CLOUD NINE A memorable journey from mountain to forest in Ecuador
An Ecuadorian odyssey, from the heights of Quito in the Andes to a bird’s-eye view of the rainforests
On my return home from Ecuador I wondered if I should attribute the unsteadiness on my feet to jet-lag or the delayed effects of altitude sickness. Or was this strange instability due instead to exchanging the marvellous for the mundane, the heavenly for the humdrum? Ecuador straddles the imaginary line that cuts through the centre of the Earth dividing the Northern Hemisphere from the Southern, the line to which the country owes its name. With the Andes mountain range running through the heart of it, the Pacific Ocean bordering its western coastline and the Amazon rainforest lying along the eastern boundary, it is a land of intense, diverse and astonishing beauty.
In Quito, the Ecuadorian capital high in the Andes, the elements matter. Ringed by the threat of volcanic fire, it sits more than 9,000 feet above sea level, the thin air rendering some a little breathless. Invest in a magnesium bracelet, drink a cup of wondrously stabilising coca tea and set out into the Sunday scene of this long valley-strung city. Everywhere Quito erupts, if not with flame, then with life. Women traders from the countryside in velvet skirts and distinctive homburg hats, weighed down by brilliant garlands of limes, are almost invisible behind mounds of homegrown avocados. Moustachioed men are browning bananas and smoking fish on open grills, peddling dragon fruit, Peppa Pig T-shirts, blankets embroidered with llamas, panama hats and huge creamy pastries; kittens nestle inside their woollen jackets.
Quito is an unequivocally Catholic city, wrestled from the Incas by the Spanish in 1534, and packed with meringue-white monasteries, shaded-courtyard convents and a sensational gold-leafed Jesuit church. A backstreet workshop is devoted to mending religious icons, a china surgery where amputated ceramic limbs are reunited with their saviour, a porcelain hand dripping with scarlet-painted stigmata sprawling unattached on the bench. In a painting of the Last Supper in the cathedral, built low for fear of earthquakes, Jesus is served a challengingly furry roast guinea pig, the Andean speciality, while the disciples make do with local corn bread. Poised on a towering hill above the city, a winged aluminium Madonna 150-feet tall bestows her pervasive maternal presence on the citizens below.
In Plaza de San Francisco, in front of one of Ecuador’s oldest churches, a crowd is foottapping and hip-swaying to a local band as two women in gaily embroidered blouses, their eyelids bright-shadowed in cornflower blue, swirl their skirts and twirl their sombreros to the sound of the music. This is a city rich in glorious baroque mansions. The cool marble entrance to Quito’s loveliest hotel sits in one corner of the square; Casa Gangotena retains the luxuriant atmosphere of a belle époque family house. The light-flooded drawing-room is gardenabundant with splashes of orange lilies, waxwork-perfect orchids and pots of luxuriant ferns. You are greeted and treated as a treasured member of the Gangotena family. Nothing is too much trouble: wet clothes are dried in a jiffy, ginger tea produced unprompted in a twinkling for the travel-worn. From the private roof terrace of a dreamily stylish bedroom, a panorama of spires, bell towers and domes poke up through a riot of purple bougainvillea.
Three hours drive from Quito in the heart of the South American cloud forest, one of the rainiest places in the world, lies Mashpi. Half visible through an ethereal, coiling, curling cloud-mist that floats through the valleys as seductively as Salome’s veils, it is one of the most exciting eco-lodges in the world. Due to rapacious deforestation and the avarice of man, the extent of the previously vast areas of primary tree cover and its incumbent wildlife are being eroded to near-extinction. In 2001, Roque Sevilla, a former mayor of Quito, began buying 3,000 acres of the forest, offering salvation to the thousands of endemic species of animal, insect, bird and plant life, and, in founding the lodge, provided a livelihood for the oncestruggling local community. Under Sevilla’s guidance and a team of world-class botanists, the villagers are now an essential part of the project to save this precious environment. The dramatic glass-walled lodge reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright is full-on super-luxe. A cross between a deceptively minimalist hotel (complete with sensational bedrooms) and a top university campus, it is a place where guests can sip a blackberry daiquiri while attending an evening talk on the salvation of a rare species of wasp or the nocturnal habits of the transparent frog.
In tandem with the preservation programme, guests are treated as promising and attentive students, the atmosphere of academia extending a flattering and irresistible invitation to become a valuable participant in this great eco operation. Kitted out with wellingtons and a walking stick, we join Manolo and José, our two local guides who have lived here all their lives. We move to the rhythm of the day, joining the birds on the roof terrace at dawn, thrilled by the orangebreasted fruit-eater and the rose-faced parrot, before setting out to explore the ancient forest.
Having swung from vines hanging from hundred-foot-high trees and been pummelled under the power of one of Mashpi’s 40 waterfalls, we walk the pebbly floor of the Lagoon River, water splashing over the rim of our boots, rivulets running down the back of our necks. I have never been so happy to be so wet. Woods planted seven centuries earlier are visible from the top of the observation tower high above the leaf canopy. Experiencing the best work-out for legs, 250 feet over the treetops on a sky bike made for two, we brush the tangled yellowy-grey dreadlocks of moss looped around the branches. Ours is an authentic bird’s-eye view of the forest floor, testing for agoraphobics and enthralling for birdlife.
Mashpi nurtures 400 species of bird, and 1,750 varieties of moth and butterfly. Travelling on the vertiginous Dragonfly cable car, we see a rare black squirrel race up a tree; a hummingbird sits on its nest at our eye level and, as dusk falls, a venomous spider gleams in the light of the night torch. Finally we emerge in a fairy-tale clearing where, spied on by a sinister-looking weasel, emerald-backed hummingbirds hover, sipping sugar water from a Thumbelina glass beside us. Their super-jet wings are so close that our eyelashes flicker with the movement. José once occupied the farm where the hummingbird colony now gathers, and where, before Sevilla’s arrival, he had once debated whether he or his cow was more deserving of food rations. ‘Can you describe Mashpi in one word?’ I asked him. ‘Mágico,’ he replied, grinning. He might just as well have been describing Ecuador itself, this spellbinding country that brims with enchantment.
Iberia (www.iberia.com) flies daily from London to Quito via Madrid. Casa Gangotena, from about £305 a room a night (www.casagangotena. com). Mashpi Lodge, from about £1,030 a room a night all-inclusive (www.mashpilodge.com).
Below: a bedroom at Casa Gangotena, centre. Bottom: the Mashpi cloud forest
The Basilica del Voto Nacional inQuito. Above: the foothills of theAndes. Below: the Quito skyline
The Amazon rainforest inEcuador