National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World
There are a handful of hotels around the world that have earned the distinction of being called National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. It would be easy to think that it’s is all about branding, except that three of our absolute coolest stays the past two years have been at NG Unique Lodges of the World: Tierra Atacama and Tierra Patagonia in Chile and Ashford Castle in Ireland. All three were about more than amazing locations and unique architecture; they were also about the active, educational activities. At Tierra Atacama we did six excursions around the Atacama Desert, including hiking to sand dunes and watching geysers at sunrise. Tierra Patagonia included several amazing hikes around Torres del Paine as well as horseback riding. And at Ashford Castle we went horseback riding and did falconry in the forest, and if we stayed longer would have done far more. All were expensive stays, but it wasn’t an expense based on ostentatious luxury – like if you were spending $2,000/night for a suite in Paris. These hotels justified the expense by offering truly unique experiences in unique settings.
So when we were in Ecuador to visit the Galapagos and saw that there was a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World in the Ecuadorian cloud forest, Mashpi Lodge, we extended our trip by three days / two nights to add on a stay. We loved the Galapagos. And then we liked Mashpi Lodge even more.
Getting To Mashpi Lodge
After the Galapagos, we flew back to Quito and spent a night at Casa Gangotena. Then, at 9:00 the next morning, we were picked up by a driver and guide and driven just under four hours to the lodge, including a quick stop when we passed the equator (driving from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere) and a 20-minute stop at the Museo de Sitio y Centro Ceremonial Tulipe to use the bathrooms and learn about the indigenous culture of the area. It took a good hour to completely leave Quito due to traffic, and the rest of the drive was on windy roads. If you get car sick, definitely take a pill in advance, and don’t eat anything right before the drive.
Arriving at Mashpi Lodge
We knew the drive was worth it as soon as we arrived. The lodge is in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing else nearby – just nature as far as you can see in every direction. And it’s stunning – both the architecture and how it fits into the location. Our connecting rooms weren’t quite ready, so we headed to the amazing dining room (picture an upscale cafe on the Ewok planet of Endor), had a great lunch, and then went to our rooms for a little downtime before meeting up at 2:30 with an excursion leader to plan our schedule.
There’s a wide range of excursions and activities at Mashpi, but most could be classified as hiking (easy, moderate and advanced), bird watching and lower-key activities, and rides over the treetops – the Sky Bike and the Dragonfly. The Mashpi excursion leader talked to us about what our kids liked, and their willingness to go on long hikes, and we set out a plan for the two days. Our first (partial) day we would hike to a waterfall, and then go on a night walk. Our full day there we would wake early for bird watching, then hike to the Life Center / butterfly reserve, and then watch hummingbirds in the afternoon. Our last morning we would ride the Dragonfly over the treetops. We would also have a little downtime at the lodge between activities. This matches the lodge’s general activity schedule: two major activities a day, plus there’s always optional bird watching (with coffee) in the mornings, and optional night walks through the forest just after it gets dark.
A description of everything we did:
Copal Waterfall Hike
This was a great way to begin a stay – a roughly two-hour roundtrip hike though the cloud forest down to a large waterfall (literally Cascada Grande). We met our guide Lizardo at 3pm, put on mud/rain boots that we would use for several excursions (provided by the lodge), and then set out. We stopped frequently so that Lizardo could tell us about the forest and the plants and animals we were seeing. Incredibly educational! At the waterfall (put your electronics into waterproof bags before you get close!) we stopped in the mist while Lizardo ran under the fall with our 12-year-old. The other kids didn’t feel like getting quite that wet! We then slowly walked back up – a good climb, but there are stairs along the steeper sections (recycled Coca Cola crates), and our kids had no issues.
This was so cool! After two hours of downtime we met Lizardo at 7pm, put on our mud boots, and headed off into the forest. Well, three of us headed off. My 8-year-old got scared after only a minute and didn’t want to do the walk anymore, so it was just Lizardo, me, my 10-year-old, and my 12-year-old. We started by walking up the main road and then cut into the forest. Lizardo was bizarrely awesome at finding things. He would routinely shine his flashlight into the forest, tell us to be still, reach in, and then come out with something that we never would have seen on our own. Twice he brought us (angry) Oxibelis snakes, one of which bit him. “Don’t worry” he said, “it’s not venomous. There’s just a lot of pain and some blood.” Yeah, ok. But all of the other creatures were a little more friendly. We saw crickets, grasshoppers, three types of small frogs, lots of spiders, a tarantula, millipedes, and a stick insect that Lizardo placed on all of us. We also saw bioluminescent sticks. And to top it off, there are lightning-bug-like things called Cucuyas that would light up the forest periodically. Did I mention it was cool?
Note: I didn’t take a camera, so I have no photos! I liked the idea of unplugging for a night and just enjoying the experience. Was it a good choice? No. I wish I had pics!
Early Morning Bird Watching
Every morning there’s bird watching from the upstairs observation deck from 6:30 to 7:00. It’s completely optional, but the guides like you to tell them the night before if you’re going to go, so they can meet you there. My wife and I committed to it our first morning, letting the kids sleep. We met Lizardo who set up a spotting scope and found birds in the trees nearby. We’re not really bird watchers, nor are we knowledgeable about birds, but it was still nice to be there. The scenery’s stunning. Plus there’s coffee. And it was nice to talk to some of the other guests. One couple had been there a week and seen 70+ different bird species, most of which they had been able to photograph. They were working with their guide to name, photograph and check off what they were seeing. We were just happy to see a red bird and a yellow bird and a brown bird!
The Life Center / Butterflies
After breakfast we hiked with Lizardo down to Mashpi Lodge’s aptly-named Life Center. We started with a butterfly expert walking us through the entire process of becoming a butterfly, from brand new eggs to caterpillars to pupae/chrysalises to butterflies. The kids were even able to touch several of the insects in various states. Then we headed into the butterfly enclosure where a dozen types of butterflies were flying all around and landing on us. After that we did more bird watching from the observation deck and walked around a little. An easy but educational morning.
Lizardo gave us the choice of an easy hike back up to the lodge or a slightly longer hike. We chose the longer hike and were rewarded with a jungle swing! Did you know that Tarzan wasn’t actually swinging from vines, but from roots? Me neither. But it makes sense – vines climb, so there’s little support at the top. Roots though are anchored at the top and then grow downward in search of water. So we all took turns swinging through the forest on a root. And yes, it’s as fun as it sounds.
After lunch and some downtime we drove with Lizardo roughly 15 minutes to the lodge’s hummingbird viewpoint – located at one of the highest points near the lodge, since hummingbirds like to live where the air is cooler. This was our favorite activity! We sat down and within seconds hummingbirds were flying all around us, hovering in front of our faces, and even zipping through our hair. So amazing! We spent over two hours with a dozen species of hummingbirds and it never got old. We also saw parrots (lured with bananas) and agoutis – basically rodents of unusual size – but the experience was all about the hummingbirds. If you go to Mashpi, sign up for this! And wear red! My daughter had more hummingbirds around her than the rest of us because of her pink shorts, and we all wished that we had worn red.
Night Walk Two
We had so much fun on the first night walk that we did it again our second night – but with my 8-year-old firmly committed this time, and me with a camera! Since it hadn’t rained all day Lizardo wasn’t sure that we’d be able to find creatures as easily as the night before, so we drove a short distance to a river where he was optimistic we would see frogs. We walked up the river and sure enough found several species of frogs, including a Mashpi frog (first discovered in 2011) and an emerald glass frog, and lots of cool insects. The kids loved it. And then Lizardo really wanted to find some tarantulas for us, so we started walking up the road and searching and…remember how it hadn’t rained all day? There were actually clear skies when we had headed off on the walk. Well, it started pouring. Like buckets. And we hadn’t even brought our rain coats. So Lizardo quickly cut down six huge elephant ear leaves and we used them as umbrellas as we walked back to the lodge – or at least back for a few minutes until a car picked us up. I wasn’t about to take out my camera in the rain to capture the scene with the elephant ears, but it was one of our trip highlights – up there with the hummingbirds! And far more fun (probably) than finding tarantulas would have been…
Our last morning we started with a t-shirt activity. Lizardo took the kids up the main road in search of leaves. When they had found several types and sizes of leaves, they came back to the lodge, sketched out their plans for their shirts, and then started painting the leaves and pressing them onto t-shirts. A fun activity for the kids, and nothing that we had done before elsewhere.
Following the t-shirt printing we walked straight to the Dragonfly – essentially a chairlift that takes you from the cloud forest down to the rainforest and back up. Because each open-air gondola only has room for five, including a mandatory guide, we split up. I took my two younger kids with Lizardo in one gondola and my wife and oldest daughter followed 20 minutes later with another guide. I loved going through the trees and over the treetops, learning about everything on the way. In addition to the various plants and trees (the rain forest is different than the cloud forest), we saw parrots, hummingbirds and a toucan, and even looked down on several waterfalls. And seeing Blue Morpho butterflies flying through the forest, and being able to track them from above, was magical.
My kids liked, but didn’t love, the experience. It was nicely educational, but they got a little bored during the 80-minute journey (40 minutes down and 40 minutes back up) despite Lizardo and the other guide trying to keep it interesting. I’d go again in a heartbeat. My kids probably wouldn’t.
Following the Dragonfly we quickly packed up before leaving at 11:30am for the drive back to Quito. We were prepared for another long drive, but it was a full hour shorter than the drive in – two hours, fifty minutes total. A nice surprise. We then spent another night at Casa Gangotena before flying back to the US early the next morning.
The Lodge / Summary
We absolutely loved Mashpi Lodge. For us it was about the location in the cloud forest, the excursions, the animals, and the lodge itself. The hummingbird experience and the elephant ear downpour are among our favorite travel experiences ever.
Mashpi Lodge itself is very well designed. The architecture is gorgeous. We spent a lot of time outside at both the upstairs birdwatching overlook and the main overlook searching for birds and other animals.
In addition to the family-friendly excursions and the t-shirt activity, there’s a Kids Lab where kids can go to see butterfly and other insect specimens up close and through a microscope. The guides there were excellent.
We easily could have spent another day or two at Mashpi, exploring other hiking trails and doing more night walks. I wanted to do the Sky Bike as well – similar to the Dragonfly, but a lot shorter and powered with your feet. If it fits into your budget and travel plans, I’d recommend three or four nights.
What to Pack
Dress like you’re going on safari. Bring at least two pairs of quick-dry hiking pants and a couple lightweight long-sleeved shirts. You’ll get wet on a lot of excursions and the lodge dries your clothes for free, but you don’t get them back right away so you need to be able to rotate outfits. Bring sunscreen, insect repellent, a swimsuit (waterfalls!) and light rain jackets as well. We didn’t need other layers as it was warm (Mashpi Lodge is only at 3,000ft or so, 6,000ft lower than Quito). Oh, and have plenty of ziplock bags to keep your electronics dry. The lodge provides boots for all hikes/excursions.
I always tell people with two kids that if they have a third child, a lot of their travel costs will increase substantially. It’s not always true, but travel infrastructure is generally based on families of four. Adding a third child means another hotel room, another cruise ship cabin, another taxi, etc… Mashpi Lodge is a perfect example of this, since a family of four can stay in one room, but a family of five requires two rooms.
A two-night stay for a family of four is (roughly) $4,000, and for a family of five is $6,000. A three-night stay for a family of four is $6,000, and for a family of five is $9,000. That includes transportation to/from Quito, all meals, and all excursions except for the Dragonfly, which is $48 for adults and $24 for kids. Alcoholic drinks aren’t included.
We tipped our guide $200 and the lodge staff $100. I received a media rate with no expectation of positive coverage.