Wild thing: luxury lodges in the heart of nature

Words by
Jemima Sissons
Photography by
Matthew William-Ellis

4th January 2017

Experience the jungles of Ecuador, the Galapagos islands or the frozen landscapes of Lapland in a whole new way with a stay in a wilderness lodge

Ecuador and Galápagos

A young green coconut falls from a cloud-high palm tree to my left. I see it crash though waxy jade leaves and tumble between eucalyptus branches before it falls out of sight. About 20 seconds later I hear a thud. This is most disconcerting, as I am inching along a wire on a “sky bike”, cycling myself through 15-metre-high jungle treetops, precariously moving along a 2.5cm steel rope among flitting humming birds and curious monkeys.

This cleverly engineered contraption (there is a supporting wire on top) is a fascinating way to observe the cloud forest, but still, relief floods over me when I have slowly creaked my way back to the crew at the other end. Half an hour later I am safely ensconced in a verbena-scented spa room, supping  green tea and awaiting a massage. If I wanted intrepid wilderness with a heavy dose of luxury, I have found my place.

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Mashpi Lodge
Mashpi Lodge

Mashpi Lodge

I am in Mashpi Lodge, three hours outside the Ecuadorean capital Quito in the Chocó rainforest and part of a new wave of luxury wilderness retreats around the world. 

Arriving in the capital the night before, we dine at the first-rate Zizi restaurant near our hotel, the elegant converted mansion Casa Gangotena. Here, we enjoy suckling pig empanada, black shell mussel ceviche and a thrilling nitrogen ice cream churned at the table.

The next day is an early start for the Jeep ride into the jungle. We pass Cuy stalls selling the local delicacy,  guinea pig. Stomachs thankfully sated from a delicious breakfast of papaya, tamarillo and local cheeses scattered with poppy seeds, we decline the kind offer of these roadside snacks.

Ecuador_Mashpi-Lodge-Sky-Bike-in-the-Choco-Rainforest,-an-area-of-Cloud-Forest-in-the-Pichincha-Province-of-Ecuador,-South-America
Ecuador Mashpi Lodge Sky bike in the Choco Rainforest, an area of Cloud Forest in the Pichincha Province- of Ecuador, South America

Ecuador Mashpi Lodge Sky bike in the Choco Rainforest, an area of Cloud Forest in the Pichincha Province- of Ecuador, South America

Sky Bike Ride

Soon the road gives way to dirt tracks rutted from the omnipresent showers and jungle arms creep around our car. We have entered Mashpi’s reserve — 2,600 acres of jungle, containing 400 species of bird. There are quail doves, yellow warblers and the moonwalk bird, so named after its comical mating dance.

Anteaters and tayras — a kind of weasel — stalk the undergrowth. Those with a fear of creepy crawlies have to brace themselves: tarantulas are commonplace, as are neurotoxic coral snakes. It’s fine, says our fearless guide, Oscar — they are very shy.

A cock of the rock bird
A cock of the rock bird

A cock of the rock bird

Mashpi Lodge is owned by Grupo Futuro, whose president, Roque Sevilla, is an orchid buff and a former mayor of Quito. It has spent $10m building the 22-bedroom hotel, the aim being to preserve the biodiversity of the Andean cloud forest and protect it from logging.

Our room doesn’t need a television: the entire back wall is glass, offering a live show into the jungle canopy; butterflies dart around orchids clinging to intertwined trees and the verdant drama is mesmerising to watch. 

Exploring-the-Galapagos-Islands-with-Metropolitan-Touring
The Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands

Our days are filled exploring the depths of the cloud forest. We meet newly discovered tree frog species and learn about the many uses of the jungle’s plant life, such as the red jaboncillo, which was once used as soap, and elephant ear leaves, huge and waxy and perfect umbrellas for the ferocious rains.

A hypnotising two hours are spent in the humming bird station. Brown Incas and Velvet Purple Coronets polka around the water stations in a merry dance, their wings flapping at an incredible 1,500 beats per minute. 

At dusk we watch toucans feed on bananas, their noble beaks devouring the flesh. A night walk through sauna-hot forest is exhilarating. On our return, a terrifying peep into a hole reveals two three-inch hairy legs. A tarantula runs out, but quickly returns to its witchy lair.

North Seymour Island has something doomful and terrifying about it — and that’s before you spot the Jurassic-looking iguanas

Fauna
The exotic local wildlife

The exotic local wildlife

Back in the chic glass temple, the expert masseuses ease away daily knots and the hot tub provides respite from the rainy walks. Coming here is a voyage of discovery into a biosphere alien to me beforehand, but done in extreme comfort. 

From the abundant forests, we head to the milky blue waters of the Galapagos. We are staying on a new expedition boat, Santa Cruz 11, for a four-day jaunt to see the flora and fauna of this unique volcanic archipelago. After a couple of connecting flights, we are winding our way on to the ship.

Fifty cabins and a team of naturalists will be our guides for the journey. Although this is more like practical living than uber luxury, the wealth is in the incredible wildlife. As soon as we have settled into our cabins we are back out on our strict roll call. Life jackets on, we depart in a dinghy for North Seymour Island. It has something doomful and terrifying about it — and that’s before you spot the Jurassic-looking iguanas and blue-footed booby birds.

Finch-Bay-Pool-Area
Finch Bay Pool Area

Finch Bay Pool Area

Four days of adventure takes us to Punta Espinoza, where we meet the flightless cormorants whose wings have de-evolved. Slow moving marine iguanas lope around with supine sea lions. We feast our eyes on Sally lightfoot crabs, hawks and penguins. 

One day, we hike to the rim of a crater, Darwin Lake, filled with salt water and with a jaw-dropping viewpoint. A return to land allows a trip to the Darwin research centre where we meet 100-year-old giant tortoises. 

Our final night is spent back in the lap of luxury in the soigné Finch Bay hotel. Here, we reclaim our land legs and laze around the swimming pool sipping Caipirinhas before the return journey home, our heads swimming with thrilling memories of this strange and magical land. 

Rainbow Tours offers a 14-day trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos from £6,430 per person, including stays at Casa Gangotena in Quito, Mashpi Lodge in the cloud forest, a Galapagos cruise on board Santa Cruz II, flights and transfers (rainbowtours.co.uk).