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April 02nd, 2015

Ghosts of the Smoke & Paradise in the Clouds

Our journey to paradise started in the belly of the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, on a brisk morning in September. We had arrived late in the evening at Casa Gangotena, the legendary grand house-cum-hotel on the edge of Plaza de San Francisco, and we awoke to see birds illuminated by the sunrise swirling through the air in front of the impressive San Francisco church. We explored the hotel a little; we took in Quito’s thin air on the stunning roof terrace, listened out for old echoes of “Alfredo! No juegues con fuego!” and kept an eye out for the ghosts of disgruntled arsonist grooms that might be lurking around the grand spiralling staircase. The grand house was reopened in 2012 after a lengthy refurbishment and much of the art deco features have been returned to their former glory, but the notorious history of the building (and its multiple fires) still lingers and imbues the hotel with a fascinating aura.

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 and took us deep into the Ecuadorian cloud forest. En route, we stopped at the edge of a giant crater on the equatorial line which I ventured towards at a snail’s pace – at an altitude of 4,000m, my legs were feeling a little wobbly! We passed local milk trucks on the winding road before 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; it was like being transported to another world and it’s 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 flora and fauna of prehistory.

Butterfly

On arrival 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 and, I must say, if you’re planning on a family reunion in Ecuador, this is the place!) We were guided to our rooms, passing through 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 overlooked 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 their delicate structure. The entire lodge is designed so that the local biosphere is not compromised.

We made our way to the restaurant in the main room for lunch. Here, dual aspect floor to ceiling windows 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 and you’ll begin to get a sense of how special this place is. After lunch we set out on a jungle walk, spotting wildlife in the trees and heading towards the Sky Bike. The wonderful contraption is basically a zip-line with a bike attached to it: you ride at your own speed and can stop whenever you want, high above the ground in the middle of a cloud – I felt like Superman!

Sky Tram at Mashpi

We watched the sunset from a lookout tower which offered views of the sprawling canopy below and we listened to the sounds of the forest as it came alive: monkeys chattering, birds making strange calls, clicking insects pretending to be sticks.

Next day we awoke 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 birdlife spectacle unfold before a backdrop of thick clouds. Breakfast was served on the deck and we very quickly became the humbled guests of the hummingbirds that call this place home. We all stood around the butterfly farm peering at the cocoons and fluttering wings before peeking into the research lab to hear about the fascinating case studies being undertaken. During 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.

Cloud Forest at Mashpi

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 where you can experience all of it together, in absolute luxury and with a sense of being fully immersed in nature and science.

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