Mashpi Eco Lodge, Ecuador review: Luxury in the middle of nowhere

Once the road truly disappears and becomes a muddy track on the edge of a steep cliff, I start wondering: "Just where the hell are you taking me?"

I'd heard that my destination, Mashpi Lodge in the Ecuadorian "cloud forest", was a luxurious place to stay, but the bumpy, muddy track we're slowly traversing is making me have second thoughts.

We arrive at a gate, where an attendant comes out and speaks to my guide before radioing ahead to the lodge. He has to tell them not to let anyone drive up from the lodge while we come down – the track is only wide enough for one vehicle from here on in.

The journey takes three hours from the capital, Quito, and the terrain has completely transformed from the mountainous, treeless, rocky spaces of central Ecuador to become green and lush as we descend and get closer to the coast.

That said, we're still well above sea level, though the cool air of the mountains has given way to a more tropical warmth.

The last stretch – especially after passing through the gate – feels like driving into Jurassic Park, albeit an unfinished version. But then the road widens up and becomes gravel and we find ourselves in front of the resort.

I'm amazed. Despite the difficulty reaching this place and its distance from anywhere resembling civilisation, I'm greeted by a large, modern building that looks more like something you'd find in the middle of a city than surrounded by a lush forest.

I'm given a welcome drink and ushered into the lobby, where I'm even more impressed. The space, with its sleek, modern design – all white walls and glass – makes me feel like I've just stepped into an art gallery. It's a far cry from what I expected on that bumpy road.

Beyond the lobby, the open-plan building expands to overlook the restaurant – a large space adjacent to a floor-to-ceiling, two-storey glass wall, offering spectacular views out into the forest.

The lodge features just 22 rooms and was largely constructed in Quito before being moved to the forest, piece by piece, to minimise impact on the environment.

I'm equally impressed by my room. Bright and modern, the space is large and features two comfortable beds and a gorgeous bathroom. There's no TV, but why would you want one here? The room features a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the forest, and I find myself wondering whether at some point a T-Rex will break through the giant ferns and peer in at me.

But relaxing in luxury is not really why we're here. Mashpi Lodge is located in forest renowned for its biodiversity – it is a birdwatcher's paradise, though there are plenty of other animals here too. The lodge has been home to a resident biologist since 2010 and the scientific research done over that time has, among other things, discovered several new species of tree frogs.

The "cloud forest" (or Choco, as it is known locally) name comes from its elevation – though similar to a rainforest in climate, we're high enough that the region is often covered by low cloud, particularly in the mornings.

The lodge is all inclusive, so your meals and activities are taken care of. You can choose exactly what you want to do, with two and three-night packages. With most activities, you are accompanied by the lodge's own guides, who are extremely knowledgeable about the environment surrounding the property.

They're also incredibly good at spotting animals. On our first hike they somehow spot and pick up a tiny frog - so small it fits on my fingernail.

We make our way down a steep track where we pass prehistoric-looking ferns and palms, moss-covered logs and hanging vines (the latter strong and thick enough for us to try out our Tarzan-swinging abilities). Huge butterflies flit about, including some incredible species with partially transparent wings – camouflage doesn't come much more effective than that.

Our destination on this hike is a beautiful lagoon and waterfall, where we strip off our sweaty clothes and dive in to cool off. Our guide advises us to try sitting under the falling water for a "massage". I give it a try, though the water hits with far more force, and weight, than a shower. So after a brief pounding I dry off and dress for the return leg.

In the evening we head out on a night tour seeking more wildlife – there are plenty of nocturnal animals here. The local mammals – including pumas–- are scared easily and difficult to spot. We scare easily ourselves when we come across one of the other hairy animals that come out at night – huge, black tarantulas that live in underground burrows during the day but hunt in darkness. Our guides are not afraid of them (they're actually not dangerous, despite their looks) and happily take guests' cameras to snap close-up shots within a few centimetres of the ugly beasts.

We have more close encounters with prettier creatures the next day, where we head to the lodge's hummingbird garden. Small feeders are set up here and dozens of hummingbirds of various sizes and colours zoom around us as they land for a quick taste of the sweet water the feeders provide. The world's tiniest birds are found in abundance in this part of Ecuador, and it's mesmerising to watch them fly about at breakneck speed, their wings beating so fast they sound more like the buzzing of giant bees than birds.

Above ground level, Mashpi Lodge also gives guests the opportunity to experience the cloud forest from above the canopy. A cable car has just opened and the lodge also has a "skybike" – a pedal-powered gondola for two that offers spectacular views of the surrounding area and a real sense of how high the trees here grow.

After each excursion it's back to the lodge for amazing food – breakfast and lunch is a buffet, while dinner offers a selection that changes nightly. As I kick back enjoying my dinner with a glass of scotch in hand, I find it hard to believe I'm deep in a forest, so far from the city, yet not missing a single one of its comforts.

Trip Notes

More information

http://southamericatravelcentre.com.au

traveller.com.au/ecuador

Getting there

LATAM flies from Sydney to Santiago, Chile with connections to Quito, Ecuador. See latam.com/en_au. The South America Travel Centre can arrange transfers to Mashpi Lodge from Quito (about three hours' drive).

Staying there

A stay at Mashpi Lodge starts from US$1460.72 per night twin share, including full board and all activities (except the cable car – $US40). See https://www.mashpilodge.com/en

Touring there

The South America Travel Centre can create tailor-made itineraries, including accommodation, transfers, activities and domestic travel across the continent. See http://southamericatravelcentre.com.au

The writer travelled as a guest of the South America Travel Centre and LATAM Airlines.

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