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Cloud's Illusions: Ecuador

Perspective is a funny thing. The way we look at situations, places and stories dictates our impressions, but that angle can result from fickle factors. I headed into the Ecuadorian cloud forest with trepidation. I’m a city kid—the occasional rooftop cocktail party allows me to commune with nature plenty, thank you. So as I drove deeper into the wilderness toward Mashpi Lodge where I was to meet with the hotel biologists and naturalists to learn about their fascinating projects in the forest, two thoughts went through my head: One, how do I elegantly inform my guide about my debilitating fear of snakes? And two, when is my massage?

I arrived at the lodge in the dark, and when I raised the electric blinds at dawn the next morning, I realized I’d spent the previous eight hours not perched above the forest with great views but actually in the forest. Moths, butterflies and grasshoppers were stuck to the outside of my windows; toucans were casually swooping by; a land-based otter was lazily munching his breakfast of baby bananas a few yards away. As I prepared for the day, I channeled my inner pioneer spirit. This is unspoiled, unchartered territory, I thought to myself. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Steeled, I climbed to the top floor terrace for the day’s first activity—sunrise bird watching. Over coffee I slowly woke up and had a revelation: this was exceedingly pleasant. My assigned naturalist and local guide were introducing me to the forest in a most civilized—and distinctly unterrifying—fashion.

After a delicious breakfast and feeling more confident, I headed back outside, donned rubber boots, applied bug spray, grabbed a walking stick and descended, literally, into the forest. I tromped along, reveling, childlike, in the ability my boots gave me to squish, carefree, through the endless mud and learning about the native flora and fauna. At some point while gazing at dime-sized orchids hanging from trees, learning about the defense system millipedes have evolved and discussing the societal aspects of natives’ use of a contraceptive tea made from fuchsia-colored leaves, I had a realization—this was fabulous. I was having a blast, completely at ease and fascinated.

I had spent the previous days in Quito, Ecuador’s delightful capital, located in a narrow Andean valley at a lofty altitude of 9,350 feet. The Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the 1500s built magnificent cathedrals, created grand cobblestoned courtyards and trained the local Incan tribes in such crafts as woodcarving and gilding. The result is a city of churches, courtyards and beautifully intricate decoration including thousands of roses, whose growth and export represent a $500 million industry. I’d experienced the very special combination of Andean and Amazonian art and culture in dozens of museums, shops, churches and performances.

On my last day in Ecuador, as I reluctantly returned to the lodge through the dense jungle and the mist that gives the cloud forest its name, a line from one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs popped into my head: “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.” This trip made me see both sides now. And I’m so glad I went there.

Where to Stay

Casa Gangotena

Radiating colonial splendor, Quito’s most elegant hotel is set on the San Francisco Plaza in the heart of historical Old Town. The grand neoclassical structure was built in the 1920s and , until the 1990s, was home to the Gangotena family, whose members included politicians and poets. Vestiges of its illustrious past can be glimpsed in the beautifully painted tin ceilings, lobby murals and gilded family crest hanging over an ornately carved mirror.

The thirty-one spacious rooms are appointed with Osborne & Little fabrics, chic metallic-accented wallpaper and white-marble-clad bathrooms. Furnishings are modern, but amenities are authentically Ecuadorian. The complementary tropical fruit plates awaiting guests in their rooms include uvilla (gooseberries) and baby bananas, accompanied by a watercolor card describing each delicacy.

Mashpi Lodge

Tucked into a remote cloud forest where the Amazon overlaps with the Andes, Mashpi Lodge is the most luxurious and authentic way to experience this special natural phenomenon. All too often, the term eco-lodge can be code for “bring your own mosquito netting,” but Mashpi, which opened in northwest Ecuador in 2012, is breaking the mold of environmentally friendly hotels. A contemporary glass structure set in the middle of 3,000 acres of protected wildlife reserve, the lodge offers guests the incomparable experience of being at one with nature, while still providing exceptional luxury.

The attentive staff includes a full-time team of biologists, naturalists and expert guides who have lived their entire lives in the area. They lead guests through dense forest, pointing out scores of wild orchids, toucans and pumas. The twenty-two guest rooms are equipped with electric blinds, luxury linens, oversized bathrooms and high-speed Wi-Fi, but the selling point is undoubtedly the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows. The cuisine is delicious, featuring modern takes on traditional Ecuadorian cuisine (don’t miss the homemade ceviche served with freshly popped popcorn), and there is a delightful spa with a hot tub looking out over the forest.

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