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Cloud Cocoon

Built with the latest techniques of sustainable architecture, the newly opened Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador sits like a bubble in the lush wonderland of the cloud forest.

Get Cocooned
Rates start at $1,296 a person for three
days/two nights, including all meals,
guided excursions and transportation to
and from Quito. For more information,
call Adventure Associates at 800.527.2500.
mashpilodge.com :: adventure-associates.com

Be Pampered
Rates at Casa Gangotena start at $459,
including buffet breakfast and Quito-style
afternoon coffee snack, excluding taxes.
(Limpia extra).
:: casagangotena.com

Carlos Morochz, the resident biologist at Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve, is talking about leks. The young Ecuadorian scientist is kind of obsessed with them, and in turn, our group of travelers is intent on, if not seeing one in action, convincing Morochz to demonstrate the dance of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. Leks are pockets of forest where brightly colored male birds gather in the exact same location, generation after generation, vocalizing and performing what appear to be elaborately choreographed mating rituals designed to seduce females. So far, biologists here have found four – two of the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, one of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and one of the Club-Winged Manakin. But to see one now, he tells us, we have to get up at 3 a.m. and hike a treacherous two miles uphill in the dark through the wet cloud forest to see the bright red Cocks-of-the Rock jig and bellow as they challenge each other like drunk frat boys at 5:45 a.m. Nothing is going to convince us to wake up for the journey, and no amount of Mashpinis, a drink made from vodka, coconut juice, strawberries, passion fruit and some native peppermint, is going to get Morochz to demonstrate the dance for us. So, like many things here in this magical forest, we have to imagine.

But starting late fall or early winter, the long awaited canopy gondola, aka the aerial tram, a project whose architectural wizardry rivals that of the pyramids, will be ready for Mashpi Lodge guests who in just 45 minutes, can witness the leks, as well as many other rare sights, without having a Ph.D. in hiking. As some of the first guests to visit this Reserve, we will be exploring the property by foot, but soon, two water-powered gondolas with overhead roofs and rotating seats will quietly and slowly carry guests above the forest canopy (on the way out) and through the understory (on the way back) on a remarkable exploration of the Reserve’s ecosystem, which extends over 1.3 miles between two end/boarding stations. At the halfway point, the tram will stop at an observation tower for optional embarking and disembarking for hikes.

Down to the Clouds
We enter the 3,212-acre Reserve after a harrowing two-and-a-half-hour drive from Quito. Hairpin turns lead us past fields of sugar cane, cattle farms, subtropical and foothill forests as we drive down, down, down from the high mountains into the cloud forest. The glass and steel Lodge appears through the strands of vapor as a protective “cocoon” from the thick forest that surrounds it. And outside, it is wild. There, snails as big as my fist and poisonous snakes as small as my pinkie coexist with ocelots and monkeys and cougars and voice-throwing cuckoos. Strangler figs wrap themselves in choke holds around palms with external roots that “walk” towards patches of light in the forest canopy, while foxfire, a bioluminescent fungus, glows blue-green on decaying wood – “light that is cold to the touch” as Aristotle once described it. Outside the lodge’s main door, a curtain of moths whose wings look like eyes and bark and the graphics on designer fabric hang on the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, their carcasses found in the morning due to the deathly extension of energy used to stay out of the rain.

Local residents who grew up in this forest know how to protect themselves from the downpours with leaves the size of umbrellas. They know what not to touch – like plants that will paralyze you for hours. You want them on the trail with you, which is one of the reasons 80% of the staff here will be locals.

A Nod to Ecotourism
The Reserve, the long-time project of former Quito Mayor Roque Sevilla, is part of a movement to save this biodiversity hotspot in the Choco-Darien region of the cloud forest by restricting its use to ecotourism. Last year, Quito’s Ministry of the Environment declared 45,500 acres of this forest a “private protected area.” Morochz’s research contributed to the land obtaining its status by identifying species of frogs not previously thought to inhabit this biome, as well as an extensive bird, insect, mammal, and reptile list. A science station close to the lodge has an international volunteer program, which will allow for even further logging of species, partially through the use of expensive camera traps.

The traps, which sense anything that moves or emits heat, capture the candid movement of animals inside the forest, since sighting mammals is so difficult. The cameras ensure accurate estimates of wildlife populations, helping local biologists better understand the ecological movements of individual animals, while proving the existence of a particular species.

To find the right places to set up the 19 cameras, Morochz studied animal footprints and trails used by Mashpi Lodge guests. He checks the cameras every 15 days, which roughly translates into 500 photographs that include information such as date, time, moon phase and temperature. These variables are good indicators of the most active hours of animal movement on the reserve. Watching the playback and seeing a puma or an oversized rodent walking on the same trail you just trekked across can fill a whole evening with oohs and ahhhs and later, interesting dreams.

It’s hard to believe that not long ago, this land was the site of a deforestation and logging operation – the hotel, which Sevilla, a member of the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund and Chairman of the Board of Metropolitan Touring, the country’s largest tourism company which owns the land and Lodge, says was built without cutting down one tree, now sits on that same site. The Lodge was built using steel and pre-assembled walls, and assembled as much as possible in Quito before being transported to the site, in order to reduce the impact on the forest. It will be powered by hydro-electricity in the near future.

The Metamorphosis
Once you’ve hiked through the forest, soaking wet from the rain or a refreshing dip in a waterfall, and slipped off your lodge supplied mudboots outside (with help, of course, from the attentive staff), the transformation begins. Morochz, who has been working and living at Mashpi for close to two years, may never remove his binoculars and rubber boots (there is a rumor that he sleeps in them in case he has to run outside in the middle of the night to spot a previously unknown species), but you will. After being greeted by a welcome back concoction of exotic fruits, you might change into a bathing suit to enjoy the Jacuzzi, get a massage, or soak in your Philippe Starck bathtub with a view of the teeming forest, before getting ready for a gourmet meal under the capable hands of Chef David Barriga.

The Lodge’s towering, two-story dining room offers a dramatic setting for Barriga’s Ecuadorian cuisine with both traditional and contemporary twists as well as specialties baked in palm leaves. Dishes are conjured with herbs, spices and plants from the surrounding rainforest, as well as from delicious regional ingredients such as a vast array of tropical and temperate fruits (passion fruit, naranjilla, guanabana, blackberry, apple, peaches) and hearts of palm, coffee, manioc, chocolate and plantain.

A full bar offers specialty fruit cocktails and natural energetic drinks while a carefully selected wine list features mainly Chilean and Argentinean vintages.

Chocolate tasting with single-source, organic locally produced dark arriba chocolate is a feature of Mashpi’s gourmet experience. Since the Internet is spotty and there is nowhere to go but here, after a night of wine and chocolate, we do manage to convince Morochz to dance the Macarena with us in the towering dining room – its glass walls filled with the colorful wings of moths.

Fashioned by architect Alfredo Ribadeneira and interior designer Diego Arteta, the award- winning Lodge is crafted with the latest techniques in sustainable building. It accommodates a maximum of 44 guests in 22 rooms – three expansive suites with bathtubs-with-a-view and 19 rooms, including three inter-connecting pairs. The rooms, arranged over three floors, all face north, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, some on two sides, with the forest just a few feet away. If you leave your windows cracked open at night, be prepared for a crescendo of frogs and birds that will only be tolerable to the heaviest of sleepers. A Wellness Space with a Jacuzzi and massage room is also available for relaxation

Mudslides, Aerial Bikes and Waterfalls
Until the tram is in working order, Mashpi guests can explore the biodiverse world of the Reserve by climbing the Observation Tower, pedalling through the forest on an aerial bicycle, bathing in rivers and waterfalls, discovering the Life Centre with its butterfly farm and terrariums, and hiking along trails through the forest in the company of expert naturalist and local guides.

We had the good fortune of traveling with Klaus Fielsch, Metropolitan Touring’s former Expeditions Manager, who is now the company’s Customer Development Manager for the US Market. I had travelled with Fielsch in the Galapagos – he introduced me to the magical world of birds with his passion for all things plumed. And now, his excitement about plants is equally contagious. So with Fielsch, Morochz and our local machete wielding guide, Jose Napa, we head off to explore the two main trails, Howler Monkey and Cucharillo. Howler Monkey (mainly primary forest) and Cucharillo (mainly secondary), although short – are steep and slippery. It’s hard to look for birds when you’re watching your every step for snakes and tarantulas, or a foot that gets stuck in the mud, but with lodge-supplied walking poles (bring two – you’ll be much more stable) and the more than capable eyes of Jose, you start to find your stride and tread lightly. The trails’ steepness is actually an advantage since the hillsides enable more light to penetrate the forest, thereby increasing the diversity of plants and animals that one can observe. Both trails have been brilliantly adapted to make walking easier, using embedded recycled plastic crates to create steps and firm paths.

Endemism, Fielsch explains, is where a species is found here and nowhere else. One of the things that makes Mashpi unique is that it’s situated between a lowland floodplain forest and lower montane or foothill forest with a transitional zone where many of the species overlap. It’s this range of altitudes that create the high number of rare species found here. To date, 280 bird species (some 22 species of hummingbirds alone) have been recorded, 36 of them endemic, but Fielsch says they expect to find closer to 400 or 500 species as they track farther into more remote sectors of the reserve at lower and higher elevations.

Besides birds, the reserve has a profusion of plant species, from ferns and bromeliads to hundreds of orchid species, many newly-discovered. Another huge focus of research, at least for Morochz, is butterflies and moths. Some 200 species of butterfly have been identified at the Life Centre, Morochz's pet project, with nearly a dozen observable at the garden. Various species of frogs and toads live inside glass terrariums, as well as dozens of species of orchids, bromeliads and passion flowers which explode all around the structure. Close to the Centre is an area for growing medicinal plants (ideal for a reviving herbal infusion) and beyond, many varieties of bushes and fruit trees. Guests will find many ingredients from these gardens in the dishes prepared at the restaurant.

On our second day here, we explore the flora and fauna via hydra-electric aerial bicycle – which literally lets you cycle, ET-style - above the forest canopy. Located close to the hotel, the aerial bicycle is an adventurous way, if you’re not afraid of heights, to explore the forest canopy up close. Designed for two people, one person pedals the bike along a cable stretched between two points in the forest, around 655 feet apart, crossing a high gorge above a river flowing between rocks and trees below. Several bicycles are planned in the Reserve.

Bringing the Project Home
Sevilla bought this land with a friend 14 years ago and has had his struggles with a community that is challenged by the idea of the land being owned by anyone. When the resort first began construction of the tram, Fielsch tells us that one of the neighbors, a squatter who had established property rights in the area, cut the cable. The neighbor eventually came to an arrangement with the Lodge, as did area bird watchers, and residents of the village of Mashpi. Metropolitan Touring says it will include nearby community members as shareholders in the reserve, and that at least 80% of its employees will be local residents. The village of Mashpi now supplies much of the produce for the lodge’s kitchen, something that helps out the community and reduces the lodge’s carbon footprint.

Sevilla’s Mashpi project was born from a desire to conserve the very biodiverse forests on the Pacific slopes of the Andes that have suffered from damaging deforestation over the last decades. “I started looking for land to purchase for conservation and that’s how I came across the Mashpi area. I soon realized that I wanted to share this wondrous forest with people from around the world,” he says.

As well as the visible world of Mashpi, Sevilla says there is also the hidden world, which guests won’t necessarily see. “That’s why the project includes scientific research, with the camera trap project being a great example: the resident biologist or guides will be able to show guests, through presentations, the life that takes place in the forest, which they’d be very fortunate to see with their own eyes. The creatures are out there, it’s just that they don’t appear for tourists.”

His hope is for guests to return home as passionate advocates for the conservation of this land and its forests. “We hope to communicate the importance of their preservation for present and future generations, " he says, "to make the guests feel part of that initiative and for them to return home charged with energy." And not just by  the animal and plant life they discover, he says, "but also by the play of light, the luminosity, the dynamism of the clouds and air and tree tops, the magic and emotion that this place can conjure."

And that it does. At the Life Centre, after observing Monarchs and huge owl butterflies with purple wings and giant black circles that look like eyes, the rain begins. It comes down in buckets, with thunder and lightning seemingly chasing us down the trail. We are wearing Lodge- supplied ponchos, as this is a rain forest after all, but rain like this is the rain of dreams; oceans of rain, skies of rain, rain that fills puddles that turn into rivers that turn into lakes. And then the sun breaks through the forest canopy. And the Rose-faced parrot shrieks. And a rainbow crosses the gorge to a field of clouds.

At Mashpi Lodge, it’s possible to be posh and green.
• Trash (including pointless waste like plastic water bottles) has to be trucked out and disposed of in Quito.
• Electricity is produced by a humming diesel generator, though there are plans to replace it with a small hydrological dam powered by a hillside river.
• The Lodge's water comes from the crystalline local rivers, where it is filtered it and treated before returning to the forest. The water treatment plant works biologically, using bacteria. For this reason, the Lodge supplies biodegradable soaps, shampoos and conditioners for guests to use, which don't affect the water treatment system.
• All of Mashpi Lodge’s waste water is treated biologically. The Lodge uses composting for organic waste and recycles its solid waste.
• The hotel is working with the local village of Mashpi for its supplies of organic produce grown there. This reduces its transportation carbon footprint and provides income for this community.
•. The aerial tram is being constructed with great respect for the forest, with no access roads built for the erection of the towers. All building materials for the towers have been transported to the sites by hand.

Casa Gangotena
Quito’s newest jewel in the crown
Before journeying to Mashpi or the Galapagos Islands, a stay in the capital city of Quito is the perfect balance for travelers wanting to explore Ecuador’s city life. The newest luxury hotel in this historic city, Casa Gangotena, is the result of a three-year, $11 million renovation project and is situated in a newly-restored historic mansion overlooking Plaza San Francisco. Once home to several renowned Ecuadorian families during the late 19th century, this historic mansion has been glamorously restored as an elegant, three story, 31-room boutique hotel with a distinctive restaurant offering a modern take on traditional Andean and coastal ingredients, a cozy glass-roof patio and an expansive terrace on the top floor offering views of the Plaza, the surrounding hills and the colorfully lit buildings.

Our guided walking tour brought us to churches such as La Compañia de Jesús, San Francisco and La Merced, La Ronda street, with its cafés, music and artisans, and to museums such as the City Museum and the intriguing Casa del Alabado archaeological museum.

A short drive away, highlights of the capital’s modern districts include the Chapel of Man (Capilla del Hombre), Botanical Gardens, Teleferiqo cable car, and shopping at La Mariscal artisan market.

During our stay, the hotel’s sous chef, David Barriga (now the chef at Mashpi Lodge), led us through the markets of San Roque as part of a hotel gastronomic tour. There, women sat in stalls shelling beans and de-kernaling corn, and the giant headless bodies of turkeys, feet and all, sat displayed on trays. Here, you can buy anything from fresh vegetables to local delicacies to red bracelets to ward off bad energy and jealousy, or soaps to help you attract love.

Every afternoon, the hotel offers an Ecuadorian-style high tea – either on the patio or terrace, where guests can sample the traditional aguas de frescos from the southern Andes, which combine dozens of herbs, plant leaves and flower petals in refreshing infusions.

But the most interesting use of flowers was in the hotel bathroom, where I receive a Limpia treatment, a local session of energy equilibrium restoration. Rosa, a beautiful vendor we met in the San Roque market, comes to my room, has me strip down to my underwear, and proceeds to sting and slap me with nettles and then soothe me with oil, herbs, rose petals and herbal flower sprays while clearing my energy of “espanto,” or fear. The she rubs an egg on my head and calls it a day. I feel cleansed, and ready to explore.

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