Pull on your wellies for a walk deep into a rainforest, offering a glimpse of mysterious creatures emerging from elaborate foliage and swirling mists
Jungle music is playing 1,200m up in the Choco-Andean cloud forest. Rolling thunder sets the bassline. Pelting gobs of rain increase the rhythm, splashing against creepers, tree ferns and thick, languid arms of moss. The chirruping of insects hurtles wildly up and down in pitch and pace. And then, once the squelch of boots against red mud comes to a halt, the air fills with an unfamiliar whirring.
‘White-whiskered hermit,’ whispers guide José Napa. ‘Violet-tailed sylph’, he says, more excitedly. ‘Hmmm, brown Inca. Purple-bibbed whitetip! Empress brilliant!’
José is now surrounded by an emerald, ruby and sapphire blur of hummingbirds, together rising boldly from the mists to approach the feeder he has just topped up with sugar syrup. A pecking order is quickly established, literally with a nip to the head for a bee-sized green thorntail that tries to push before a larger cousin. ‘They are so aggressive because they need to feed constantly,’ says José. ‘They have such a high metabolism, and the flowers they prefer to feed from can be surprisingly scarce in the forest.’ One proves its eagerness by hovering within a couple of centimetres of a floral pattern on a T-shirt, taking a close look on the off-chance.
Alongside the Amazon, the Choco is Ecuador’s other form of rainforest, watered by up to 6m of rainfall each year as clouds barrel off the Pacific and break against the lower slopes of the Andes. It is one of the dampest and most biodiverse environments on Earth, one threatened by the pollution of waterways, slash-and-bum farming and illegal logging.
José used to be a subsistence farmer, growing peanuts, cassava and bananas. He then joined the logging trade. Fourteen years ago a private lodge was built on the site of the local sawmill, so Jose came to work here instead. This became an eco-hotel, Mashpi, sitting in a 1,200 hectare wildlife reserve where once there was a logging concession.
The reserve is set within a 17,000 hectare buffer zone for sustainable development, aimed at offering animals the corridors to migrate between pockets of rainforest.
José has an intimate knowledge of this forest that comes from having spent much of his life wandering through it. He predicts the clattering rush of a rufous-breasted wood quail by the slightest rustle of a leaf in the undergrowth. He reveals a glade beneath a fast-tumbling waterfall where fireflies like to gather at night. He points to a fruit loved by Choco toucans – one that sends them a little high – and a fungus known as dead man’s fingers, that can be snapped open to release an antibiotic ointment used by local people as a cure for infected eyes. At a vantage point looking across a valley, with mists hanging low, José makes a whooping call, and from far away comes the response. ‘Howler monkeys’, he says.
Teams of scientists are now permanently based in Mashpi’s reserve, researching its many butterfly species, planning to reintroduce critically endangered brown-headed spider monkeys, and using camera traps to film the mammals that stay so well hidden in the dense forest. Recent footage shows just how close a guest came to a rare encounter. First it reveals the man out for a casual morning stroll, minutes from the lodge. Unbeknown to him, a predator’s eyes are watching – soon after, a large, inquisitive male puma stalks close behind.
Prepare for a dramatic change of scenery and climate as you drive much higher into the Andes, passing indigenous farming communities. After 5 hours and 140 miles you’ll approach Otavalo.
The contemporary rooms at Mashpi Lodge overlook the jungle canopy. Be sure to climb the lodge’s observation tower and ride a ‘sky bike’ hung from cables 60m up in the trees (from US$1160, incl full board and guide services for two).
Nearby Bellavista Lodge offers a good range of tours and more rustic, affordable accommodation options (dorm bed in research station from US$21pp, double private room from US$131).