Monday, July 6, 2015

The Eye Must Travel: Into the Cloudforest at Mashpi Lodge in Remote Ecuador

This week, we escape and make a dream detour to the Ecuadorean Cloudforest in the northern Andes.

I recently took a break from intense work to do some research in Ecuador, including Quito the capital (more on that next week). I spent several days in the Andean rainforest.

Why did I go there? First because I had always wanted to explore the Andes and the cloudforest (just the name alone made we want to go there). And I had heard about a dramatically designed new super-eco lodge, Mashpi Lodge, that offers a rainforest immersion, a very low-key private experience, and no roughing it.

Come with me this week to explore the Ecuadorean rainforest, and to enter this remote and very poetic region, untouched, ethereal, and unknown.

Immersed in the lush Andean rainforest in Ecuador, the dramatic new Mashpi Lodge offers modern architecture, study of biodiversity, an intimate exploration of pristine wilderness, and nature at its most luxuriant

Guests arrive at Mashpi Lodge, perched on a three-thousand-foot high ridge in an 3,200 acre Ecuadorean nature preserve and might feel a little light-headed.

The three-hour drive from historic Quito, the capital of Ecuador, winds up through dense jungle, and into the clouds, and the subtropical climate can be intense. The elevation is around 10,000 feet.

But it’s the distinctive new lodge, with its soaring roofline, up-close views of the lush forest, and minimalist silhouette, that makes arriving guests by surprise. It’s simply stunning. 

The architecture of Mashpi Lodge, which has won several design awards, also honors its vibrant natural setting with a very discreet and subtle footprint. It sits lightly on the land.

Architect Alfredo Ribadeneira and interior designer Diego Arleta planned Mashpi Lodge as a contemporary, environmentally-sound and minimally-invasive building. It offers welcome shelter from sudden rain-showers, and the perfect setting for exploring the fragrant forest with an expert naturalist.

The impressive feat of the lodge architecture is that it is mostly invisible. Even the entrance is subtle. After a drive on good roads west from Quito, and then a long detour through winding, muddy forest tracks, guests arrive to discover trees obscure the lodge. It is only after some exploration (and arriving at your suite, and gazing out the windows) that you start to know where you are.

“We wanted to build something very unexpected and out of the box, and a completely different aesthetic than we’ve seen in this environment before,” said Quito-based Ribadeneira. “The construction, building in the middle of the forest and far from “civilization” was challenging. We had to build without creating a major impact on the surrounding environment. The steel structure was pre-assembled as much as possible in Quito and then transported to the site. We carried the glass panels onto the site and hand-installed them because we could not bring cranes into the forest.”

The lodge, with twenty-two rooms, quite minimalistic, is built of a very simple palate of concrete and native timber with slate floors. The steel beam structure, which is evident throughout, is emphasized by very simple geometrical volumes.

Timber used throughout the lodge is an Amazon type called Seike, a warm rich red tone and very suitable for tropical humidity.

The lodge’s three luxurious Yaku suites are located on the first floor, and feature a large bathroom with a Philippe Starck-designed bathtub-with-a-view. They’re simply designed but feel relaxing, with king-size beds, stylish armchairs and coffee tables, and a desk for taking field notes.

Vast windows allow guests to peer out and down into the trees and for miles across the hills. There are flowering trees up-close, then vertiginous hillsides crashing down, then clouds drifting and distant blue horizon. Perhaps sunset to the west. It’s dramatic.

On arrival, I could not wait to go outside and walk along the paths. The lodge staff asks guests to go out only with a guide as it would be easy to loose bearings, and in a sudden downpour things can get dramatic and dark.

I chatted with the hotel manager/ operations director, Marc Bery, and we planned several excursions, enjoyed an early dinner (quinoa salad) and I turned in early.

After breakfast, guests are invited to put on their ‘wellies’ (trails may be slippery and muddy from night-time showers) and venture out with an expert naturalist to encounter the flora and fauna that thrive within the property borders.

Immediately, the vertiginous Andes, the mossy topography, and the cultural background of the region inform and inspire.

There’s a butterfly research station to visit, or guests may wander past waterfalls and streams, embracing the wilderness.

It's stereophonic sound—with squawks, shrieks, hoots and whistles, caw-caws, and tiny tweets. An orchestra of shrill flute tones, the sound of raindrops on leaves, waterfalls, branches falling, wind sighing, leaves rustling, moisture sloshing, twigs crackling, rivulets running is all around.

Sensory storm, it is the wonder of the cloudforest in its purest form. Standing still for long moments, listening is thrilling. Hiking with a guide, guests discover rare orchids, hummingbirds, exotic butterflies, and even hand-sized moths.

The lodge’s philosophy is for guests to do as much or as little as they wish. 

I know, it is called ‘rainforest’ so in the morning it started raining a little. I set out along a trail with a guide. We stopped every few feet to listen, and listen, and gaze around looking at leaves and flowers, creatures. The cloudforest smells of rain and fragrant native trees, and mud and pure air. I loved it.

It’s a full-on experience—eyes, nose, ears, touch of walking in squelching mud, and the feeling or soft rain falling. It’s all new, very Garden of Eden.

There was a lull in the rain that afternoon, and it was warm and balmy, so Marc and I headed later for the new bicycle-propelled human-powered zipline, very addictive. It floats at twenty feet up above the tree canopy and across a 100-foot deep ravine. It travels for almost a mile and offers close-up views of birds, vines, hovering clouds.

It offers expansive views south and west past clouds and undulating forests for miles, and then the bright horizon.

We got into the ‘cycle’ contraption (Marc pedaled) to roll it across the thin zipline… slow or as fast or stopping…a dazzling experience.

We crossed to the platform on the other side of the ravine, and stepped off the ‘cycle’ just as it started to pour with rain. Drenching. I was wearing a windbreaker, a large rain poncho, and an Issey Miyake raincoat on top of that, and a cap, as well as wellies, and every snap and collar and button was closed. And still the rain soaks in and goes through to the skin. (The hotel collects all wet clothes when you return…and everything is returned, dried, in an hour.)

We also walked as the rain storm increased up a thirty-foot metal tower to see the surrounding cloudforest. All of the region is protected from development, so it is thrilling to know that this will remain pristine.

The zipline is a simple contraption—built for two people—that is propelled by pedaling. It’s high above the trees, an ethereal experience.

Night walks after dinner reveal magical nocturnal creatures like croaking toads, owls, skittering rodents, and even fox fire, a luminous fungus.

The lodge maintains a low-impact profile in the dense tropical forest, and is diligent about aspects like composting and recycling. But best of all, this is not onerous to guests. There are no lectures, there’s no piety, and it is all very calm and civilized and lowkey.

As part of the Lodge's sustainability endeavors, there are chocolate-making lessons to craft delicious dark Arriba chocolate from the cocoa beans found in the forest. Ecuador, of course, is also home to fantastic coffee (I carried some special beans home), and superb estate-grown chocolate (I’ve previously bought Ecuadorean estate chocolate at Pierre Marcolini in Paris. The best.)

The dinner menu at the Lodge's dining room changes according to season, and could include chicken, fish, seafood and vegetarian dishes, all accompanied by excellent side-dishes of local ingredients prepared with imagination and flair.

At night handcrafted headboards are illuminated with hidden LED lights that provide a tranquil, soothing light and ambience, perfect for contemplating the forest outside and listening to soft rain falling on the jungle.

It’s the perfect way to end a day. At the Lodge, all is tranquil.

Travel Tips

1. Ecuador:  It’s very easy to get to both from the US and Europe with direct flights. For example, from Houston to Quito is a little over five hours. Fly into the capital, Quito.

2. Ecuador uses the US dollar for currency.

3. I suggest spending two days in Quito on arrival (more about Quito and what to see and do next week). I was aware that Quito is at an elevation of 10,000 feet. I did not feel any effects. I noted that my hotel in Quito, Casa Gangotena, seems to have oxygen tanks for guests. I did not require one.

4. Climate: as Ecuador is on the equator the weather does not vary greatly throughout the year. At higher elevations it may be cooler.

5. Cloudforest: it rains a little or a lot most days. Enjoy it. It’s fun and it is a very special experience.

6. Masphi Lodge is an eco-lodge and has won many awards for conservation, gentle siting on the land, and many many steps and procedures that protect every leaf and tree and insect and butterfly. Water use is carefully considered. This sense of correct planning and attitude adds to the pleasure of this rare experience.

7. A visit to Mashpi Lodge could be combined with a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Metropolitan Touring, the company that runs Mashpi Lodge, has lodges and ships that offer specialized tours in the Galapagos.

All images here courtesy of Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador



Philip Bewley said...

Loved your description of the natural setting as you explored the cloud forest, engaging all the senses. Thank you for sharing this remarkable lodge and place. I cannot wait to go.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Philip-

Ecuador is so easy to get to…I was surprised.

I flew from San Francisco to Houston--Quito.

The other surprise: Ecuador is known for the Galapagos but less known for Cloudforest or even Quito.

Next week, I will write about Quito…which has a superb world heritage old town.

The Spanish conquistadors arrived in the fifteenth-century--closely followed by the church/ fathers/ missionaries. History is lively…and good things and tragic things happened. One very good outcome was that the church / leaders build hospitals and schools and monasteries, churches, cathedrals…which are today unknown treasures.

Cloudforest…a very rare and special experience. I hope you take a break to go there…three days would be perfect…or four or five…wishing you a great TRIP--diane

Beryn Hammil said...

Yet again, you've inspired a destination to add to my "must-see" list. Thank you.

quintessence said...

Diane - thank you for the vicarious tour. Looks like an amazing experience!

Amy Pernick said...

This is your most stunning post to date. Thank you so much for sharing these breathtaking images with us!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


I've received a fantastic response to this post--and I hope you'll be able to visit.

Here's a lovely message from my friend, the designer Shelby de Quesada:

You have made me into a believer! Beautiful article
Thank you!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

Received a lovely note from my friend, Richard Holkar in Paris and India and around the world:

WOW!!! We have to go there, Diane.



Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

I love your messages and emails and Facebook posts and all other communications.

It is fantastic to hear from you.

Today I received the following lovely message from my friend ARLETTE--

The Eye must travel....INDEED... And THANK YOU so much for offerings us such incredible voyages .. The photos filled my heart with joy ... Arlette

penelopebianchi said...

Another fabulous post about an extraordinary eco lodge.
Another coincidence! Our daughter and family who went down the river in Asia on the same boat you had been on; are on their way to this exact lodge!! And then the Galapagos on "The Grace" which was Princess Grace's yacht with 3 other families!

Do you have the same travel agent???? I find this totally remarkable!!!

Brava! What a gorgeous place!

Metropolitan Touring said...

Excellent post about Mashpi! Thanks a lot The Style Saloniste for mention us in it "Metropolitan Touring, the company that runs Mashpi Lodge...", we can help with special package combination for Galapagos + Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador here