that the only way to stop the local villagers destroying the forest to clear land for crops was to buy up individual plots of land, which eventually he joined together to make a huge 3200 acre bio-reserve. Unfortunately natural things being left alone in their natural environment doesn’t make anyone any profit, so for the forest to be a resource for its own protection it was opened up to eco-tourism with a hotel on site, with those former land owners now being employed for its preservation. 80% of those working here are from the local communities surrounding the reserve while the rest are from Quito. And if you are going to drag all the material and heavy equipment 5km down a dirt track you might as well do it properly… and what Roque created here is both an architectural and logistical masterpiece. It’s easy to say that it’s one of South America’s most exclusive hotels but after just three years, according to the respected website Tripadvisor, is one of the top 50 hotels in the world. Another massive accolade it boasts; it’s one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.
Although the top rooms are stunning with two walls made up of huge windows overlooking the jungle that presses right up to the glass the Mashpi Lodge experience is not really about the accommodation. Even if you go for the more ‘budget’ rooms (a relative term here) it’s still pretty amazing. With the a/c on full blast the huge wall-sized window was steamed up and the huge fronds of some tropical palm just outside made it seem as though I was in some giant greenhouse. After a scolding shower to sear off all the city’s grime sitting by the open window listening to the rain fall on the giant vegetation just outside was deeply relaxing. But as spectacular as the view from your room is sitting down just looking at it is not what you come to Mashpi for…
For some people the words ‘virgin forest’ might conjure up nice idyllic images of Timote or Bounty adverts but what you need to be thinking about 20m away from the hotel is more Bear Grylls and Apocalypse Now. There are no glass walkways or hand rails here, virgin jungle at Mashpi means some pretty serious trekking, pushing creepers out of the way, watching your footing on the old beer crates set in the mud for extra grip and wondering if that vine is just a vine or perhaps… Although no walk is particularly far they are on tiny single-file and steep muddy tracks amd more likely than not you’ll do them in the pouring rain. And it’s absolutely amazing! The forest is real, untamed, and it starts almost from the front door. The experience was even better thanks to my guide Sandra as she pointed out herbs and animals as we passed so I knew what I was looking at. Yellow flashes of a lemon rump tanager flitting between the trees, an impossibly small frog that I would never have noticed and different plants you can eat for medical reasons. It was seriously muddy and the poncho didn’t keep me completely dry in the heavy rain, but I loved it. One of the most incredible things I saw was a tree that has evolved a sneaky advantage over its leafy rivals in the fight for survival. It grows several arm-width trunks and can grow others in a certain direction that promises more light. It’s called the walking tree!
The first mini-trek was down to the butterfly farm and in the encroaching dusk I sat on the balcony with Sandra setting up the telescope so we could see which birds came for the bananas she’d laid out a few metres away. Lots of tanagers came, but these are like sparrows of the cloud forest, it was the family of toucans that were really special, chomping away with their improbably large beaks… which Sandra taught me are actually mandibles. And inside the butterfly farm dabbing bits of bananas on my hand and holding my arm out allowed the biggest butterflies I’ve ever seen to come to feed on me. I was so infatuated Sandra had to shout at me to get me to leave!
And the food. It foes without saying that it’s gourmet, and everything was better than anything else I’d had in Ecuador, but the breakfast and lunch buffets and al a carte dinner are included in the price so you can indulge morning, noon and night.
Back in the lovely room with trousers drying in the airing room the bed is as big and as comfy as you could wish for (and long for when you’re out on one of the trails in the rain) but the best place to chill out in the evening has to be in the jacuzzi. The gaps in the wooden posts that make up the walls are filled with mesh, not glass, so if you turn off the jets you can listen to the wildlife as you soak in the warm water. Cicadias, frogs and various insects in a nocturnal orgy of sex, death and territorial disputes. Magic.
The next morning Sandra persuaded me to overcome my fear of heights and try the skybike. Moss-laden trees lurk out of the gloom, bromeliads cling to any nook between the branches and looking down at the riot of life and the little waterfall about 40 metres below while swaying gently is an experience unlike any I’d had before. And once you get to the middle of the bow of the cable you have to start pedalling. Hence the name. On a tourist brochure this would look lovely, but in the mist and rain, when you can’t even see the far end of the cable it feels like a scene out of Jurassic Park. And I absolutely loved it. For a little less physical effort there is now a 2km long gondola to take you from one side of the valley to the other.
The last walk was the highlight of my stay though. The muddy path wound down and down through the primordial forest until the sound of the rain on the big leaves gave way to that of fast flowing water. A 40 metre high waterfall gushed into a secret canyon and in the cool wind it created Sandra set up a little table for a picnic and a glass of wine. Absolutely divine.
One thing to mention though is that this perhaps isn’t quite the place for serious solo hikers. As hardcore as a couple of the trails are, they’re not linked up into a circular walk yet. Western style health and safety plans stipulate that no guest is away from the hotel alone and although this might seem a little like mollycoddling at first you need to bear in mind that this isn’t just a jungle ‘experience’ it’s the real, unadulterated jungle so if you slip off a path while out alone you’ll also slip a few rungs down the food chain as well. If you’re dead set on heading off to explore by yourself then plan a trip to the little town of Mindo down the road where you can take as many life-threatening risks on the dodgy trails and bridges as you like.
And on the way back out what better than chilling out for an hour at the hummingbird feeding station where I watched the iridescent flashes of the tiny birds buzzing between the sugar water filled feeders with Sandra calling out their names. 19 different species in one place. Like the rest of the two days I spent at Mashpi, it was absolutely stunning. I left feeling not just clean but detoxed and with a much better understanding and appreciation of the forest. If you are heading to Ecuador I cannot recommend Mashpi Lodge enough. Combining Mashpi with a trip out to the Galapagos would be a perfect way to see the best Ecuador has to offer.
Address: Reserva Privada Mashpi, Mashpi 150150, Ecuador
Phone: +593 2-400-8000