Morristown resident Paul Partridge has been building a travel bucket list for years. Now he’s diving in – near and far – and shares his adventures in this column.
Text and photos by Paul Partridge
A late-night flight into Quito makes the Sunday morning drive seem earlier than it is. Highway becomes local road becomes dirt road becomes jungle path enroute to Mashpi Lodge.
Mashpi is a nature-lover’s hideaway deep in Ecuador’s Choco Forest. If you’ve ever thought about visiting a rainforest, but a two-week trek into the Amazon perhaps seems overly ambitious, Mashpi might be the ticket – especially if you favor comfort over camping… enjoy great food… like to avoid crowds (this private resort houses only 47 total guests)… and appreciate making a gentler impact on the environment.
Looking back, I’m still not sure if it was real or a mirage. Our group of four was motoring along for hours, deeper and deeper into the wilderness, and then – suddenly, there it was, like some sort of plush Brigadoon. My first thoughts: “What the…? How in the world…?” Given the location and geographical challenges, its existence seems utterly impossible.
But alas, here it is. And waiting for us at the entrance, smiling broadly, is Santiago, our naturalist guide during our three-day stay. Having the same guide is a treat, because he gets to know your group, your pace, your interests, etc., and then tailors activities accordingly. Santiago is a rainforest encyclopedia. He can spot, identify, name and wax poetic about any plant animal, insect, tree, fungus, bird, reptile, stream, or river we encounter.
A call echoes through the forest. “What kind of bird is that?” I ask.
“Actually, it’s a frog,” says Santiago.
Ok, I may be from Jersey, but to be fair, that was no ‘ribbit’ or ‘croak.’ That frog could win the national bird calling contest. Just the first of many surprises.
Staying at Mashpi feels like living in a large, fancy tree house. Floor-to-ceiling windows make you feel totally immersed in your surroundings. Right outside your window are 400 species of birds, trees, frogs, monkeys, and endemic species found nowhere else in the world.
Day 1: The Incredible Glass Frog
A quick lunch and we’re off into the forest, spotting Toucans, tayras, a tarantula, a giant snail, and hundreds of beautiful, exotic butterflies. Santiago informs us that the tayra is one of only three creatures on earth that thinks ahead, the other two being octopi and humans (females, mostly).
After sunset Santiago takes us on an unforgettable night walk using flashlights and headlamps. We’re stalking the rare transparent glass frog. Within 10 minutes Santiago has found one. It’s a great find, especially since glass frogs are the size of a thumbnail and blend into their environment. Santiago also points out assorted spiders, crickets, bats, and a formidable praying mantis.
A female praying mantis eats the male after mating – especially the head because they desire the brain protein. We’re told of one jungle species where the male has evolved a second brain in his chest. This way he can procreate and survive the beheading. I imagine this must confuse females on praying mantis dating sites. “Wait, didn’t I just eat you last week?”
Day 2: Cooling off in a Waterfall
The trail drops steeply from the lodge to the Laguna River below. At times we walk alongside the river, other times we wade right in (rubber boots are provided by the lodge). Down and down we go. Our reward is Magnolia Waterfall, and we’re invited to swim in its pool. This is one of those pinch-yourself moments. The staggering beauty and serenity leave a mark.
Eventually we must hike back. Note to self: walking down is easier than walking up. As we huff and puff, Santiago mentions that there’s a lunar eclipse tonight. It feels like we’re hiking up to it to see it in person.
Mashpi is home to over 30 species of hummingbirds, and in the afternoon, we see many of them at the Hummingbird Garden. Colorful, playful, and mesmerizing to watch, the hummingbirds dart and flitter all around us.
One might not expect to eat well in the middle of the rainforest. At Mashpi, every entre and appetizer is meticulously prepared. And the natural fruit juice concoctions alone are worth the trip (you had me at passion fruit lemonade).
Day 3: A Birds-eye View of the Forest
The highlight of the morning is a ride on the Sky Bike. Sky Bike is a two-person gondola that stretches 655 feet across the jungle canopy. Think of it as your average, everyday bicycle built for two – if you happen to grow up a member of the Flying Wallendas. The Sky Bike sits on a tight rope. The front person enjoys the view; the back person is the engine. Once you reach the other side, switch positions and pedal back.
At home I won’t even go on a step ladder due to severe height aversion. Somehow, this seems doable. As we pedal and backpedal over the treetops, my adrenaline is flowing and I’m shouting, “Isn’t this amazing?” My wife wants to know, “Who are you and what have you done with my husband?”
Mashpi offers another way to float in the clouds called the DragonFly. This is a one-hour ride in an open-air gondola that holds four persons and rises more than 200 feet above the ground. Jaw-dropping views, no pedaling required.
In the afternoon, a transfer returns us to Quito and to pass the time I make up some rainforest awards.
Best Insect Name: Jesus Spider (because it walks on water).
Amazing Flower Fact: There are 4,000 different varieties of orchids in the cloud forest.
Most Interesting Tree: Walking Palm. Its roots grow above ground and serve as “legs.” When the tree doesn’t get enough sunlight, it grows new roots in the direction of the sun and moves in that direction, thus “walking.” Walking palms can supposedly move up to 20 meters in one year. I found this hard to believe until I saw a walking palm wearing a Fitbit.
Quito hotel: www.casagangotena.com/
Mashpi Lodge: www.mashpilodge.com
Transportation and Transfers: www.metropolitan-touring.com