Keep your head in the clouds with a luxury jungle experience
If the words 'ecology' and 'lodge' normally conjure images of rustic cabanas, hammocks and canteen-standard food, then Mashpi Lodge is set to explode the definition - at least for visitors to Ecuador's cloud forest.
Cuboid and aggressively urban in appearance, this 22-room luxury lodge is a modernist-inspired glass box perched on a cliff overlooking a swathe of tropical jungle northwest of Quito (the transfer is two to three hours). At the end of an unsealed road that passes through the remote rural villages of Pacto and Pactoloma, it opened in April after 20 months of careful design work and construction.
For architect Alfredo Ribadeneira, the guiding concept for the US$7.5 million project was to create a contained and protective 'cocoon' set amid dense tropical cloud forest. The challenge was to build in the middle of the forest far from any major centre without seriously affecting the environment. To this end, as much of the steel structure that could be pre-assembled was put together in Quito and then transported to the site. The location of the hotel is a narrow ledge on the spine of a hill, where the topography determined its overall form.
Throughout, floors paved with handsome grey porcelanato tiling, exposed tubing and staircases in a warm rust colour hint at a neo-industrial design. Huge panes of tempered glass in the restaurant and in guest rooms afford visitors a window to the cloud forest. Climb to the top of the observation tower a few hundred metres walk from the entrance and look down: Mashpi Lodge barely emerges from the canopy; all that striking design is subsumed by its surroundings.
If the design concept seems pared down, Diego Arteta, the hotel's interior designer, has not skimped on comfort or quality. The standard rooms are very smart, with king-sized beds with orthopaedic mattresses, and stylish wood furnishings and a bamboo-and-glass decor. All rooms feature Hansgrohe-designed showers, 600-thread cotton sheets, a pillow menu, rugs by Nani Marquina, plush armchairs, luxuriant fabric blinds, and designer desks and upright lamps. The wooden bed heads are lined with hidden LED lights that provide a tranquil, soothing ambience. The three suites are more spacious, featuring Philippe Starck baths.
Mashpi is a sister to Quito's super-lavish Casa Gangotena hotel. This relationship allows it to offer the kinds of cuisine and service you would normally expect only in city-centre four- and five-star properties. Chef David Barriga prepares Ecuadorian- and Peruvian-style ceviches, fabulous seafood tapas, and Ecuadorian dishes based on yucca, plantain and quinoa. He also makes sublime pastas and signature dishes such as red tuna in sal prieta crust (a mixture of roasted peanuts, salt and corn, ground and mixed in with various spices) with coconut and ginger sauce, and grilled striploin with sweet corn humitas (traditional Andean wraps).
The wine list includes surprisingly good Ecuadorian Dos Hemisferios and Chaupi Estancia house wines as well as an extensive range of New and Old World wines. The bar, staffed by the affable Pablo Cerna, is stocked with local beers, fabulous Velez coffee and a range of liquors; the house cocktail, or 'Mashpirinha', features local sugar cane-based firewater.
Manager Roberto Mora insists Mashpi is, despite appearances, a lodge because 'there are no grand rooms, no televisions, no big swimming pool'. The hotel boasts a library, and a large-screen digital television is used for nature lectures by a full-time biologist who tracks ocelots and anteaters and keeps records of all bird species. A massage room and spa with jacuzzi are available for those who fancy a spot of pampering after their jungle exertions.
Mashpi Lodge's 1,052-hectare site - which forms part of the biodiversity hot spot of the Choco-Darien region that stretches from Panama to southern Ecuador - has been declared a private, protected reserve by the government.
Activities include walks down to a beautiful waterfall and to the estate's hummingbird theatre and butterfly sanctuary. Birdwatchers are entertained by early morning twitching sessions on the hotel terrace.
A Heath Robinson-style bike-on-a-zip-line contraption has already been erected for those who want to cycle across the canopy, and a cable car will be open by the autumn.
But the challenge for all who make the journey to this remote lodge is to leave the building; the temptation will always be to have another Mashpirinha, another soak in the jacuzzi and another dish of ceviche.
A four-night stay at Mashpi Lodge from Quito costs from HK$10,100 per person including accommodation, return transfers, full board and guided excursions, rubber boots and a rain poncho.
Suggested extensions: Quito and the Galapagos Islands.