Our journey to paradise started in the belly of the Ecuadorian capital, Quito on a brisk morning in September. We had arrived the night before quite late at Casa Gangotena, the legendary grand house-cum-hotel on the edge of Plaza de San Francisco, and awoke to birds lit up by the sunrise swirling through the air in front of the impressive San Francisco church. We took a little look around the hotel, listening out for old echoes of ‘Alfredo! No juegues con fuego!” and keeping a keen eye out for the ghosts of disgruntled arsonist grooms standing around the grand spiralling staircase or taking in the thin air on the stunning roof terrace. The grand house was reopened in 2012 after a lengthy refurbishment and much of the Art deco splendour has been returned to its former glory, but the notorious history of the building (and its multiple fires) is fascinating.
After in my opinion, the best breakfast spread in Latin America, we climbed into the van which was to whisk us to Mashpi Lodge. The drive was a little over four hours away, deep in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. On route, we stopped at the edge of the giant crater on the equatorial line, which I took at snail’s pace, the altitude being over 4000m and caused me to be a little wobbly. Passing local milk trucks on the winding road our van turned down a little dirt road, through the forest to a large wooden gate. Our names were given and the doors swung open. The road continued on, deeper and deeper into the forest, the clouds now surrounding us, I was drenched in excitement. It was like being transported to another world, and the closest I’ve ever come to that iconic scene in Jurassic Park as those fateful gates open. Luckily there are no giant man eating dinosaurs here, but there is much akin to the prehistoric setting of the flora and fauna here.
As we arrived we were greeted with a fresh fruit smoothie and long overdue hugs from my mum, I had been travelling across Latin America for five months, and was due to meet my parents at Mashpi Lodge, which I must say if you’re planning on a family reunion in Ecuador, this is the place! We were guided to our rooms, though the main building which is similar to stepping into a private wing of the Science Museum. Our room was immaculate with a huge bath that over looked the cloud forest outside. When darkness fell, the lights inside our room attracted moths and you were able to study the intricate details of their wings without damaging the delicate structure of them. The entire lodge is designed not to compromise the local biosphere.
We made our way to the restaurant in the main room for lunch. Here, floor to ceiling windows on two sides allow for perfect views of the clouds being born right in front of you. Imagine eating lunch on the design floor of a deity’s workshop. After lunch we took a jungle walk through the trees to see if we could spot any wildlife, on our way to the Sky bike. Imagine zip lining with a bike, but with the ability to take the ride at your own speed, and being able to stop high above the ground in the middle of a cloud. I felt like superman!
We watched the sunset from a lookout tower high above the canopy and listened to the sound of the forest come alive, some of the monkeys, some of the birds but mostly the clicking of the insects pretending to be sticks.
The next day we woke at the crack of dawn to make our way down to the research centre and bird-watching hide with our expert guide. This super-modern deck with sleek loungers surrounding a butterfly farm is where you can watch the bird life spectacle with the backdrop of the clouds, being sculpted within the reserve. Breakfast was served on the deck as we became humbled guests of the hummingbirds in their habitat. We all stood around the butterfly farm peering at the cocoons and butterfly wings before peeking into the research lab to hear about the fascinating case studies. That month there was someone investigating the evolution of mimicry within small pockets of different types of butterflies in Northern Peru and Ecuador. Staying at Mashpi felt like living within the pages of National Geographic, tumbling down the rabbit hole behind that little yellow rectangle.
The next day was our last at Mashpi, and after spending far too long trying to get a photo of hummingbirds duelling in mid air, I reluctantly headed out for four more months of travelling across Latin America. In all honesty nothing was quite as exceptional as Mashpi. There are many more remarkable sights, and many more opportunities to see the weird and wonderful creatures of the cloud forest, but I’m yet to find a place you can experience all of it together, in absolute luxury and with a sense of being in fully immersed within nature and science.