This ecolodge floats atop Ecuador’s cloud forest — and every stay is carbon neutral
"Snake!" yelled one of my travel companions. We were on a night hike in the middle of the Ecuadorian jungle, and someone's flashlight revealed a small black-and-white serpent coiled around a bit of leafy vegetation.
That was just one of several "Oh, my gosh!" moments during my recent stay at the Mashpi Lodge, which bills itself as "a rainforest hotel in the clouds." And, yes, it's as magical as it sounds.
The lodge's main building comprises tons of floor-to-ceiling windows that give just about every room a sweeping view of the lush surroundings. The daily activity schedule is packed with options like hikes, waterfall swims and gondola rides over the cloud forest canopy. However, these aren't even the most impressive aspects of a visit to the property.
Metropolitan Touring, which operates the Mashpi Lodge, has taken its eco-friendly initiatives so seriously that all stays at the lodge are now completely carbon neutral — even ones that are preceded by cruises to the Galapagos on Metropolitan Touring vessels, including those operated by Hurtigruten Expeditions.
Here's a walk-through of what the lodge is doing for the environment and what you can expect during a visit to one of the most unspoiled places on Earth.
About the lodge
The Mashpi Lodge is set on preserved land in the middle of the Choco Cloud Forest — like a rainforest but at a higher elevation, usually surrounded by mist — found more than 3,000 feet above sea level in the Ecuadorian Andes. A 3.5-hour drive from the center of Quito, the lodge opened in 2012, more than a decade after the former mayor of Quito purchased a swath of land there in order to preserve it.
Today, the property employs about 70 people, roughly 60% of whom hail from within a 20-mile radius. Many live on the premises because it's so difficult to travel in and out on a daily basis.
What started as a research project with just one resident biologist has grown to include more than 6,000 acres that offer hiking trails, nature and science centers and, of course, the lodge, all guarded by a giant wooden gate that will make you think you're entering Jurassic Park.
Eco-friendly to the core
What makes Mashpi so green, and how has it reached carbon neutrality when so many others in the travel sector are struggling to make it happen? (I'm looking at you, cruise industry, with your promises to offset emissions by 2050.)
For starters, a hydroelectric plant is used to make its own electricity; it also cleans and filters its own water.
Food is locally sourced, and when you book a stay at the Mashpi Lodge, you'll be charged a small fee, which is used to purchase additional cloud forest acreage. By preserving more of the land, carbon emissions are offset by plants that grow on it.
Many of the people who live in the larger bioregion where Mashpi sits are farmers. As part of Metropolitan Touring's eco-friendly initiatives, the company conducts outreach and education to help farmers understand why it's better for the environment if they use fewer pesticides on their crops.
To prevent illegal and harmful activity like hunting and logging on Mashpi's 6,000 acres, the property employs a special surveillance system that recognizes sounds consistent with gunshots and the chopping of wood. When those sound patterns are detected, the system alerts local officials, who can respond.
Because the overall goal is to preserve as much of the cloud forest as possible and learn about its delicate ecosystem, a team of six staff biologists studies local flora and fauna at an on-site science center. The program also offers internships, and since the lodge opened, the biology team has discovered 13 new species of plants and animals, including frogs and orchids.
The reserve is also home to the Life Center, where visitors can view endangered plants, observe animals that show up to feed and learn about the lifecycles of butterflies that are bred in captivity there.
Rooms with a view
Every room, from the most basic one-person accommodation to the most expensive suite, comes with a stunning floor-to-ceiling view of the jungle. Tip: Leave your curtains open when you go to bed so you'll wake up to the most stunning green hues.
Each room offers free Wi-Fi, a phone, luxury toiletries, a hair dryer and a safe, as well as bathrobes and slippers for use during your stay. Note that none of the rooms have TVs.
All accommodations are equipped with their own climate controls and humidifiers, which help to keep humidity at bay. There's plenty of storage for clothes and luggage, and each person in your party will receive a complimentary drawstring bag to bring on hikes and a reusable water bottle. (Carafes of filtered water are provided in each room and refilled as needed.)
Room rates start at $1,400 ($600 for locals) per room, per night, for two people, except for solo rooms, which are discounted. Prices include daily snacks, all meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and the services of a local guide who will help you to choose your daily activities and then accompany you on them.
Alcohol, tips and spa services are not included.
The lodge houses three types of rooms:
Wawa ("Baby") rooms
Wawa rooms are designed for solo travelers, complete with a single bed and slightly less space than the lodge's other accommodations. These digs measure 228 square feet.
Wayra ("Wind") rooms
Rooms in the Wayra category sleep up to two adults and two children in two queen-size beds. These rooms also come in connecting configurations that can accommodate larger families or groups traveling together. Each offers 366 square feet of space.
Yaku ("Water") suites
Yaku suites provide a single king-size bed in 495-square-foot accommodations, sleeping up to two people. The lodge has three of these types of suites, each with a soaking tub in the bathroom.
Activities and amenities
Does walking among hundreds of colorful butterflies or swimming in a waterfall sound like a great way to spend an afternoon? If so, you're in luck.
Mashpi Lodge offers a full battery of daily diversions that includes everything from strenuous hikes to more laidback exploration. There are even special activities for kids.
When you arrive, you'll meet with a dedicated guide who will be with you for the duration of your stay to help you plan out each day's pursuits and then take you wherever you want to go. On my visit, I opted for a moderate set of plans, which included a five-hour hike to two waterfalls (one of which you can swim in), followed by a ride on the Dragonfly — a gondola ride over the cloud forest canopy, which costs an extra $40 per person for unlimited rides.
Other selections include tamer nature walks, visits to the Life Center and research center and even an unguided 10K run. There are night walks, too, where guides outfit guests with flashlights and lead them on a quest to spot some of the animals — snakes, spiders, frogs — that come out only after it gets dark.
The lodge's free Sky Bike allows you to pedal among the trees. Additionally, there are several lookout points, which offer great views when it's not foggy (which it is most of the time).
If you'd rather have a drink or relax with a massage, the lodge also has a bar and a spa, both of which levy additional fees.
Other public areas include an open-air porch where you store rubber boots they loan to you for use throughout your stay and a small lounge area with self-serve coffee, where you'll be briefed on your stay after you arrive.
Because it rains a lot in the Choco Cloud Forest, you should expect to get wet, especially if you visit during the rainy season (October to May). In addition to boots, the lodge will provide a sturdy poncho to use for the duration of your visit. Free drying services are also available for guests.
As for meals, the food was fresh and delicious, with many of the ingredients sourced locally. Breakfast is a small buffet spread of cereals, nuts, yogurt, fruit, pastries, cold cuts, cheese and juices. From the waiter-service menu, you can select items like eggs and omelets or pancakes.
The lunch menu might include selections like amaranth-crusted chicken breast and the catch of the day. Dinner includes starters (think shrimp and squid salad or potato soup with avocado and local cheese), mains (such as stewed chicken with rice, peanuts and plantains or pork belly and panela with seasonal vegetables) and desserts (like five-milk vanilla sponge cake, soursop mousse with a lemon cookie or acai and blueberry pavlova).
Tasty and creative vegetarian and gluten-free options are clearly marked on each day's menu. Vegetarian options — coconut palm heart with basil-flavored rice and tomatoes or a cassava wrap with black bean puree and sweetcorn — are offered at every meal. Comfort foods, such as pizza, are available, too, if you're not in the mood for the day's specialties.
My favorites? The pancakes served with bananas, whipped cream, chocolate drizzle and berries during breakfast were simply marvelous, and the pineapple lemonade is something you won't want to miss.
What to watch out for
A stay at Mashpi Lodge isn't exactly a relaxing vacation. The goal is to venture out to see and do as much as possible in your time there, so be warned that if you're expecting to lounge around all day sipping wine, ordering room service and watching movies, you're likely to be bored, disappointed or both.
It rains a ton at Mashpi, particularly during the rainy season. Pack quick-drying clothes, including long pants and shirts with long sleeves, and more pairs of hiking socks than you think you'll need.
Cloud forest mosquitos are ruthless, so the lodge will provide you with roll-on bug repellent when you arrive. However, it's basically pure DEET, and it might be too strong for some people. (I had a reaction that caused me to break out in a painless red rash for a few hours.) Pack some of your preferred brand in case you need a backup.
Also, come prepared with motion sickness medication. The 3.5-hour drive from Quito can be brutal with its steep, winding roads, some of which are pitted and, therefore, bumpy. Even after nearly 70 cruises, I've never felt as ill as I did on the ride to Mashpi. Given how sick I felt when I arrived and how strenuous each day's activities were, I wish I would have planned a day to recuperate before jumping into hiking.
The lodge provides eco-friendly toiletries in each room. When you arrive, staff members will ask you to use the Mashpi toiletries instead of anything you might have brought with you, as it's easier for the on-property water treatment plant to process. (Remember: Mashpi Lodge is self-sufficient in terms of water treatment and electricity generation.) Nobody keeps tabs on your shampoo habits, but if you're married to certain brands, the request is something to note.
A visit to the Mashpi Lodge is wondrous. You'll see plants and animals that only exist there, learn lots about your new surroundings and marvel at the sheer scope and lush beauty of the cloud forest.
What you can expect are exhausting (but fun) days where the experiences add up to the adventure of a lifetime. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and you'll enjoy three delicious meals a day, along with lectures and perhaps a massage — if you can squeeze it in.
Ultimately, the experience left me with more appreciation for the environment and a better understanding of the delicately balanced ecosystems that exist in places like the Choco Cloud Forest.