Mashpi Nature Reserve, Ecuador
Just three hours from Quito but in the largest private nature reserve in Ecuador, this contemporary lodge in the mountain clouds is a well-executed retreat and a unique experience.
The introduction to Mashpi, time of day permitting, is a stop in a parking area after a long bout of bumping along dirt and gravel roads. There, passing along a semi–circular observation area, you see a swirling dance of hummingbirds.
Pulling up to the lodge, a welcome drink and a striking modern structure greet you as you disembark from your vehicle. Inside is an open, airy lobby with lots of glass affording views of the cloudforest. Check-in is at a sit-down desk or in your room, where your bags are delivered.
Rooms at Maspi are surprisingly plush and well-equipped: this is no rustic, stripped–down lodge in the jungle. They are large enough to have a separate sitting area and spacious granite desk, with a lit bamboo and glass partition between the sleeping area and the large bath. The latter has two sinks, a separate shower, a WC with a door, and a big soaking tub that looks out at the trees and vines.
The spacious quarters are attractively outfitted with stone floors, solid wood closet doors, and a metal and glass wall facing the forest. There's air conditioning, but it's needed more for humidty's sake than cooling. The screened windows open if you want to hear the sounds of the birds. A blackout curtain opens and closes with an electronic remote control.
Amenities are on par with high-end city hotels. Fine bath toiletries, robes, alarm clocks with MP3 inputs, rain showers, and closets with multiple hangers and electronic safes are in all rooms. Excellent reading lights are on stems that can be moved around and the end tables have a pull-out platform for books or other items you want to keep bedside.
The complimentary Wi–Fi, supplied by a satellite connection, works surprisingly well if you stick to basic tasks. (No video streaming please!) Maids bring fruit, juice or tea, and water, plus nightly turndown service comes with chocolates. The three junior suites are larger and have a larger glass wall view.
The one thing you won't find is a TV. If you can't do without that for a few days‐or have children who are hard to keep occupied—there's a big-screen TV lounge with a DVD player. This is where nature presentations take place and there a beautiful coffee books to peruse, some for sale in the gift shop.
One special experience at Mashpi is a nature walk that ends at a butterfly enclosure filled with a wide variety continually cultivated here. Outside of it, facing an area cleared by a former land owner, is a deck where you can sip wine, nibble on some chocolate, and watch the hummingbirds and parrots fly by.
The nature activities are the main reason to come here, of course, and in this permanently wet area you don rubber boots to hit the paths. So the shoes you pack don't need to be heavy-duty hiking boots. No sunscreen needed either, though insect repellent is a good idea. Nature walks at Mashpi are meditative and low-key, more about the wealth and of life in the humid forest rather than seeing big creatures in the wild. Pumas and ocelots tend to stay well hidden, though you'll see all kinds of birds and insects. The plant life is presented in layer upon layer. A tree is not just a tree in the cloudforest: it's host to 20 or 30 other plants living on it or climbing it.
The time you'll get the most exercise apart from the walks is climbing many flights of steps to the top of the observation tower. Here, when the clouds part, you see the lodge in the distance and the treetops around you. Riding the skybike is a really unique experience. Two people at a time sit on a machine that moves along a cable, the one in back pedaling and the other just taking in the view. The seats even swivel around to get a different perspective.
Some of the reserve's more ambitious projects weren't completed at the end of 2012. A gondola that will take guests to a distant ridge through the canopy was taking longer than expected to finish---in order to go down deep enough to find hard rock and in order to avoid cutting down a bunch of trees. Plus for now the claims of being eco-friendly come with a big asterisk since diesel generators are supplying power instead of an eventual hydroelectric system.
Mealtimes at Mashpi are far better than you would expect in such an isolated location at the end of a long dirt road. The dramatic dining room, with a ceiling several floors above, has picture windows facing out to the forest and the passing misty clouds. What's on the plate continually changes as well, a mix of Ecuadorian standards like empanadas and potato soup as well as an array of salads and international items. The menu generally has something for vegetarians, carnivores, and fish lovers, all fresh and beautifully presented. The homemade breads at all meals are excellent and the lunchtime ice cream bar has flavors made on site from local ingredients, some of them fruits you've probably never seen or tasted before.
There's a full bar with a good selection, plus an array of South American wines. Lounge-style sitting areas next to it are a good place for conversation and a deck on the third floor is the place for morning coffee and bird-watching.
There's nothing else in the world quite like Mashpi and for those seeking out a unique nature experience that's very existance seems impossible, this modernist design lodge in the clouds is a place that linger on in your memory forever.
Web Address: www.mashpilodge.com
Number of Rooms: 22
Published rates: $1296 - $1496 per person two nights, $1552 - $1852 three nights, including all meals, excursions, and transportation to and from Quito.
Review and photos by Timothy Scott