Brian Major | March 11, 2013 11:45 PM ET
A Hike Through Ecuador’s Cloud Forest
The itinerary for my trip to Ecuador included a stay at the Masphi Lodge, which its website described as “perched at 3,116 feet above sea level and surrounded by lower mountain rain forest and cloud forest.” I wondered, what’s the difference between a rain forest and a cloud forest? What is a cloud forest?
Days later I boarded a van on the Plaza San Francisco in the capital city of Quito with another writer, Joel Centano, and our guide, Cynthia Cabezas, as we commenced a three-hour drive to Mashpi, located deep within a 3,212-acre protected forest in the Andes. It was cloud forest time!
Our three-hour drive unfolded slowly. We rambled away from the colonial city, moving quickly past the suburban hills lined with tall condo buildings into sweeping farmlands that curved through the Pichincha volcano range. Our vehicle wound up and down progressively more isolated lush mountain passes, past hillside farms bursting with rows of produce.
After an hour we stopped at a small village at the top of a mountain pass. Cynthia directed us to a storefront restaurant with brightly painted cement walls on the town’s tiny main street. There we sampled fried empanadas filled with yucca. Nearby a young mom and her pre-school daughter talked with farmers whose “market” consisted of two wheelbarrows filled with colorful fruits and vegetables.
As we started up again the terrain grew increasingly steep and the paved roads gave way to dirt paths. Our van was not a true four-wheel drive vehicle, but it negotiated the bad roads, though rather slowly. We dealt with a peculiar lack of signs by asking directions from locals, whose invariable response was a Spanish version of “that way,” accompanied by assertive arm gestures.
Finally we came to a section of road that ramped upward to a mountain pass not entirely suited for our van. Our driver remained resolute, and we bumped up and around the cliff-side road as the lush mountain slopes descended on our left. We continued to climb past waterfalls and earthy green jungle, rarely encountering another person or vehicle.
Eventually we reached a small clearing where a few men worked in a compound behind a fence. They confirmed we were indeed on the correct road for Mashpi Lodge. Within minutes our van pulled up to a road that ended at a modern glass-walled building overlooking a valley. We disembarked triumphantly from our little van and within an hour launched into our first hike of the Mashpi property.
We walked along a narrow jungle path, stepping over roots and fallen branches strewn in our path, as our guide Santiago explained that a cloud forest is characterized by a persistent low-level cloud cover, usually at the canopy level, and an abundance of moss-covered ground and vegetation. Indeed every inch of the forest -- from the standing and fallen trees to the very ground itself, was covered in parasitic flora.
Mashpi is set amongst a proliferation of plant species, including ferns, bromeliads and hundreds of orchid species, many of them newly discovered. The cloud forest is home to 500 bird species including 25 different types of hummingbirds. Monkeys, lizards, frogs, snakes and puma also make their home among the reserve’s lush green hills and plunging waterfalls, extending between 1,800 and 4,500 feet above sea level.
Before the day’s end we had hiked down (and up) curling mountain switchback into valleys ending in spectacular waterfalls, and took turns observing the cloud forest from hundreds of feet above ground via the resort’s Sky Bike, a pedal bike strung securely along a cable stretched between two forest tree-tops 655 feet apart.
Toward the end of the day we sat on the balcony of a small hillside house attached to the Mashpi property, as the hotel’s chef offered an impromptu lesson on parings of wine with Ecuadoran chocolate.
Designed by Ecuadorian architect Alfredo Ribadeneira, Mashpi opened in 2012. Essentially a jungle hotel, it combines contemporary design with a strong sense of eco-tourism. The glass and steel structure features earth tone finishes and large glass walls designed to highlight the surrounding cloud forest’s majesty.
More importantly, Mashpi has played a key a role in the Municipality of Quito’s establishment of a 42,000-acre protected reserve in 2011. The larger reserve encompasses Mashpi, and in many ways ensures its continuing role as a source of local employment and center for sustainability initiatives.
Mashpi finances a resident wildlife coordinator who conducts extensive research that has identified species of frogs not previously thought to inhabit the region, and also resulted in an extensive catalogue of endemic birds, insects, mammals and reptiles. Mashpi’s naturalists are complemented by local guides who are natives of the area and experts in the life of the cloud forest. The experts lead visitors on hikes and bird-watching tours during the day; guests meanwhile enjoy an upscale hotel experience following each insightful trek.
I later learned that the construction project going on behind the fence near the entrance was the continuing construction of a 1.2-mile canopy gondola designed to glide high above the cloud forest and provide a bird’s eye view of the unique environment. It’s just one more reason to someday return.
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