June 5 (Bloomberg) -- Hiking the rainforest in northwest Ecuador, an area packed with some of the world’s highest concentrations of plant and animal life in the world, I’m wondering if there are any dangerous creatures on the trail, poisonous snakes perhaps.
“The biggest threat here is something falling on your head,” says David Yunes, the guide for our small group.
It’s true. We hear frequent cracking sounds coming from the treetops, followed by the tumbling whoosh of a piece of the forest, dropping out of the canopy. Before the day is over, a 50-foot cecropia will crash down the steep hillside just next to the trail, instigating a minor mudslide.
The 2,600-acre Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Preserve and Lodge, the brainchild of former Quito Mayor Roque Sevilla, is part of a movement to save the rainforest by restricting its exploitation to a single use, ecotourism. Sevilla hopes to protect the forest and convert visitors into ardent conservationists.
Mashpi is within the Tumbez-Choco-Darien region, a “biodiversity hot spot,” which is broadly defined as an area rich in species diversity but under threat. The conservation effort here has particular resonance, since the land was not that long ago the site of a logging operation.
“You’d think the first ones to get here would be biologists or other scientists,” Yunes says, as we slog through a landscape dense with life. “But no, it was a logging company.”
That was 20 years ago, and the scars left by the industry are disappearing under the relentless growth of trees and other flora.
Gigantic tree ferns and enormous elephant-ear plants give the place a Jurassic look. Palm trees with external stilt-like root systems are believed, apocryphally, to “walk” toward rare patches of sunlight on the forest floor. A “strangler fig” tree has enveloped its neighbor in an arboreal death grip.
The fauna is no less wondrous. Yunes plucks a thick brown millipede off a leaf to demonstrate its defense mechanism. He blows on the bug in his cupped hands, inspiring the creature to emit a small blast of cyanide, which smells a bit like almond and skunk.
The traveler who braves these elements will find surprisingly luxurious accommodations at the just-opened Mashpi Lodge, situated atop these Andean foothills amid a cloud forest. It is a comfort to know you can pull off your muddied gumboots at the end of the day and soak in a jacuzzi, get a massage or tuck into first-class cuisine.
The lodge overlooks a rainforest valley. Rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows to put guests seemingly in the trees. Watching me from his perch just a few feet away, I observe a brilliant collared trogon, one of the 280 bird species found in Mashpi.
Plunking posh accommodations in the middle of a rainforest presents some obvious environmental challenges. Trash (including pointless waste like plastic water bottles) has to be trucked out and disposed of in Quito. Electricity is produced by a humming diesel generator, though there are plans to replace it with a small hydrological dam powered by a hillside river.
The lodge is otherwise mostly sensitive to the environment. One of the main attractions will be a 1.3-mile aerial tram over the forest. It’s expected to be running by September, but construction has been slow as the builders tiptoe between the wildlife to minimize their impact on the habitat.
Not all the locals were enamored of the resort and its tram.
“There was one guy who didn’t like what we are doing here,” says Yunes. “One of the neighbors who lives next door to the preserve. So when the cable first went up, he cut it. He went up and actually cut it.”
The neighbor, one of the squatters who had established property rights in the area, eventually came to an arrangement with the lodge. Metropolitan Touring, which owns the lodge and the land, says it will include nearby community members as shareholders in the reserve, and that at least 80 percent of its employees will be local residents.
The outreach extends to the village of Mashpi, which supplies much of the produce for lodge’s kitchen, something that helps out the community and reduces the lodge’s carbon footprint. So far, this small piece of the Andean rainforest is evidence that there is life after logging, and it is good.
Rates at the Mashpi Lodge start at $1,296 a person for 3 days/2 nights, including all meals, guided excursions and transportation to and from Quito, a 2 1/2-hour drive.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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