The hills are alive
In the cloud-forests of Ecuador water is king. It hangs on the moss-covered trees like a thick wet coat. It drips from the canopy in globules, like prisms, that stick to upturned palm leaves and blades of sheer grass. Its noise is ever present, in rivers and waterfalls, in the soft squelch of mud and the torrent of sudden rain. And where this water lands, life springs upwards. Clamouring forms of sparkling diversity erupt everywhere like explosions in slow motion.
These are the Mindo cloud-forests of northern Ecuador. They form part of the Tumbez-Chocó-Magdalena region – an area that stretches from Panama to Peru and is considered one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. It is here that Pacific Ocean clouds, trapped on the steep slopes of the Andes, create a genesis of life so diverse that discoveries of new species are still regularly being made. In this small region alone there exist a staggering 500 varieties of birds (about half the total for all of Europe), thousands of rare orchids and innumerable forms of flora and fauna. But this paradise is delicately balanced; under constant threat from the complex needs of its human inhabitants who have traditionally cleared land for agriculture to survive. In Ecuador alone it is estimated as little as 2% of these Pacific coastal forests remain intact.
It is in the heart of this fragile wilderness that a bold new project has begun. Roque Sevilla, a former mayor of Quito tired of hearing chainsaws on his doorstep, has created Mashpi Lodge & Private Biodiversity Reserve. A jaw-dropping 2,600 acre conservation project that promises an economic alternative for its inhabitants and a mesmerizing eco-lodge for its guests.
The lodge itself is situated a couple of hours northwest of Quito. It is made almost entirely of glass (the forest surrounding you at all times) and adorned with the lavish trimmings of modern minimalist cool. Staying there is like visiting a lost Jurassic world from inside the luxury of a Manhattan penthouse. But the contrast works; the interiors’ sharp contemporary angles and striking elemental hues accentuate the soft natural shades of the forest. I found myself endlessly pressed up against the windows, like a boy in a skyscraper transfixed by the view.
By the start of next year the lodge will run solely on hydroelectric power, and it already features a resident biologist whose work is helping to promote greater understanding and protection of the habitat. There is a small spa offering bespoke indulgences crafted from materials found locally in the reserve, as well as an impressive double-height panoramic restaurant that serves local ingredients combined with traditional Ecuadorian and international recipes. From November there will also be a unique aerial tram that will glide guests silently 2km through the upper parts of the canopy – allowing them to witness hitherto inaccessible cameos of forest life on the way to scenic spots and hard to access trails.
For me, wellies would have to do. As we walked, guide David Yunes showed me toucans, Dracula orchids and owl butterflies with wings like snakeskin; we heard howler monkeys bark like a low wind across the valley and tree frogs call like a plop of water. We found millipedes long enough to wear as a necklace, a beetle with eyes that glowed and a (baby) tarantula as big as my palm. We discovered a thick hanging vine and took turns swinging Tarzan-style 20m above a jungle abyss.
Afterwards, we climbed onto the roof of the lodge to watch the sun set over the reserve. What was, in macrocosm, an undifferentiated expanse of rolling green hills had now become to me a layered network of individual organic entities – each one connected to each other. David looked at me and smiled, “Being here is like going back to your origins,” he said, “It’s easy to feel that everything around you is alive.”
I left the reserve the next morning, heading an hour south to the town of Mindo, the undisputed tourist hub of the region. Mashpi may be the new kid on the block but there are several other eco-lodges helping to preserve Ecuador’s cloud-forest and Mindo is the perfect base from which to explore them. Buses run regularly from the capital and take about 2.5 hours; alternatively many of the lodges arrange private transfers directly to and from Quito, or between destinations in the forest. And that’s one of the most appealing things about the whole region – it’s an accessible wilderness. Close proximity to the capital making it easily bookended to any Ecuadorian itinerary with a minimal amount of additional fuss or expense.
At the edge of town I found El Monte, a beautifully appointed sustainable lodge created by environmentalists Tom Quesenbery and Mariella Tenorio, that features six indigenously designed thatched cabanas and a natural swimming pool filled directly from the fast-flowing river at their door. There are a host of outdoor activities available on El Monte’s doorstep – from ridiculously fun zip-line adventures to white-water rafting, hiking and more. As night falls the pace slows with guests encouraged to relax in the ‘big house’ – a giant open sided cedar wood marquee with log fires, sofas and hammocks arranged throughout – and share a communal dinner. There is nothing of the sheen of Mashpi, and next to no electricity, but as I wandered among the immaculate grounds, and counted carp in the pond outside my door, I experienced a blissful simplicity.
A rattling switchback road later took me half an hour northwest into the hills of the Tandayapa Valley. Here Bellavista Cloud-forest Reserve & Lodge – one of the first eco-tourism projects in the region which opened in 1991 – offers unparalleled views, guided nature trails and petite bamboo suites that would satisfy any tree-house fantasy, all at 2,000m. There is a small restaurant built on stilts above a mountain ridge where locally sourced dishes are enjoyed at canopy level. That’s lucky too, because bird watching is the order of the day here, with many guests coming specifically to tick off some of the many endemic species on offer, including a pre-dawn trek to a rarely seen lek (or mating display) of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, just a few minutes down the road. Catching the birding buzz, I found a quiet bench and became immediately transfixed by the purring drum roll of the tiny wings of dozens of hummingbirds.
And that perhaps is the magic of the Mindo forest. Being surrounded by so much life is utterly intoxicating. Water may be king, but that didn’t stop me from leaving with my head in the clouds.