Directorate! We were silent last week because the Internet coverage in the Galapagos Islands was very spotty. That’s not a veiled complaint. I’m amazed we had any Internet access on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But the coverage wasn’t steady enough at any point for me to crank out one of these little masterpieces.+
After leaving Quito and visiting The Equator Itself, we drove toward Otavalo, a mountain town renowned for its public market and handcrafts. We were scheduled to stay three nights at Hacienda Zuleta, a colonial-era farm and inn in Angochagua. It was a beautiful place, but at an elevation of approximately 9,500 feet, The Photographer’s altitude sickness seemed to be getting worse rather than better. So we made an executive decision at breakfast on Day 2 to decamp early and head to our next destination — Mashpi Reserve, which was at a much lower elevation.
There was scarcely time to pet the resident dogs and I felt a little sad that I did not get more time to enjoy this beautiful spot (and chat with Mambo, pictured here), but leaving was definitely the right call.
Mashpi Reserve is a cloud forest located in the the northwest of Ecuador.
A cloud forest is similar to a rain forest: a densely forested area in which the trees form a canopy covering the ground and significant rainfall occurs year-round. The key difference between a rain forest and a cloud forest is elevation. Cloud forests are found at elevation ranging from 2,500-8,000 feet and the rain in them comes from clouds that float above and below the canopy.
Mashpi Lodge sits comfortably around 3,100 feet and, for those with sinus problems, Mashpi Reserve functions like a continuously operating, no-maintenance humidifier.
The Reserve is a private conservation effort. An Ecuadorean businessman, after achieving great success in insurance and tourism (and a public service stint as the Mayor of Quito, which is not to be confused with the Virgin of Quito), purchased 40,000 acres of forest to prevent further logging of its hardwood trees. With his partners, he built a luxurious lodge on the site of the former sawmill with the hope that the lodge would expose travelers to the beauty of the region and generate income sufficient to maintain and expand the reserve.
When we were arrived, we were greeted as “the people who are staying six days” — which prompted the realization that most people don’t stay six days at Mashpi. I think the average stay is probably two or three nights; the fact that the Lodge feels entirely remote but is actually not far from Quito (3.5 hours driving, 2.5 hour of which are on excellent roads) probably make for an appealing long weekend.
We wondered if there would be enough to do, but found that our stay was of the right intensity (this is important) and duration. There were activities on the ground and in the sky.
Every evening at Mashpi, the guests met with a guide assigned to their group/unit — i.e., we (The Photographer and The Directrice) met with a guide assigned to us — to plan the next day’s activities. The guides recommended two activities per day, one active (a hike that might include water) and the other more passive (a visit to the Nature Center (to see birds and butterflies) or the Research Center (to chat with one of the staff biologists).
In making hiking trails easier to navigate (both in terms of path and footing), the Mashpi experimented with several materials including wood (which deteriorated too fast) and bark (which was too slippery), before striking upon these colorful pavers which are . . . the plastic cartons that sodas are delivered in, packed with soil. This fulfills the “re-use” part of the reduce, recycle, reuse mantra.
Our hikes took us through mud and streams. Simplifying our packing and cleaning burdens, the Lodge provided wellingtons to all guests for the duration of the stay. After each walk, the wellies were hosed down and left outside to dry on hooks organized by room number.
The Photographer took advantage of the opportunity to take a dip under a waterfall.
I took photos and chatted with our guide.
The Reserve is home to thousands of species of plants, insects, and mammals and our guide seemed to know the names of . . . all of them.
I wasn’t able to get photos of one favorite — a pair of crested owls snuggled up in a tree. At the time I felt it was better to enjoy the moment rather than wrestle with my iPhone in the rain while swaying hundreds of feet above the forest floor; I stand by that decsion. But here are some of the things I was close enough to touch . . . and some of them did touch me!
Being surrounded by friendly, inquisitive (sugar-loving) hummingbirds was magical. They swooped in and out, alighting on my outstretched fingers (and iPhone) and making eye-contact. Their plumage is more complex than even close-range photos show; each is covered with a range of colors including intense, iridescent green and blue feathers — colors that look almost unnatural and yet are right there in nature.
We also saw this toucan late one afternoon, singing his heart out. His back was to the camera, but as he turned from side to side we were able to see his magnificent beak in profile.
The aerial attractions at Mashpi — the Sky Bike and the Dragonfly — allow visitors to take in the majesty of the Cloud Forest at heights ranging from 100 to 400 feet above the forest floor. Four hundred feet is high enough to put you above or at eye-level with the canopy.
While waiting to ride the Sky Bike, we scrambled up this observation tower. It’s only 8 stories high.
The view was worth the quick climb.
The Sky Bike is a bicycle built for two, dangling from a cable roughly 150 feet above the forest floor. Of course!
A Sky Bike ride offers a quick look of a small section of forest (assuming you look down) and takes roughly 15-20 minutes to traverse 635 yards (round trip). I say “roughly” because you are under your own power and only one passenger can cycle at a time. The Lodge has a ready rescue plan; there are supplemental stationary bikes on both platforms, manned by guides who will pedal you home if you are tired or completely freak out.
While I am afraid of many things (fires and hot things including my own oven and iron, lightning, staring into the abyss of life on Earth), heights are not among those fears! I suggested to The Photographer that we switch places mid-circuit — just to see how the guides would react. In this photo, however, I do look as though I’ve looked into the abyss of the Sky Bike Path and am having second thoughts.
I did remind myself more than once during this trip that our travel insurance included repatriation of remains.
Here is one of the terminals for the motorized Dragonfly tram, which covers a longer route at a higher level. See that green cage (resting on the platform) beyond the cable-wheel? It’s like a Ferris wheel pod, but heavier.
We asked our guide “what happens if the Dragonfly stops working while you are somewhere along its route?” Answer: Each pod is equipped with an emergency kit that includes equipment to rappel down from the car.++
As I mentioned above, we were “the couple who are staying six days.” As I have said in previous travel posts, if you stay at any hotel longer than 3 days, you are no longer an itinerant visitor; you’re family! Six days anywhere in a hotel is like declaring residency there.
On the fifth day, our waiter came to us apologetically to say that the menu would begin to repeat the next day, but that they would make special dishes for us so as not to bore our palates. Understand, the food at the Lodge was exquisite and we assured him no deviations were necessary, we were delighted with everything we’d had. Nevertheless, on our last night, the waiter brought a special dinner along with the chef to meet us. It felt a little like those videos animal shelters post when the dog who’s been there longest is finally adopted and all the staff come out to applaud as he walks out with his adoptive family. It was both comical and incredibly sweet — and we were glad to have the opportunity to thank both the chef (for all of his beautiful dishes) and our waiter (for his excellent attention).
Housekeeping cleaned our room several times a day and if we left anything on the ground, they put it on a table or bed. To make sure that they didn’t include our muddy hiking clothes, we took to placing them with care — hoping the arrangement would signify something. By Day 3, we just handed everything over to the laundry service each night. Nothing was drying in that environment. Indeed, some things that were dry became wet when we turned off the de-humdifier in our room.
We give Mashpi Lodge unqualified praise: perfect comfort, elegance in all things, and wonderful staff.
For those of you who wonder when I will stop posting vacation pix and resume the important business of blogging about dressing for work, there’s only one more vacation post: The Galapagos Islands.
+ You know I am kidding, right? I realize that you could find better photos of these places and inhabitants in 30 seconds on the Internet. But my mother and my best friends love these posts and thusly I persist.
++ I assured the guide that I’m not a morbid person — just a curious one — but that may not be true. I may be curious and morbid.