The Mashpi Reserve, located within the Metropolitan District of Quito, is one of the world’s most biologically diverse places – a breathtaking hotspot of life located where the equator meets the soaring Andes. The Reserve is among the wettest places on the planet despite the hot tropical sunshine that often beats down from above. Unsurprisingly, this potent combination of water and sun supports an incredible wealth of plant and animal species. What makes Mashpi’s location so special is a curious combination of factors not seen anywhere else on earth.
Is the Mashpi Reserve a cloud forest or a rainforest?
There is more than one kind of tropical forest; not all are the stereotypical rainforests of wide, meandering rivers, giant ferns, and enormous trees. There are tropical forests in the foothills where the air flows down from the mountains and collides with hot gusts streaming upwards from the coastal plains; lush forests extend down the Andean slopes, blanketed by dew carried in by clouds, and provide a perfect storm for tremendous biological diversity in a place like no other.
The forests of Mashpi are found between 1,800 and 4,600 ft (550 and 1,400 m) above sea level on the western flank of the rugged Andes. Located right between the Choco tropical bioregion and the Andean cloud forest ecosystem, this location is key to its singularity – a transition zone between coastal rainforests and evergreen, mountainous forests. Technically, this transition between ecosystems is known as an “ecotone,” and Mashpi has not only been naturally blessed with species that inhabit both, but also with incredibly rare species that are not found in one or the other. It is a veritable cradle of endemism rarely seen anywhere else on earth.
The Mashpi Reserve’s topography is particularly accidental. From its most northwestern point to its southeastern corner, there is an altitude difference of more than 2,600 ft (800 m), interrupted by steep gorges, irregular slopes, and plunging ravines. The highest part of the reserve is a true cloud forest, starkly evident from the near-omnipresent blanket of fog that covers it and significantly reduces its exposure to sunlight. As the altitude drops toward the southeastern part of the reserve, the low-lying cloud cover slowly dissipates, magically transforming it into a tropical rainforest. The reserve is not just a cloud forest or a rainforest – it is both!
What is the difference between a cloud forest and a rainforest?
Though the difference is subtle to the untrained or unaccustomed eye, it is not too difficult to tell cloud forests apart from rainforests. In addition to the constant presence of heavy fog in cloud forests, the key to telling them apart lies in the iconic tree species and plant density of the forests. Tropical rainforests receive much more direct sunlight, meaning that trees are much taller and leafier. This, in turn, has a secondary effect on the lower underbrush – less sunlight reaches the ground, so the underbrush in much less dense in a rainforest than in a cloud forest. Another key characteristic is the presence of towering palm trees in the rainforest areas of Mashpi Reserve. As the rainforest transitions into a cloud forest, the palm trees are replaced by venerable cecropias, colloquially known as guarumos, which immediately stand out from the verdant green background of the cloud forest due to their distinctly silver-hued leaves.
One particularly amazing experience that visitors can enjoy at Mashpi is a trip aboard the Dragonfly Canopy Gondola, which rises up to 650 ft (200 m) above the ground, offering breathtaking, 360° views of both the cloud forest (at the beginning of the line) and the rainforest at the end of the line.
Water: The Essence of Life
The Mashpi Reserve is special for another reason. It is the origin point for much of the rain and the rivers that crisscross northwestern Ecuador. The inevitable force of gravity pushes each drop condensation in the reserve into miniscule streams that meander into estuaries, pools, and fresh ponds that are home to numerous animal, insect and macro-invertebrate species. There are so many of these estuaries and small bodies of water in the reserve, that many remain unnamed. Finally, far below in the tropical rainforests of the lowlands, they all come together and form rushing waterways like the Mashpi and Pachijal Rivers. From the moment the water condenses in the highest parts of Mashpi’s cloud forests until it flows into the rivers below, it comes into contact with countless species of plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, insects, fungi, mammals, and fish, each one incredibly unique.
The downward trajectory of water originating in the Andes is fundamental to the existence of microclimates – small pockets that have vastly different climates despite being located very close to one another. The Mashpi reserve is home to many microclimates; the upper reaches of the reserve are cool and damp while the lowest parts are hot and humid. In a very general sense, the Choco is known as a “very humid subtropical region.” This means that the climate remains at idyllic temperatures throughout the year, hovering at an annual average of 23°C (73°F), not going below 18°C (64°F) or above 25°C (77°F). This “goldilocks” temperature assures the proliferation of life, according to biologists. As alluded to earlier, there is a tremendous amount of rainfall, averaging more than 188 in (3,000 mm) of precipitation annually! Incredibly enough, there are places in the ravines and around the waterfalls where precipitation is much higher; mist and condensation combine to create an envelope of warmth and humidity, providing the conditions necessary for aerial plants like orchids and bromeliads to flourish, along with all the animal species associated with them, such as frogs, hummingbirds, bees and countless others.
The higher, cooler parts of the reserve attract a huge variety of birds, making it the best place for birdwatching. At night, it is also the best place to observe exotic frog species, such as the world-renowned crystal frogs, the endemic Mashpi Torrenteer frog, and multiple species of tree frogs.
Is the Mashpi Reserve the world’s most biologically diverse place?
While difficult to say for certain, Mashpi is undoubtedly a hotspot of biodiversity, teeming with life. On a larger scale, Ecuador is home to more than 1,700 species, making it the most biologically diverse place on earth per square mile. The Choco bioregion itself is home to more than 1000 species of plants, 400 species of birds, and 200 species of mammals, most of which are often seen in the Mashpi reserve. Mashpi is in the most biologically diverse part of Ecuador, and Ecuador is arguably the most biologically diverse country in the world. So, if Mashpi Reserve is not the world’s most biologically diverse place, it must be close!
Its truly unique location and unprecedented combination of weather, altitude, geography, and proximity to the equator, make visiting Mashpi Lodge an unquestionably spectacular experience. Visitors from all over the world revel in its extraordinary wonders, seeking the very best that nature has to offer – life in abundance.