Even the tarantulas are enchanting under the protected trees one man’s foresight has saved from the loggers, writes Lydia Jenkin.

It's a little after 10pm, and I'm standing somewhere in the middle of the Andean cloud forest in the Choco region of northern Ecuador, with six others. It's completely dark, and we're on a guided exploration of the bush, seeking the more creepy and shy inhabitants of this extraordinary 1300ha reserve.

We're all carrying small torches, but for the moment they're off, as our guide Juan Carlos encourages us to spend a few moments letting our eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, and discover the hidden treasures.

First there are the fireflies, darting lightly. Then the moss, which glows in the dark, comes into focus. Then we notice the tiny frogs: a luminous pale blue-green and making an amazing amount of noise for such tiny creatures. And finally Juan Carlos points out the shining blue hairs on the legs of a tarantula.

Don't get me wrong, I'm more than happy that the tarantulas and wolf spiders aren't running towards me, and their presence gives me the occasional shiver, but this night-time walk through the Choco forest is a revelation. The bush teems with life, and it's a privilege to see all these creatures going about their business as if we weren't there at all.


That's the beauty of Mashpi, the wondrous five-star lodge and research centre in the midst of these many steep, lush slopes and mountains - it's as much about conservation as it is about tourism.

The researchers tread very lightly on their surrounding environment, leaving the trees, birds, butterflies, frogs, lizards, puma, agouti, and ocelots completely undisturbed, while allowing visitors to explore and learn about this diverse biological hotspot with great ease and luxury.

Mashpi's creation is a great story, which starts with Roque Sevilla, an ex-mayor of Ecuador's capital city, Quito. In 2001, when this man with a colourful life and a soft spot for conservation heard that deforestation was threatening some of his favourite orchid species, he decided to buy land in the Choco region, which eventually came to total 1300ha, of which 80 per cent is virgin forest and home to 70 endemic species, along with more than 500 species of birds, plus many many amphibians, reptiles, and insects, so it's a small miracle that Sevilla bought up the land before it was ruined.

It's equally pleasing that he's making the greatest efforts to leave it exactly as it is, while making it accessible for researchers and a few lucky guests, plus employing locals.

It feels like an incredible blessing to be allowed to stay in this modern yet restive building, which was constructed on the site of an old sawmill, and was completed without the removal of a single tree.

There are floor-to-ceiling windows pretty much around the entire building - every one of the 22 superb guest suites, along with the dining room, lecture lounge, reception, spa, and general viewing area, have an unimpeded view right into the heart of the forest.

It feels like you're in a giant luxurious treehouse - one where you are served fresh and colourful local cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Plantain chips, wonderful herbaceous salads, delicious cheese, tropical smoothies, and ceviche so good it borders on addictive, are among the offerings.

You're also warmly greeted with a hot towel and a chilled fresh fruit juice every time you return from an excursion - and plenty of those are on offer.

There's the trip to check out the observation tower, which rises 30m and 162 steps to the top, and gives you a remarkable view of the rolling hills. And check out the sky bike, which provides a unique view of the layered canopy, as you pedal across a 200m cable, the forest rising around you, and a river bubbling far below.

The cloud forest is at higher altitude than the rainforest, and therefore less hot and humid, but striding round the reserve is still a sweaty activity, so heading down to the stunning Cucharillos waterfall for a dip is another highlight of the trip. It's crystal-clear, and the sensation of sinking into a pool in the midst of such wilderness is a joyful feeling, as is darting back and forwards underneath the curtains of water leaping down around us.

Then there is the indulgent delight of having wine and antipasto platters served in a spot specifically chosen for its excellent hummingbird viewing.

Feeding stations are set up to attract the astounding wee creatures, who make an impressive amount of noise with their wings, and flit about, lightning fast, a blur of bright hues, and elegant tails. There are 33 hummingbird species in the Mashpi area, and trying to accurately capture any of them with a camera becomes a jovially competitive activity for the afternoon.

There's more birdwatching opportunities back at the lodge one morning, when we're served hot drinks and breakfast cookies on the roof, checking out flycatchers, toucans, and tanagers under the helpful and informative guidance of Juan Carlos and Paul, as the dawn breaks.

Another morning we're down at the Life Centre, which is a key spot for butterfly research, and has a wondrous butterfly enclosure where you can just sit and observe, or sprinkle a little sugar water on your hands and become a new favourite perching place for the multi-coloured, winged beauties.

We're served breakfast on a large balcony area, watching the clouds slowly roll up their tendrils and drift away and enjoying the occasional winged visitor as we excitedly chat about which birds we've spotted and revel in the scenery.

It feels surreal at times to be so cocooned in nature but it's a destination that perfectly balances the active with the restful, leaving you feeling healthy, refreshed, educated, challenged, and pampered - the perfect holiday, in my mind.



LAN Chile flies daily from Auckland to Santiago with Economy Class return fares from $2499. From there you fly to Ecuador's capital city Quito, and transfer to Mashpi, which is about 110km from Quito, on the western slope of the Andes. lan.com

Mashpi Lodge offers all-inclusive two-night or three-night stays. mashpilodge.com