Getting up close to conservation in Ecuador’s Chocó rainforest

In the Ecuadorian Chocó, one eco-tourism venture has preserved a swathe of rainforest as a private nature reserve.

By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 27 Jul 2019, 08:00 BST
Mashpi Lodge & Choco Cloud Forest
Mashpi Lodge & Choco Cloud Forest
Photograph by Mashpi Lodge

The cloud forest is coy, revealing shape and substance in stills. Clouds pool in the valley like milk in a bowl. But this is a place of metamorphosis. Seconds later, a new picture — the slide projector throws up intense green, a canopy stretching in wild waves across the foothills of the Andes, patches blazing in streaks of sun.

“This is one of the few places where we still have this kind of forest,” explains Juan Carlos, a naturalist guide at eco-luxe Mashpi Lodge, set in the Ecuadorian Chocó. “We had around 20% of the Chocó rainforest remaining in 1998,” he continues. “Now we have just 2%.” But this lodge — one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection — is clued-up on conservation. It was built in 2001 on the site of a former sawmill after Roque Sevilla (Quito’s former mayor) bought a swathe of forest almost lost to logging. 

“Mashpi is a private reserve,” says Juan Carlos. “We own around 1,500 hectares. But we’re buying more land — we have 1,500 more hectares to add. And the lodge is located in the very heart of the reserve, in the place where the tropical rainforest and the cloud forest meet.” There are five-star frills, but it’s also a research station and conservation pioneer.

My group are tackling the Magnolia hike, one of many trails that lace through the reserve. The route steeply dips into dense jungle via a collection of colourful plastic crates, a Mario Kart-style rainbow runway. Ravaged by rain, mud is abundant around Mashpi. We clop down in wellies, stopping to soak up the scene: a team of toucans squawk overhead and moss multiplies, dramatically dripping from branches, roots and verges in cumbersome clumps.

“It’s the main characteristic of the cloud forest,” our guide, Lizardo, explains. “It doesn’t need wind to pollinate and it keeps a lot of water — it’s like a sponge, so the tree has water. That’s why we don’t have giant trees. They fall down because the moss is so heavy.” However, there seems to be one towering tree. “Look,” says Lizardo, pointing. “The Mashpi magnolia.” This species, discovered in 2014, is endemic to this reserve — a highlands resident with spoon-shaped white flowers. 

Descending through mud and muck, lichen and liverwort, Lizardo points out the diversity of life here: flowers flourish in orange, pink and purple; rainfrogs croak beneath elephant ear leaves; and a moss-backed tanager takes off from its camouflaged backdrop. “In one hectare, you can find over 150 species of endemic plant,” says Lizardo. “That’s why this place is considered a biodiversity hotspot. In the world, there are 35, but in Ecuador we have two of them.”

Sunshine pierces the canopy in slats, falling like light through a medina. And as my legs start to tremble, Lizardo smiles. “We’re getting close,” he says. “I can hear the waterfall.” Magnolia Falls is a roaring — impressive not for its height, but its force, plummeting into a shallow pool below. Feeling the mid-hike heat, I head in, bracing for the violent shower.

I towel off. “At one point, everybody is going to be wet,” laughs Lizardo. The rest of the hike is through the Laguna River, whose entrance is marked with stone cairns. “This is a tradition of the Mayas,” says Lizardo. “They do this when they get fish or drink the water of the stream. It’s one of the ways to say thank you.”

Against the current, we wade, as if walking through jelly, but it’s not long before my boots are buckets of water. Plants languidly dip leaves into the burnt-orange stream, and palm creepers edge close to the banks. “In this dense forest, it’s always a struggle to find sunlight,” says Lizardo. 

But we’re about to find it — above the canopy. The final leg of the excursion takes us high over the cloud forest on the mile-long Dragonfly cable-car. We climb to a small platform and wait for our carriage to arrive. “Vamanos,” says Lizardo, and we climb aboard the four-seater sky box. “Over there is the rainforest,” he adds, pointing. This flatter, lower area is pockmarked with palms. “And there is the cloud forest.” Above around 2,000ft, the landscape rises steeply in curves, swirling in mist and silver cecropia trees. “It’s because of the elevation,” says Lizardo. “Different ecosystem.”

Waterfalls and rivers look minature below, but birds come into focus. There’s the bright yellow ornate flycatcher, maroon-tailed parakeet, slate-throated redstart and a lone hawk. “That’s why some creatures are being shy — on sunny days, hawks are active. They can even handle a monkey,” Lizardo tells me. But butterflies are the star of the show up here, ranging from specks to plus-sized, they paint the monochrome canopy technicolour. As we near the lodge, the wind picks up. And with it, the clouds move in again.

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