Archive | Conservation

Mashpi: a cocoon in an Ecuadorian cloud forest


I have a special place in my heart for cloud forests. There’s something undeniably magical about being in a world of trees, where every view is of hills of green wrapped in thick bands of mist, and every piece of moss is covered in jewel-like droplets of water.

After a week in the natural Disneyworld of the Galápagos Islands, it was going to be hard to come back to the real world of industria, highways and concrete, where animals fear their human predators. Leaving Quito after just one night and heading straight for an Ecuadorian cloud forest was the only solution.

Reached by a winding road carved into steep hills, Mashpi Lodge is surrounded by 3000 acres of cloud forest, in the private Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve that conserves this pocket of natural splendour. The lodge itself is described by its founder as a “cocoon in the clouds” which is exactly what it feels like, with a hilltop perch overlooking a dense green canopy, and stories-high glass walls offering views of trees and mist in every direction.

I could have easily spent hours lying in bed – our bedroom had a wall entirely made out of glass, and we were on the side of the building, on the edge of a sloping hill, so the forest began where our room ended. Being in bed was like floating in the treetops. But what we were really there to do was to explore the cloud forest.

Bedroom at Mashpi Lodge

In festival-appropriate gum boots and grey ponchos (one constant in a cloud forest is that it rains a lot), we hiked with guides Sebastian Vizcarra and Carlos Zambrano on muddy paths the colour of dark chocolate through a cloudy world of giant trees, thick vines and huge leaves, discovering this complex and deeply fascinating ecosystem, one tiny organism at a time. We marvelled at glass-winged butterflies, pink shoe flowers and red heliconias, shy forest dragons (otherwise known as dwarf iguanas), frogs and orchids the size of a pinkie fingernail, smelled the almond-like arsenic secretion of a millipede on the defence and the turps-and-mint scent of the resin from a five-hundred-year-old palo santo tree, spotted a twitcher’s cornucopia of species, from rainbow-coloured Chocó toucans, motmots with ludicrously long tail feathers and tiny jewel-shiny hummingbirds, rose-faced parrots and neon yellow and black lemon tanagers.

Hiking at Mashpi Lodge

We watched butterflies hatching out of chrysalises and found the skeleton of tarantula that had been  eaten alive by a parasitic fungus. Our lucky sighting  was of a family of tairas (which reminded me of the marmot in The Big Lebowski) stealing bananas off the bird feeders. We photographed an obliging long-legged frog and a tongue-flicking snake to check if they could be new species – there’s a resident biologist at the reserve creating a catalogue of species. At night we went for hikes in the dark by torchlight to hunt for frogs, snakes and tarantulas (it sounds a lot scarier than it was). We swam in ice cold waterfalls to cool off after hikes and cycled a sky bike across a zipwire above the tree canopy, looking out at five layers of forested hills streaked in mist. At dawn we woke up for a birdwatching session to the beautiful sight of clouds forming in the valley below the lodge, turning golden with the sun rise.

View from the skybike, Mashpi Lodge

We heard the distinctive growl of howler monkeys in the far distance a few times, but never saw them. Mashpi’s reserve is surrounded by farmlands, where the forest has been cleared, so their habitat is limited. They’ve also been hunted for years, so they’re understandably wary of humans.

Mashpi is part of the Chocó, a rainforest that stretches from Panama to northern Ecuador. One of the most biodiverse and wettest habitats in the world, it’s severely under threat from deforestation, gold mining and coca cultivation. Less than a quarter of the forest remains in total, and there’s only 10% of it left in Ecuador. The former mayor of Quito, Roque Sevilla, saved 3000 acres of forest from a logging company to create Mashpi’s reserve. As in many parts of South America and Africa, eco tourism is often the only viable way of protecting habitats that would otherwise completely disappear. It’s impossible not to be moved by the beauty of this Ecuadorian cloud forest, and to know that by visiting you’re helping in some small way to protect the biodiversity, the trees, and the magical mists.

Waterfall, Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador

Travelling to Mashpi Lodge

Mashpi’s cloud forest is three hours’ drive northwest of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, and transfers are arranged by the lodge.

Mashpi Lodge has 22 simple, but tastefully elegant, rooms with incredible views, attentive service (think cold towels and fresh juices or hot blackberry tea each time you arrive back after a walk) and great food, with the focus on Ecuadorian dishes, such as octopus ceviche, mashed manioc with egg and cheese-stuffed yucca breads for breakfast, stuffed plantains with shrimps and peanut sauce and banana cake.

The best time of year to visit Mashpi is in the driest time of year, in June, or in November and December for the arrival of migratory birds from the northern hemisphere.

Book Mashpi Lodge through the Mantis Collection.

Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador


Butterfly, Mashpi Lodge Butterfly hatching, Mashpi Lodge Frog spotting, Mashpi Lodge Snake spotting, Mashpi Lodge Snake, Mashpi Lodge Mashpi Lodge


Saving Costa Rica’s sea turtles

Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica-6

It was midnight on a hot, sticky Costa Rican beach and I was so exhausted from jet lag that I had started hallucinating dark shapes in the ocean. We’d been walking on the starlit beach for a few hours following our enthusiastic guide, Kloyd Taylor, whose response to almost anything was a cheery “Pura vida!”. We weren’t far off midnight when our permits were due to expire, and we had to be off the beach. I had just started to give up hope when we spotted the frantic flashing of red torches a few hundred metres down the beach.

We ran towards the lights, stumbling over logs in the dark to reach the team of researchers who were busy observing a 500-kilogram leatherback turtle as she nested. Keeping out of her line of vision, we huddled behind her to watch white, bouncy-looking eggs plop on top of each other in the sandpit nest she’d dug with her massive flippers. Once she’d finished laying, she started to cover up her nest, throwing up flipperfuls of sand like an extremely slow industrial digger.

It was both thrilling and humbling to witness something that’s been happening since the time of the dinosaurs. Sea turtles are among the oldest creatures on Earth: they’ve been around for 100 million years. The first thought I had when I saw the leatherback was that she looked almost too prehistoric to be real, with a giant knobbly shell and tough, thick skin the texture of an antique leather suitcase.

Sea turtles have been laying their eggs the same way for all this time, but it’s only in the past few centuries that they’ve come under severe threat from humans eating them, stealing their eggs, killing them in fishing lines and polluting the oceans they live in. It’s devastating to think that such beautiful, gentle animals could be wiped out in a matter of decades after being on the planet for so long (there’s only an estimated 40 000 female leatherback turtles left).

This brings me to why we were on a beach in Tortuguero National Park in the middle of the night in the first place: to help the Sea Turtle Conservancy with their turtle conservation work. It was the second night of a 10-day journey through Costa Rica with Contiki and Celine Cousteau, a documentary filmmaker (and granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, the legendary French explorer and conservationist).Established in 1959, the Sea Turtle Conservancy (the world’s oldest sea turtle organisation) is run with the help of donors such as Contiki Cares, Contiki’s sustainability program, which supports conservation projects around the world.

Three species of turtles nest on the 30-kilometre-long beach in Tortuguero – leatherback, green and hawskbill. From March to October about a thousand leatherback turtles in total lay their eggs here, while there are 700 green turtles which nest here each night (Tortuguero is the most important green turtle nesting site in the Western hemisphere). The Sea Turtle Conservancy researchers get to as many turtles as they can, record their observations and tag the turtles. The tags have turned up on the other side of the world, showing just how far these turtles travel. On the Conservancy website you can actually track some of the satellite-tagged turtles (and adopt one of them) as they swim across the ocean.

Even though it’s illegal, people still steal turtle eggs and sell them, so not only are researchers from the Sea Turtle Conservancy engaged in important research work, their presence on the beach each night deters poachers. If the eggs are left to hatch, the turtle hatchlings are highly vulnerable to being eaten by dogs, birds and jaguars (it’s believed that the healthy population of jaguars in Tortuguero is partly due to turtles being an easy source of food).

It was incredibly disheartening to find out that the next morning, when we were in the village school, watching volunteers from the Sea Turtle Conservancy try to educate the local kids about environmental awareness, recycling and turtle conservation, someone had gone to the turtle nest of the previous night and dug up all the eggs we’d watched being lain.

This just proved how vital the work is that the Conservancy is doing – and how important education is. The researchers we spoke to said that the local village children tell them that their parents eat turtle eggs but that they refuse to: a positive sign for the longevity of the 100-million-year-old sea turtles.

Find out more about the Sea Turtle Conservancy and how you can help save turtles in Costa Rica.

I was a guest of Contiki on their Costa Rica Unplugged tour. To find out more about this awesome trip, check out the itinerary here




A Costa Rican adventure

Costa Rica

I’m pretty excited about my next assignment: a 10-day trip to Costa Rica with Contiki Cares!

I’m joining 11 other people from around the world – the three winners of the recent #contikistorytellers competition, as well as photographers, filmmakers, bloggers and Celine Cousteau, a celebrated documentary filmmaker.

The itinerary, based on a Contiki’s Costa Rica unplugged trip sounds epic – we’re going to be ziplining through the treetops, going white water rafting, canyoneering through a rainforest canyon, tasting our way through chocolate tours, visiting coffee plantations and learning how to make Costa Rican coffee, hiking in cloud forests, surfing on the Caribbean coast, diving with dolphins and working with the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Tortuguero National Park, tracking turtles and tagging nests.

The trip starts on Saturday 29 March 2014: follow our adventure around Costa Rica with the hashtag #contikistorytellers on Twitter and Instagram.

If you have any Costa Rica travel tips please share them in the comments!

Photo courtesy of Arturo Sotillo.