In contrast to the Galapagos, the wildlife in Ecuador’s cloud forest can be rather harder to find – but Pippa Jacks finds the experience at Mashpi Lodge just as rewarding.
It’s pitch black in the cloud forest with the only light coming from the torch I’m pointing at the huge tarantula sitting in the crook of a tree.
Thrilled to finally see one in the wild, I take my torch away for a moment to pull out my camera, but when I shine it back the six-inch-wide spider has vanished.
My guide Fernando and I search up and down the tree with our beams to no avail, and my hands fly to my hair and the hood of my jacket to make sure it hasn’t jumped in there.
I’m learning the hard way that the first rule of tarantula-spotting at night is that if you do locate one of the hairy arachnids, you ought to keep your torch on it until you’ve backed away.
Night walks at Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador’s cloud forest are a contrast to daytime treks, with different creatures to encounter and different sounds to hear.
It’s certainly the best time to see frogs, and when we turn off the main track to splash through a stream in our wellies, we find four different species of tree frog and glass frog perched on leaves just a few metres apart.
Excitingly, one is a Mashpi Torrenteer – a new species discovered by the reserve’s resident biologist, Carlos. I’m pleased to find frogs sit much more happily to be photographed than tarantulas.
The abundance of frogs gives a hint as to how wet it is here: Mashpi Lodge lies within the Mashpi Reserve, three hours from Quito, encompassing 1,200 hectares of the Choco bio-region – one of the most biodiverse in the world.
Located at 900 metres above sea level, the lodge sits where tropical rainforest below meets cloud forest above, and clouds rising up the Andes from the Pacific make the Choco one of the rainiest places on the planet.
Standard trekking attire is therefore a giant poncho, walking stick and wellingtons provided by the lodge – and I soon give up any hope of looking stylish during my stay.
Long walks take us up and down muddy trails, swinging on vines like Tarzan and Jane, and stopping to swim in hidden waterfalls. I learn the difference between millipedes and centipedes, and the medicinal qualities of some of the forest’s many plants and palms, and almost march right into a harmless dangling vine snake.
Walking isn’t the only way to experience the forest, though. There’s the Sky Bike, where guests are harnessed two at a time into an aerial “bicycle” and pedal their way through the canopy. I time it perfectly to watch the sun setting in a haze of pink over the horizon.
A new addition is the Dragonfly – a canopy cable-car, up to 200 metres off the ground, which was constructed over 18 months without harming a single tree. It’s a rare opportunity to experience the forest at all levels, from the forest floor, through its mid-layers, into the canopy and far above the treetops.
Fernando points out trees, ferns, bromeliads, orchids and a variety of birds along the way.
I get much closer to birds, however, at the hummingbird station. Here, tiny birds of more than eight species – including the wonderfully named violet-tailed sylph – throng around sugar-water feeders. I sit on a bench while hummingbirds flit around my head, so close that I can hear their wings throb, their plumage so bright and shimmering that they have surely been painted with glitter.
Seeing a tarantula in the wild might have been a dream for me, but even I am less keen on the idea of one crawling across my pillow.
That’s part of Mashpi Lodge’s appeal, with its minimalist architecture, polished concrete and huge swathes of glass; it successfully keeps the damp and the creepy-crawlies of the forest out while letting its guests feel entirely immersed in the forest’s grandeur.
The lodge welcomed its first guests four years ago, although Roque Sevilla, the founder of Ecuadorian DMC Metropolitan Touring, had the vision for the project many years earlier.
By carrying out scientific studies in the area, to demonstrate its biodiversity, Mashpi helps the fight for the precious Choco region to be preserved from logging.
A quarter of Ecuador’s 1,600 bird species have now been recorded at Mashpi, along with 112 species of reptile and amphibian.
There are larger creatures to be found here too; a few days after I leave, a sloth and anteater are spotted, and Carlos’s camera-trap project has recorded several pumas and ocelots.
Convincing the Ecuadorian government of the importance of conservation isn’t Mashpi’s only aim; that ambition extends to guests as well.
We want people to come as tourists, but leave as naturalists,” says manager Marc Bery.
Naturalists they might be, but they will also have been incredibly well looked after during their time at Mashpi, for despite its remote location – and extraordinary ecofriendliness – Mashpi delivers a true five-star experience.
High-quality cuisine, luxurious guest-rooms and a spa are matched by the kind of friendly service that sees you greeted from every excursion with a hot towel, a refreshing drink and a genuine interest in what you’ve seen.
Most guests come to Mashpi on a two- or three-night programme so they can experience all of its activities and attractions.
The last of these on my list is the Life Centre, where again it’s the small stuff that has me transfixed: tiny specks of butterfly eggs that will become caterpillars, and watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis and puff out its crumpled wings for the very first time.
Many clients visiting Mashpi Lodge combine it with the Galapagos islands and Metropolitan would always recommend seeing Mashpi first.
But while the Galapagos has charismatic creatures in plentiful supply, and animals so unafraid that they practically pose for selfies, there is something almost more rewarding about discovering a tiny frog or elusive spider at Mashpi.
On the off-chance you come across a new species yourself – particularly an eight-legged or fork-tongued variety, in the dark – just be sure to keep your eye on it.
Book It: Kuoni can tailor-make a 10-night Ecuador itinerary with two nights at Metropolitan Touring’s Casa Gangotena in Quito, three nights’ full board in a Wayra room at Mashpi, four nights on Santa Cruz II, Metropolitan’s ship in the Galapagos, and one night at the Hilton, Colon Guayaquil, from £9,666pp in May 2017, based on two sharing. Price includes KLM flights from London to Quito via Amsterdam and transfers.
Carlos Morochz, resident biologist
Birds brought me to Mashpi in 2010. I knew about “lekking” – where male birds come together to display to females – in northern Ecuador, but wondered if it could be seen at Mashpi.
I spent my first four months in a tent, alone in the forest. I just had to get lost with a machete; to go to a ridge and see what I could find.
For me, the most magical moments at Mashpi are at night. What you can see and hear in one night walk is incredible.
Finding a species which is new to science is like finding gold. It took me a year to describe the Mashpi Torrenteer frog to science. I chose “Torrenteer” as they are found near rivers, and “Mashpi” to underline the importance of conserving the Mashpi area.