The Ecuadorian Mashpi bioreserve reconciles luxury ecotourism, natural conservation and local ecology. An exemplary project in an extraordinary location. Makery went on site.
Quito, special report (words and photos)
“Everything changes with altitude,” says Marc Bery, manager of Mashpi Lodge, a luxury hotel isolated in the middle of the rainforest on the west side of the Andes, 100km northwest of Quito. “In Ecuador, altitude is everything.”
While Mashpi Lodge is situated at 950m above sea level, the private bioreserve of 1300 hectares within the Chocó forest that surrounds it includes altitudes that vary between 550m and 1400m. Moreover, the tropical forest is situated at the confluence of a warm marine current just above the equator, which guarantees lots of rain all year round. This unique topography creates microclimates and microhabitats that are exceptionally rich in biodiversity.
The Mashpi reserve also covers the transition zone between the coastal rainforest and the highland cloud forest—an ecotone that swarms with endemic species: 25% of plants and 13% of animals, including 60% of amphibians.
From the fungal florest floor and the shaded understory to the towering magnolias of the canopy and the clouds that hover above them, the tropical forest is home to myriad species of flora and fauna: 180 species of vascular plants (endemic Mashpi Magnolia, orchids, ferns, cecropia, bromeliads…), 400 birds (endemic Chocó Toucan, Cock-of-the-Rock, 35 species of hummingbirds…), 300 butterflies and moths, 200 amphibians (endemic Mashpi Torrenteer Frog…), 120 reptiles and hundreds of invertebrates. Among the 165 species of mammals: howler monkeys, tayras, agoutis, coatis, giant anteaters, armadillos, tapirs, peccaries, pumas, ocelots, tigrillos…
But don’t expect to see a feline during your stay. Their existence in Mashpi is witnessed primarily by the 18 camera traps that are strategically hidden in the forest, often capturing the shy nocturnal animals in infrared light. These night sentinels also remind us of all the invisible creatures that live beneath the surface of the canopy, and indeed of the multitude of living species that inhabit the Earth, of which humans have only discovered an infinite fraction.
From exploitation to conservation
If so many animals and plants still survive in the Chocó forest, it’s largely thanks to the personal commitment and private initiative of two Ecuadorians: Fernando Timpe, former logger turned ardent defender of the forest in which he has been working for the past several decades; and Roque Sevilla, former mayor of Quito, former president of Fundación Natura, visionary businessman and ecologist.
Up until the 1990s, the Chocó forest was dominated by the sound of chainsaws. Very rapidly, the region was decimated and devastated by logging, agriculture, gold mining, hunting and fishing. In this fragile and continuously threatened habitat, 95% of its ecosystem had already been destroyed. But nature cannot be preserved without human cooperation.
In 1997, Fernando Timpe found a land for sale in the south of the forest, particularly rich in biodiversity. He persistently tried to convince the municipal, provincial and national authorities to declare it a protected zone… in vain.
Finally in 2001, Roque Sevilla, who shared his dream of preserving what was left of the Chocó forest, especially the 70% of primary forest growing on this land, teamed up with Timpe to purchase the land and transform it into a private bioreserve. In 2002, the property was registered as the Mashpi Reserve.
The two men continued to explain in the villages that their goal was to end deforestation, reduce agriculture and prohibit hunting in order to preserve the natural forest. Where the old sawmill was located on the land, they set up a camp and guided people through the wild forest, pointing out the natural riches of the environment.
But the villagers still didn’t understand why they shouldn’t continue to develop agriculture and the local industries that had supported their families for generations. Poachers, smugglers and other malevolent squatters repeatedly attempted to sabotage their project, even as the authorities ruled against them.
By that time, Sevilla, also chairman of a large tourism operator in Ecuador, had already gotten approval for his proposal to ensure Mashpi’s sustainability: building a luxury hotel in the middle of the rainforest. This would allow people from around the world to discover this hotspot of biodiversity, while employing local people from the villages and the region to provide the various services of the hotel. The basic idea was to replace the exploitation of the forest with its conservation, at the local and communal levels.
Beginning in 2006, the hotel was constructed on the same cleared site of the old sawmill, without cutting down a single tree in Chocó, and with the participation of neighboring communities. Everyone wanted a part in the new local tourist industry that was developing around the hotel.
In 2010, Carlos Morochz, a young biology graduate from San Francisco University in Quito, proposed to scour the bioreserve in depth, sleeping in his boots, clearing paths for the future visitors and meticulously identifying and documenting all the different animals and plants, native and endemic, that live in Mashpi. (It was Carlos who set up the network of camera traps, as well as the Butterfly House, which is maintained by people from nearby villages.)
In 2012, Mashpi Lodge finally opened to the general public.
Immersion and oasis
Today, the hotel hosts about 2,200 visitors each year in 23 luxury rooms with an immediate view of the tropical rainforest, gourmet meals prepared by an Ecuadorian chef, nature activities morning, afternoon and evening, and since 2017, a wellness center with jacuzzi and massages.
Recycling is mandatory, fresh water from local rivers is filtered on site for drinking, rainwater is harvested and the entire hotel operates on hydroelectricity. The large windows are installed at an angle so that birds don’t crash into them. The animals that had stayed away during the construction period of the hotel have returned to the grounds, without fear.
In 2018, Mashpi Lodge joined the elite list of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World:
Around 75% of Mashpi’s staff come from the neighboring communities, often members of the same family of former loggers, farmers, miners or hunters. They work in the kitchen and serve the meals, they maintain the grounds and clean the rooms, they welcome guests at the reception and ensure their comfort throughout their stay. Regional farmers are the primary providers of the food products served by the hotel. As a bonus, each employee of Mashpi is also a stockholder of the company.
As for the indispensable naturalist guides (so far all men), many are self-taught by their own enthusiasm to know all about the bioreserve: José, a native of Chocó since the age of 12 who has worked in all aspects of the forest, who knows its every nook and cranny and is now proud to lead others in appreciating its richness; Fernando, Anderson, Bryan… They are the ones who guide us through the canopy, identify the species, shine the flashlight on the frog during the night hike or focus the telescope on the trogon for a smartphone photo portrait.
If most Ecuadorians have never set foot in the Galápagos Islands, the same is unfortunately true for Mashpi. Already, the bumpy and winding road to Mashpi (almost 4 hours’ drive from Quito) is not for the faint-hearted (although ginger candy can help with motion sickness). But while international, South American and Ecuadorian ecotourist dollars are primarily what sustain this holistic conservation project, Mashpi owes its success to the active participation of all the Ecuadorians who work there—from the resident biologist and the on-site doctor to the other employees of the hotel, former deforesters from the villages who come with a transformed vision of the Chocó forest.
Arriving at Mashpi Lodge, after a long drive through the jungle, I was immediately struck by its luxurious interior. Gazing out through its glass windows, I had the surreal sensation of being simultaneously isolated from the tropical forest and completely immersed in it. The grand spectacle of living nature, without the humidity and the mosquitoes. Luxury ecotourism, without the exploitation and the voyeurism. Shared appreciation of the living ecosystems that surround us, without the laboratory and the academics.
For every time you step outside into the rainforest, you will be sure to wear your rubber boots. The guided explorations through the cloud forest, walks along the river or swimming under waterfalls are all accessible ways for those who might otherwise not be keen on camping to directly experience the tropical rainforest. Experience creates empathy, and empathy is the first step toward taking action.
All activities offer a privileged view of native wildlife within the Mashpi reserve, either up close (several endemic species of hummingbirds hovering around nectar prepared at an altitude of 1281m, tayras, agoutis, tanagers and other birds nibbling on bananas, butterflies and orchids raised at the Life Center, magnolias and epiphytes within reach of the Sky Bike…) or high in the air from the famous Dragonfly, during a spectacularly serene 2km ride above the rivers and canopy (bromeliads, miconias, palms…) of Mashpi in the Chocó forest.
Next stage: to expand the protected zone… What if it extended all the way to the Amazonian rainforest?
More information on Mashpi Lodge.