Food at  Casa Gangotena, Quito, Ecuador

Casa Gangotena

Quito was the first city to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. One glimpse out the oversized, shuttered windows of your room at the Casa Gangotena and you’ll see why.

The 1920’s, Neoclassical-style building was home to Ecuador’s presidents and aristocratic families until 1997, when its final residents—the two elderly, hermit Gangotena sisters—agreed to leave their crumbling but majestic home. (One room had walls entirely lined with silver panels, which one of the sisters used as a private chapel). Thirty-one spacious rooms are well appointed with Osborne & Little fabrics, chic metallic-accented wallpaper and white marble–clad bathrooms. Furnishings are modern but amenities are authentically Ecuadorian. Set throughout the rooms are potted local orchids of species so beautiful and delicate, they surely wouldn’t survive export.

There’s a charming third floor roof terrace with views of the cathedral and plaza from which guests and visitors alike can enjoy small plates or a drink. The downstairs restaurant, bar and atrium receive so much natural light, guests remain cheerful even when a rainforest-type storm makes its way to Quito. Afternoon tea service in the glass atrium is a beloved tradition, which draws many well-heeled locals as well as hotel guests.

The star of the property is its staff, who exude graciousness and are genuinely proud of their hotel and city.

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Mashpi Lodge

All too often, the term Eco-lodge can be code for “bring your own mosquito netting.” But Mashpi, which opened in the northwest of Ecuador in 2012, broke the mold of environmentally friendly hotels. A contemporary glass structure set in the middle of 3,000 acres of protected nature reserve, the lodge offers guests the incomparable experience of being at one with nature, while still providing a luxury experience.

And the environmental aspects aren’t just for show—among the lovely staff are 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, countless bird species and small mammals like tayra and coati. As stunning as the lodge’s main building is, Mashpi is all about its surroundings.

The last 15 minutes of the drive, as you enter Mashpi’s property, feels like a scene out of Jurassic Park. A narrow dirt road is bordered by palms the size of tabletops, orchids you’ve never seen before and creatures you’ve never imagined. Fascinated guests might think that a Velociraptor crossing the van’s path wouldn’t be the most unlikely event.

Once safely arrived and with cool towels and passion fruit juice in hand, visitors are invited to a welcome talk with the naturalist who will accompany them throughout their stay. Guests learn that this cloud forest region in the northwest of Ecuador exists because of a unique combination of humidity, wind currents and temperature fluctuation. The result, as guides gleefully remark, is a “candy land” for biologists. For millions of years, the flora and fauna of this forest have developed and evolved within their surroundings, with hardly any human disturbance—arguably even less than Ecuador’s most famous environment, the Galapagos Islands.

Roque Sevilla, a successful Ecuadorian businessman and former politician, bought Mashpi’s land in the early 2000s from a logging company that was planning to tear down the forests. Sevilla, whose passion has always been the natural world and specifically orchids, instead designed a state-of-the-art, all glass lodge on the site of the lumber processing plant. His goal was to create a contemporary bubble in the midst of the forest, so that guests can learn about the land in the most comfortable fashion.

Twenty-two guest rooms feature electric blinds, luxury linens, oversized bathrooms and high-speed wifi, 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, and there is a small but lovely spa with a hot tub, available by private reservation, looking out over the forest.

Year-round temperatures hardly fluctuate between 72º and 75º, ensuring perfect conditions for exploration. A schedule of activities starts with a nature walk with the in-house biologists. Next, guests can visit the butterfly Life Center, where scientists study and help sustain the reproduction of the stunning creatures, and then climb the eight-story Observation Tower, which boasts views of the magical forest. The exhilarating Sky Bike crosses 600 feet across the valley, and is a quieter (and more cardio) version of a zipline. Instead of loudly whipping through the jungle, guests can control their speed and observe animals who aren’t scared away from such noisy contraptions.

One noteworthy feature of the property is the wonderful DragonFly ride. Stretching nearly three miles over six different platforms throughout the reserve’s property, this open-air gondola, like a ski lift on steroids, allows guests to cruise up to 600 feet above the forest floor. It’s a sublime experience in every sense of the world, at once appreciating the scale of the mountains that stretch like praising hands far above you while gargantuan trees drift by below you. The experience can be done in a 3-hour tour through all towers, or as a truncated version involving only a few. It’s a challenging but unforgettable foray into nature, and one that begets an intense sense of relaxation when you finally make your way back to the lodge and take your first sip of a hot cup of tea.

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