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

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By JULIET NI­COL­SON

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

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