One of the perks working for the Ultimate Travel Company are the truly remarkable hotels and lodges you get to visit (and occasionally stay at!) I’ve been fortunate to stay at quite a few over the years, but this was my first time staying at a hotel which had featured in its own documentary - the BBC’s ‘Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby’.
Mashpi Lodge sits 950m above sea-level, in a 3,000 acre private reserve, nestled between the jungle and Andes mountains. It’s a four-hour overland journey from Quito (the Ecuadorian capital and where a night is required prior to arrival at Mashpi) on a road which twists down from the mountains into the lush jungle of the Chocó – one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.
The lodge is the creation of former Quito mayor, Roque Sevilla, an environmentalist, who purchased the land in an effort to protect it from logging companies who for a long time had threatened to destroy the area. The lodge is actually built on the site of a former logging factory as it is one of the few flat parts of the reserve. It’s a far cry from the sawmill which once stood there though and nowadays the hotel’s impressive design would be more at home in an episode of Grand Designs.
Due to its unique and remote location, Mashpi works on an all-inclusive basis with all meals, transfers and guided activities included in your stay. It keeps it simple and means the only additional costs are tips, spa treatments, alcoholic drinks and a trip on the ‘dragonfly’ – a 2km open-air cable car which travels above the forest canopy (a must for those who have no fear of heights!) Activities for the following day are chosen each evening with the help of the guides and are normally in small groups, although you can pay extra to have your own guide.
I was staying for two nights, which is the minimum time I would recommend when you consider the time getting there and the sheer size of the reserve. After a quick lunch, I spent the first afternoon hiking through the forest, followed by an ascent to the top of the lodge’s 85ft observation tower. From the summit you really appreciate the scale of the reserve and the challenge Mashpi face trying to preserve and protect it. After enjoying the panoramic views, I decided to channel my inner Bradley Wiggins and get a close up view of the forest’s canopy on the ‘sky bike’ – a self-propelled two-person bike (one cycles, the other admires the view) which gently glides through the trees. Being in the cloud forest, there were a couple of heavy showers (I was told there are two seasons at Mashpi, wet and very wet), but Mashpi provide ponchos, boots and there is a dry room back at the hotel so it wasn’t a problem.
Meals at Mashpi are served in the hotel’s impressive restaurant, where the high ceilings and 30ft windows, mean diners never feel disconnected from their surroundings. Breakfast and lunch are both buffet, but dinner is a la carte. Lunches have an international feel to them, but dinner has a greater focus on local ingredients and flavor and can be paired with wines from across South America and the globe. The food at Mashpi was always very good, but one of the highlights were the freshly made cookies which would be waiting for you when you arrived back from an excursion. This, combined with a refreshing juice and cool towel was a welcome sight after hiking through the incredibly humid forest.
Birdwatching is one of the star attractions in the Mashpi reserve and coming from south-east London, where pigeons and magpies in Sainsbury’s car park are about as exotic as it gets, I was looking forward to seeing something a bit more exciting. I wasn’t disappointed and although I didn’t get to see all four hundred species which have been counted in the reserve, I did see tanagers, toucanets and the cock of the rock. Hardened birdwatchers would struggle not to be impressed at Mashpi, but the lodge isn’t just for guests who own a £500 pair of binoculars and only wear khaki. There are countless excursions to choose from, including short and long nature trails, waterfalls to take a refreshing dip in, a journey on the sky-bike or dragon-fly and also a visit to the hummingbird garden and ‘Life Center’, the latter of which is home to various moth and butterfly species.
For the less active the lodge has been designed so you can enjoy the surroundings without stepping foot in the forest. The outdoor spa, the huge glass windows in the bedrooms and the viewing platform, where early risers can take a mug of freshly brewed Ecuadorian coffee and listen to the forest waking up all offer that experience, without having to put on your boots and poncho. For guests who come to experience the nature and wildlife of this biodiversity hotspot, you’ll be well catered for during the day and night. In fact, each evening the guides and biologists would deliver presentations on the conservation work taking place within the reserve as well as offering nocturnal trails when many of the insects are most active.
Mashpi Lodge had really exceeded my expectations. Before arriving I feared that as impressive as it looked online, it may offer very little substance. I needn’t be concerned though – as soon as I checked in and met head guide Juan it was clear how knowledgeable and passionate about the reserve he was. It was something that was echoed by all of my guides and I was impressed by the qualifications many of them held, which varied from PhDs and Master degrees in biology and other sciences. It became clear that the hotel was just a small part of what Mashpi is about and the nightly presentations highlighted some of the conservation efforts the lodge was implementing, including setting camera traps to record puma sightings (predators like puma are a sign of a healthy forest) and the reproduction work taking place in the Life Center. Mashpi have also offered employment to the local communities, where hunting and logging had previously been the only ways of supporting your family. Now they have been retrained in tourism and understand the need to preserve the fragile surroundings, rather than destroy it. Water comes from the streams surrounding the property and ingredients for lunch and dinner come from local villages, supporting them and reducing the carbon footprint of importing everything from Quito. No hotel is perfect, but Mashpi is doing what it can to keep it’s affect on the area to a minimum.
I may not have seen the elusive Mashpi frog during my stay (which is named after the lodge), but I’m sure that is just a sign I’ll need to return one day!