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A furry leg emerged from the hole as he continued to prod it with a thin stick. “Something very special of the forest,” he said, beckoning us closer. I turned to Claudia for reassurance but she offered none, and remained where she stood on the muddy path. “Come see, it is a friend” he said, motioning for me to turn on my headlamp. I hadn’t quite grown accustomed to Jorge’s English, but I knew that if he was calling it a friend, it probably wasn’t what I would think of as a friend. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see anything. In the Chocó Forest the sun goes down at 6PM and the darkness sets in fast.
I snapped on my headlamp and it opened onto the red blinking setting. In flashes I saw that the furry leg belonged to a large tarantula. “I don’t want to see it!” I yelled, and switched o my lamp, closing my eyes for good measure.
“I’m fine right here,” Claudia said to Jorge in her polite English accent as he looked on eagerly. I buried my face into her shoulder, she grabbed my arm in turn and held me near. Along with Claudia, the trip’s photographer, I was almost two weeks into a trip across Ecuador, and we had grown very close – from strangers to bosom buddies within the space of a fortnight.
Claudia had no choice but to be initiated into the friendship early on, when during a bumpy landing in Quito with tears streaming down my face, I said to her: “Okay, I’m going to hold your hand now.” I squeezed until her fingers turned blue.
Having survived high altitudes in Quito, llama spit in the Andes, a whitetip shark in the Galapagos and the abuse of a belligerent Florida couple on our way to the cloud forest, we were now onto our next obstacle – a night walk through the Chocó Forest led by the Ecuadorian equivalent of Tarzan.
At night what the cloud forest lacks in light it makes up for in sound. Which in turn feeds the imagination with fantastic fodder for paranoia – was that the sound of a tarantula working its way across some leaves? Or a puma crawling into place for attack? Or maybe it was the sound of something slimy inching closer and closer to my exposed ankles.
“Aha!” Jorge exclaimed, and jumped into the bushes as I pulled up my socks. He came out seconds later with his hands cupped together. “Okay, now what is this you think?” he asked, and walked closer. “Do not come any closer,” I said, wagging my finger and pulling Claudia next to me for protection.
“It is tree frog!” he said, revealing a tiny creature, its heart beating so hard I could see the organ pounding through its skin. The frog jumped out of Jorge’s hands and he somehow caught it, mid-air, releasing it a few seconds later after it had urinated all over him.
Sounds my ears couldn’t detect would set Jorge off and he jumped again, disappearing into the trees and then pursuing something back on the path. I watched, my headlight landing on a thin yellow and black coral snake, and then Jorge right behind, creeping up on it. “Do NOT pick that up!” I yelled.
Claudia and I remained joined at the hip for the duration of that night walk. When we were out of the jungle and back on the dirt road we relaxed, no longer worried that Jorge was going to pick up, say, a python and throw it at us, yelling “catch this friend!”
After the terror we were enchanted. A piece of glowing wood, thousands of fireflies, colourful birds and ten lightning flashes later, we were back in our room at Mashpi Lodge, completely cocooned in what felt like a treehouse suspended above the forest. Created by former Quito mayor Roque Sevilla, Mashpi is all recycled steel and tropical wood, built on land that was set to be mined. Here in the Chocó Forest, land is important – only 24 per cent of the biodiverse hotspot which grows from Panama through Colombia, Ecuador and parts of Peru remains.
By training local people who used to work as loggers to staff the lodge instead, Mashpi has helped save one of the last areas of old growth in the Chocó Forest, playing an integral role in the initiative to protect 42,000 further acres of the forest. The plumbing system uses water from local rivers, and is filtered in a natural water treatment plant using bacteria before it returns to the forest. They use local and organic produce as much as possible in their kitchen, and encourage the education of their guests, offering lectures about the area’s ecology on a daily basis. About a three-and-a-half hour drive from Quito, Mashpi is accessible but isolated – the last hour coming in is on a dirt road running through thick forest.
The next day Claudia and I emerged from our room in head- to-toe expedition gear. We wore mosquito bracelets and special cloud forest bandanas and wellies, our Mashpi lodge bottles clipped onto our backpacks. We could easily have passed for a bird-watching couple on our honeymoon.
On the terrace overlooking a great swathe of the forest, Jorge stood bright-eyed at 6AM, spotting birds for us that were hundreds of metres away. We saw choco toucans, blue-grey tanagers, collared trogons, ochre-breasted tanagers and pale- vented thrushes. Over 4,000 species of birds make the forest their home. A biodiversity hotspot unique for its altitude – running between 500 and 1,400 metres – the cloud forest is like a rainforest but colder. Almost constantly shrouded in cloud, the atmosphere also creates a unique home for plants that thrive on the constant moisture.
Claudia was far more interested in bird-watching than I was and I envied her early-morning enthusiasm. But her challenge would come soon enough at the hummingbird sanctuary.
For a girl who wouldn’t flinch if you held a knife to her neck, Claudia was awfully squeamish about hummingbirds. How she could be so uncomfortable around these beautiful creatures puzzled me. By contrast I was completely enthralled by the tiny birds. I even held two of the nectar feeders next to my ears to experience the full acoustic effect of wings beating 55 times per second. Claudia, struggling to photograph them, would duck and squeal when one got near her.
In a continuation of our Ecuadorian honeymoon Claudia and I set off for a session of ‘sky biking’. Jorge gave us a set of helmets, and strapped us into a bicycle contraption that hooked onto a wire with me pedalling at the back and Claudia sitting at the front.
With a cocky wave of my hand I said to Claudia: “I got this.” I lifted my feet off the pedals and the bicycle lurched forward into the forest. Within a few seconds we were hundreds of feet in the air, sliding across the canopy. “For the love of god,” I yelled, looking down and trying to move as quickly as I could. “Pedal faster!” Claudia yelled from out in front. “I’m trying,” I replied, out of breath adding: “Don’t stop taking pictures.” Vertigo or no vertigo, we were still on the job. It felt like years by the time we made it to the other side where Jorge was waiting for us. “Okay, now you go back,” he said, and flipped me around so that I was 120 in front and Claudia behind. Being in front turned out to be a lot worse.
We returned to our room and showered after our sky-high experience, reading under the crisp white sheets of our beds for the rest of the afternoon.
A few hours later we were halfway through a three-hour hike to a waterfall, deep inside primary-growth forest, slipping on mud and swinging from thick vines that Jorge would find for us.
The vegetation was too dense for bird-spotting so Jorge put his forest knowledge to use by pointing out fascinating plants. We passed several killing trees along our way – a parasite that grows roots from the top of the tree down and over the course of several years wraps itself around the original tree, completely enveloping it. The walking palm was another novelty, a tree whose trunk never touches the ground, but instead has several thick roots that grow to allow the tree to reach more sunlight.
We knew we were getting close when we heard the sound of thundering water and felt mist on our faces. As we descended, the smell of moss filtered through our noses; in the opening an electric-blue butterfly floated gently through the air.
Being an underwater photographer, Claudia insisted that I got into the deep pool of cold water beneath the waterfall. But I offered up Jorge instead, who stripped down to his underwear and dived gracefully into the water. After much encouragement on Claudia’s behalf I ended up getting in as well, but only to the waist.
Early the next day we climbed a 26-metre observation tower to watch the cloud forest in action. When we got to the top I opened up a maracuya fruit and sucked out the pulp, while Claudia snapped photographs of our surroundings. Within seconds we went from perfect visibility to almost full cloud cover, and then five minutes later the clouds disappeared again. We asked Jorge if you could predict the comings and goings of the clouds and he shook his head to say no, smiling as if we had just asked the silliest question in the world.
Maria and Claudia travelled to Mashpi Lodge with Metropolitan Touring.
Rooms at Mashpi Lodge from £919 per night. Prices of accommodation on La Pinta Yacht vary according to itinerary length.
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