Ecuador, South America, Travel

Magical Mashpi

The first time I booked my trip to Ecuador was back in 2020 before the covid pandemic. At that time, I hadn’t even heard of Mashpi. I actually found out about the reserve and hotel when I was searching through BBC iplayer looking for videos on Ecuador. I had just finished watching the David Attenborough episodes on Galapagos, and so I just typed in “Ecuador” to see what came up. A series called “Equator from the Air” with Gordon Buchanan popped up, and in the 2nd episode they go to Ecuador, and specifically, they visit Mashpi. I LOVED the episode and everything about the hotel that features in it. During the episode, I googled the hotel, Mashpi Lodge, and found it on Hotels.com… $2000 a night. And well… that was the end of that, I guess. I decided this was way out of budget and was just going to be one of those “Dream Places” rather than a reality.

However, 2 years later when I rebooked my flights for Ecuador in 2022, my mindset had changed (along with my financial circumstances!). And I decided to take a serious look at booking this magical place.

A couple of promotional offers on Hotels.com and some vouchers I had saved managed to significantly reduce the cost and I booked 2 nights initially. But just 2 days before my flight to Quito, I decided that this “once in a lifetime” hotel deserved at least 3 nights of my holiday and so I extended my stay. And wow, am I glad I did…

I woke up at my hotel in Quito bright and early, eager to walk over to Casa Gangotena where the car to Mashpi was collecting me. I was bubbling with excitement. As soon as I arrived at the pickup point I was greeted by the driver Diego and a nice American couple sharing the ride with me, Jim and Jen.

The journey out of Quito was winding and very steep, we ascended to well over 3,000m before descending again into the cloud forest region to the North West of the capital city.

As we entered the forest the scenery changed to lush green trees shrouded in cloud… the forest lived up to its name. But every now and again we saw a shimmering tree, a cecropia tree, common in this part of the world, that stands taller than the surrounding canopy and small hairs on the leaves make them appear to shimmer in the sunlight.

Cloud forest living up to it’s name

The journey was long, and after about 2.5 hours we finally turned off the main road (which had taken us through some quaint little villages) and continued along a dirt track. After another hour we finally arrived at the Mashpi gate. Standing tall and ominous like something from Jurassic Park, this is when my excitement really peaked.

Mashpi Gate

After about another hour we finally arrived at the hotel. We were greeted with a cold refreshing drink and a hot towel and told to relax for a moment whilst our rooms were prepared. The first thing I did was head outside and out onto the observation deck. I was finally here after months of anticipation and planning…

Observation deck
The hotel

It was literally paradise… the location was just magical, with the hotel hidden amongst the trees, it felt totally at one with nature, yet inside was the height of luxury. I’d never experienced anything like it before.

After lunch, the hotel manager Mark soon introduced himself and gave the new arrivals of that day (there were 5 of us) the hotel induction. This included detailed information about the ecology of the area within the Choco rainforest, along with the history of the reserve and how it was built. It’s an absolutely fascinating origin, with the hotel being situated within an ex-logging zone. Since being purchased and converted into the reserve, the forest has re-established itself and recovered, bringing with it an influx of species including many amphibians, birds and even mammals.

We were told what to expect from our stay, and how we could make the most of our time here. We would have a dedicated guide to help us learn about the forest and there were plenty of options from waterfall walks to bird-spotting – something for everyone, really! But the beauty of the place was the flexibility. Everything was built around what I wanted to do… and I wanted to do EVERYTHING! haha

I was eventually shown to my room, which was modest but exceptionally comfortable, and then the first activity began…

My single room

From the hotel, it was a very short hike up to the observation tower and sky bike area. The tower is about 25m tall and rises up high above the tree canopy, offering incredible and uninterrupted views of the entire reserve. Looking down on the hotel from there it looked tiny!

From the observation tower, we came back down to the skybike, the bike is for 2 people max, so the other couples from my group enjoyed this together. Fortunately for me, I had our guide, Arcenio, to help keep me company and it was really nice to get to know him more.

It was an amazing introduction to Mashpi reserve!

After this, we headed back to the hotel for our evening meal, and as I discovered at lunch, the food here was also just something else. There was a FULL vegan 3-course menu at every meal time. Not just a token vegan meal either, a very well thought out and inventive menu, some of the dishes I had were absolutely amazing! And that first day the thing I remember the most is the chocolate brownie… mmmm…. so good I had it twice haha

The day had already been incredible, but it wasn’t over yet, that night we had a night walk up in the river and waterfall. We were given welly boots (which were a perfect fit, might I add) and after a short drive, were let out in the pitch black to explore the riverbed area.

I was told we were frog hunting… but honestly, the number of spiders, centipedes, stick insects and other creepy crawlies we saw was enough to make anyone shiver. I was quite brave really with Arcenio giving me confidence (and my jacket zipped all the way up!). And of course, we did see a lot of frogs too 🙂

We saw lots of glass frogs, so called because of their transparent tummies, and even saw the infamous Mashpi frog, a type of rain frog that is endemic to the Mashpi region and was only discovered through the research undertaken by the Biology team on site.

What a first day at Mashpi! I had already done and seen so much, and I still had 2 FULL DAYS left! I couldn’t believe it! So, off to bed to get up early for birdwatching on the veranda!

I woke up at 6am ready for birdwatching, it was literally on the roof of the hotel, the trees around the hotel were ripe with fruit and so the birds were close enough to see without binoculars, although I did use them to get a better look! I was so glad I bought a good pair back at home!

There are a lot of different species of birds within the cloud forests, the unique climate and altitude of this forest mean there’s so much diversity. The most common birds I saw were tanagers and they came in every colour imaginable. Most were easy to guess… “what’s that bluey/grey one called?”, “Oh, that’s the blue-grey tanager”. You think I’m joking, I’m not! One of my faves was called the “glistening green tanager”, but there was also the “flame rumped” and the “flame faced”, and of course, one has to be called the “Mashpi tanager” too!

It was easy to watch, but considerably harder to photograph, the birds, and I regretted not buying a telescopic camera rather than just having my phone (I’ve since bought one, so I now have a wonderful excuse to go back!!). These pics were taken on my phone through binoculars! haha

Here are some tanagers below:

After another delicious breakfast, my group’s plan for the day (which was only me, Jim, Jen and our guide Arcenio) was to walk the Magnolia Falls hike. Mark had told me it was one of the best walks in the reserve, but it took Jen some convincing and peer pressure to agree to the walk with her knees, but even at the end of the walk, none of us regretted the decision…

The walk started with a steep descent from the hotel down towards the waterfall and river, we walked through the forest and on recycled bottle crates fashioned into steps in the mud. We saw loads of cool trees and a lot of peculiar animals, including a lot of centipedes and millipedes, the tiniest frog ever, and ants which live in and protect trees. The forest really is full of wonder.

Our small group with our guide Arcenio

We arrived at the waterfall, which was very refreshing in the spray, and then started our walk along the river bank. After a short walk, we stopped at a refreshing pool to take a dip and cool off. And cool it was haha! But not too bad!

After drying off and squeezing back into my skin-tight hiking pants, we continued with our walk, but now we were going to walk IN the river! We had our wellies on, which was great, but the river often came higher than the boots, which resulted in… well… wet feet! haha and having to do a strategic ‘lean and boot empty’ every now and then. I absolutely loved it! The forest was so pretty from this view.

After walking for about 3 hours, we finally came to the end of the walk, we found ourselves at a tower for The Dragonfly…

The Dragonfly at Mashpi is possibly the most amazing feature the entire reserve has, it’s a 2km long cable car which runs up to 200m off the ground in, and above, the canopy of the trees. It took a long time (and a lot of money) to construct, especially since they did not want to uproot any trees to build it.

We climbed up the steps to the tower and waited for our gondola to arrive. Once seated, the ride really began, the views from up here were just breathtaking. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, that I was actually here in this magical nature reserve high above the canopy in a gondola! It didn’t seem real.

It was actually quite hard to spot animals from up here, but we did see my favourite (spotted by me, no less) the Choco Toucan, and also a few Toucan barbets, some trogans and of course lots of Mashpi tanagers.

in the dragonfly

The Dragonfly was absolutely epic, at some points, I couldn’t believe how high up we were. The views of the forest below seemed endless. From tower 4 we first started moving away further from the hotel, deeper into the forest, before the cable car reached the final station and swung back around to make the return journey. The total ride took about one hour, with stops along the way whenever we saw something interesting. Arcenio pointed out another waterfall we could see from the cart; glass frog falls, he said that’s where we should go tomorrow – my final day. And it would be a private tour too since Jim and Jen were only staying 2 nights.

Honestly, by this point I couldn’t believe I still had another FULL day here, it felt like I’d been on a week-long holiday already, I felt as well rested as that haha! Enjoying the fresh air and being active every day was such a nice change from my daily work, and after working hard this year, it was well deserved too.

We returned back to the first station which was only a short walk back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. The day was only half done! After lunch, our group walked over to the Life Centre, an area dedicated to bird watching, where they place bananas out on the surrounding branches. There was also a butterfly garden and an orchid collection there.

Unfortunately, on the way, the heavens well and truly opened and I really felt like I was actually inside a cloud! I’ve never seen raindrops so big and within seconds, it seemed, the pathway was turned into a river, tumbling down over the plastic bottle crates.

We rushed to the life centre as fast as we could, and despite my waterproof coat, boots, pants and hood, I arrived soaked to the core haha! I don’t think any waterproof would have withstood those rains!

Not happy in the pouring rain!

But even through the clouds, we still saw a whole host of different animals, including the Choco Toucan, the Crimson-rumped toucanet, woodpeckers, lots of tanagers, and a family of Tayra.

We sat drying off (and cooling down) watching the birds before entering the butterfly garden. Arcenio told us about the lifecycle of some of the butterflies, looking at all the caterpillars and chrysalises. All of which were very different depending on the species.

I ate with Jen and Jim that night, along with another American couple. We also had a few nice cocktails to finish the day! 🙂

The next morning (possibly still jetlagged, but also because I did not want to miss a second of Mashpi…) I woke again early for birdwatching and then had another delicious and inventive breakfast. Despite getting ABSOLUTELY soaked the previous day, Arcenio met me in the morning with all my items warm and dry. Mashpi had a dedicated drying room to dry off everyone’s clothes and boots which was a godsend and in use every night for me haha

Spotting the beautiful mot-mot in the morning’s birdwatching

We started the morning after breakfast with more birdwatching. It was leaving day for Jen and Jim, so the morning activity with them was to visit the hummingbird garden. An area up higher from the hotel where they place hummingbird feeders and bananas out for the birds.

It was an incredible morning. I’ve never seen a hummingbird before and I found them absolutely fascinating. Getting up and close to the birds was great too, they had no fear and let you get so close. We were even able to get them to land our hands with a little bit of encouragement in the way of a flower-filled with sugar water!

Photographs do not do hummingbirds justice. The colours in their feathers defy belief, iridescent and basically every colour when the light catches them. I also couldn’t believe how loud they are when they fly!

We also saw a cute little coati as well and some more tayra, some crimson rumped toucanets and toucan barbets, and sooooo many tanagers of all colours!

It really was a magical morning!

From here, Jim and Jen took a car back down the hill to the hotel to pack and make sure they could get their car back to Quito. Arcenio and I decided to walk back instead, with included 2 river crossings. But unfortunately, I didn’t have the wellies on this time, so my walking shoes made it back into the drying room for another night haha!

one of the viewpoints walking back down

I had my last lunch with Jim and Jen before saying goodbye. I was so glad I chose to extend my trip. Yes, on one hand, I had already seen so much and had a thoroughly enjoyable trip so far. But on the other. This place was too special to leave so soon!

So after lunch, Arcenio and I planned to visit glass frog falls for a swim. We took the dragonfly again down to station 4 and walked the rest of the way to the Waterfall, again, partly walking in the river, with our wellies getting filled again!

After the rains of the previous days, the Waterfall and river were gushing! A little too much for a relaxing swim, but just about good enough for a little dip at the edge. It was a shame because Arcenio told me when it was slower and clearer (and safer) there were some rocks you could climb up and jump into the water off. But still, it was so pretty!

We walked back to the dragonfly station and did another loop to the end and back again. All the while trying our best to spit animals. Arcenio told me about the local sloths and an owl which he often saw. The camera traps around here had also spotted big cats, including pumas. But today all we saw were lots of Mashpi tanagers and butterflies.

We got back to the lodge and laid out on my bed was a little set of butterfly wings and an invitation… today was the 10-year anniversary since the opening of the lodge! I couldn’t believe my luck that I was staying here at the perfect moment to celebrate this occasion with the team! I had a hot stone massage booked that night too, so I had this first then got ready for the evening.

my invitation 😇

I felt so lucky to experience this and hear the speeches from Mark and see the funding members celebrating. It was a wonderful evening. I even invited Arcenio for a drink too!

Unfortunately, time eventually caught up with me and I was here on my last day. I had been speaking with Arcenio the night before about how to maximise my last day, and we came up with the following plan… to have a coffee on the dragonfly at 6.30am, try and spot some birds, and then come back for breakfast before heading back to hummingbird Garden for a little while (which was my favourite place!). So that’s what we did.

The early morning on the dragonfly was so peaceful, but unfortunately, we didn’t see very much wildlife, except for a few Tanagers and butterflies. But the hummingbird Garden was spectacular again!

You can see some of my super slomo videos filmed on my phone here:

32-times slowed!!!!

Just amazing!

We got the car back down to the Lodge and I packed up my room and got ready to leave. I could already feel my sadness building…

What a most incredible 4 days I had here at Mashpi. I have had some incredible wildlife experiences in my life, but there was something about Mashpi, actually quite hard to put into words…

Perhaps there was something in the food, maybe the water, which just made everything feel so magical and special. The whole environment was breathtaking, and the hotel was just something else. All the staff made me feel so welcomed, and as a solo traveller I think I got a lot more special attention from Mark and his team, and a never once felt “alone” in my whole trip.

And although I have stayed in a lot of fancy 5-star hotels for work, it’s not often I splurge like this on holidays. I am so glad I did as it was an unforgettable experience. Unfortunately, I do think it will be bad for my purse, as these kinds of hotels and experiences are probably something I will look out for again…

As the car pulled away from the lodge, tears started streaming down my face… I couldn’t really even say why. I just felt so emotional about leaving this wonderful place, and there’s not a doubt in my mind that I will be back soon in the future.

I love you Mashpi!

Here are the GoPro Videos from the days at Mashpi:

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

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