“There are other wonderful properties in the Nat Geo Unique Lodges of the World Collection that are also in rainforests, but there is only one Mashpi, and that is the point.”
There are some hidden corners of the planet – rainforests, desert islands, great mountains and crumbling homes of ancient civilisations – whose existence is unknown to all but the very few.
Places where nature dominates, where wildlife flourishes, and landscapes roll uninterrupted.
It is in these secret enclaves that you will find the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, hotels that invite guests to stay in some of the most cherished places on Earth.
But these lodges offer a travel experience with a difference: rather than rendering guests passive bystanders, each one allows them to lend a hand in safeguarding these unique environments for future generations, just as the lodges themselves strive to protect their one-of-a-kind surroundings. Journeys to hotels like Ecuador eco lodge Mashpi Lodge have the power to change guests’ worldview, teach them something new, enrich their lives and inspire them to live a more sustainable existence.
Cherry-picked by National Geographic through a stringent screening and assessment process, each lodge is chosen for its commitment to sustainable practices and to defending natural and cultural heritage. Lodges must adhere to National Geographic’s own core values: ‘authenticity, enrichment, and a dedication to preserving our planet’s diversity,’ and inspire guests ‘to connect with their destination in a meaningful way.’
You don’t need to know much about Mashpi to know that it ticks every one of these boxes, that it embodies every one of these principles, and that each of its staff shares this vision entirely. The ultra-modern eco lodge located in the Ecuadorian cloud forest doubles as a research station, carrying out invaluable work while providing a vital lifeline to local communities via sustainable employment. But above all, Mashpi Lodge offers an exceptional, intimate experience – one that moves and excites at every moment.
Q&A with Costas Christ, award-winning travel writer and editor at large of National Geographic Traveler magazine, and the inspector who added Mashpi Lodge to the National Geographic Unique Lodges collection.
How long have you been involved in National Geographic Unique Lodges? How did you become involved?
I have been an editor and travel writer with National Geographic for more than a decade and was also involved with the National Geographic Unique Lodges Collection from the very beginning – starting with the early concept stage to launching the program and helping it grow into what it is today – a global collection of some of the world’s best, most spectacular and sustainable places to stay in the world.
What is the first thing you look for when assessing a National Geographic Unique Lodge?
We look for three key characteristics: a beautiful property that embraces sense of place, outstanding guest services, and an active commitment to sustainable tourism best practices, including environmentally friendly operations, support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage, along with social and economic benefits to local people.
Why did you think that Mashpi was a good fit for National Geographic Unique Lodges?
The guest experiences at Mashpi are unique and special, including a small open air canopy cable car that allows guests to see an outstanding array of biodiversity in the Chocó rainforest; top ecotourism guides who are able to interpret nature in a fascinating and educational way from night walks and identifying nocturnal species, all the way to spotting amazing bird life that abounds in the area. Mashpi also works closely with local villagers who were former timber harvesters and that today make their livelihood from ecotourism. Of course, there are other attributes, such as great food and friendly staff.
What was it about Mashpi that made you say “Wow!”?
The Chocó Rainforest, where Mashpi is located, is a global biodiversity hotspot. If you are a lover of nature, as I am, the Chocó is a complete “wow.”
Which part of your stay at Mashpi would you like to repeat?
All of it.
Is there a National Geographic Unique Lodge in another part of the world that reminds you of Mashpi?
Each of the Nat Geo Lodges are very unique in their own way. We selected them because of their special individual characteristics and guest experiences. There are other wonderful properties in the Nat Geo Unique Lodges of the World Collection that are also in rainforests, but there is only one Mashpi, and that is the point.
What Makes Mashpi a Unique Lodge?
Each Unique Lodge is reviewed based on its adherence to the pillars of sustainable tourism: protection of natural heritage, support for local communities, and environmentally friendly practices. Here’s how Mashpi does all three.
Protection of natural heritage
The 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land that make up Mashpi Lodge’s reserve was bought by the Ecuador eco lodge’s founder, former mayor of Quito Roque Sevilla, back in 2001. He didn’t purchase it explicitly with tourism in mind, but rather to protect the biodiversity hotspot from deforestation. Home to approximately 15-17% of the world’s plant species and nearly 20% of its bird diversity, the Chocó cloud forests have exponentially diminished in the last few decades due to indiscriminate logging and agriculture.
After buying the land, Sevilla sought the help of Resident Biologist Carlos Morochz to discover what wildlife was hidden among the dense primary forests and to develop programs of reforestation and conservation. Carlos set about monitoring wildlife with camera traps, a project which has allowed the now numerous onsite science team to spot endangered creatures like tigrillos, armadillos and pumas.
Partnerships with universities and researchers have revealed yet more surprises: endemic species such as the Mashpi Frog and Mashpi Magnolia were discovered and described. By staying at this Ecuador eco lodge, not only are you contributing to protecting these marvellous cloud forests, but you are invited to experience them for yourself, be it by trekking through the trees, meeting the team of scientists and soaring over the canopy in the Dragonfly cable car.
Support for local communities
Around 90% of Mashpi’s warm and exceptional staff come from the local communities surrounding the reserve, sometimes even several members of the same family who would otherwise be involved in logging or in damaging agricultural projects like harvesting palm-hearts.
The benefit of this is three-fold: Communities gain from steady and stable employment. Conservation around the region is boosted as locals are inspired to become more sustainable and to see that a greater, more prosperous future lies in protecting their environment rather than destroying it. And, guests’ experiences at the Ecuador eco lodge are enriched by the vast and captivating knowledge of the local guides, some of whom used to hunt and log the same forests that they now seek so passionately to protect.
From its very conception, Mashpi Lodge has been as environmentally responsible as possible – the Ecuador eco lodge was recognised for its efforts when it was named South America’s Leading Green Hotel in the World Travel Awards 2017.
Even during the construction of the magnificent modern hotel building, not a single tree was felled as the Ecuador eco lodge was built on the site of an old sawmill (the team even managed to build the entire Dragonfly gondola without touching the trees.) The pre-assembled metal framing of the hotel meant that minimal concrete was used in construction, leaving a lighter impact on the surroundings. The extraordinary architecture, all floor-to-ceiling windows and fantastic vantage points, was designed to blend into and complement the extraordinary environment – rather than compete with it.
There are plenty of challenges in running a top-class Ecuador eco lodge isolated in the heart of the cloud forest, but every logistical test has been met with the same sustainable ethos, always seeking the least invasive option: the chef incorporates local ingredients like wild garlic into the menu; rooms are fitted with eco-friendly bathroom products; recycling is obligatory; rainwater is collected; and Mashpi is powered by hydroelectricity.
A Sense of Place
To know that Mashpi is an Ecuador eco lodge that applies environmentally friendly practices, researches and protects its biodiverse environment while supporting its local community is one thing. But to stand beneath the gush of its waterfalls, to watch the sunset over the forest from the lookout tower, to taste the amazing cuisine and to feel the universal warmth and kindness of its staff, content in the knowledge that your presence is not damaging but helping to protect this extraordinary place – that is the true meaning of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.
Mashpi Lodge is proud to share the Unique Lodges banner with some of the most extraordinary hotels in the world, as diverse as they are exceptional. What they all have in common is a commitment to social and environmental responsibility, jaw-dropping beauty and an ability to transform the way that guests see the world.
Here are some of our favourites, across three different continents.
The dazzling location of this Unique Lodge at first bears little resemblance to that of Mashpi, the Ecuador eco lodge in the Chocó cloud forest. Perched on a hilltop overlooking perfect white beaches, deep blue seas and aquamarine lagoons, its rugged mountains tower imperiously over it all. But what it does have in common with Mashpi is that it too is an unexpected secret, a sanctuary of comfort in a wild and astonishing environment.
Like Mashpi Lodge, Capella Lodge’s architecture does not aim to compete with its natural surroundings (how could it?) but to complement it. Huge windows create maximum contact with this tremendous landscape, while bikes and kayaks are available to guests to immerse themselves in the surroundings.
Two-thirds of seven-mile Lord Howe Island is national park and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988; the protected status means that much of the often endemic wildlife is unafraid of humans and it boasts one of the richest assortments of birds in Australia. Green practices and a cap on how many tourists may be on the island at any one time are ways in which Capella Lodge strives to protect the natural heritage, making it the embodiment of everything the Unique Lodges of the World stand for.
Way up in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the Kasbah Du Toubkal is proof that National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World do not only stand for protection of stunning natural heritage, but also for safeguarding astounding cultural legacy. The retreat on the edge of the Toubkal National Park, presided over by the tallest mountain in North Africa, is an authentic homage to Berber culture. It is a welcome pit stop to hikers exploring the rugged mountain range, allowing them to experience local culture and hospitality.
The 14-room boutique hotel was transformed from its crumbling ruins by a magnificent team effort by villagers and artisans united in lugging local rocks and other materials up the mountainside. It is this aspect of the hotel’s history that engrains it into its community – and its community into its very fibres. When leaving the rock sanctuary, guests can ride a mule into town and around the spectacular landscapes, just like locals and their forbearers have done for time immemorial.
Founded by two British brothers in 1989, Kasbah Du Toubkal has a keen sense of social responsibility, funding non-profit Education for All giving girls from the rural region a sound education.
Away from the beautiful coast of Iceland, heading inland over landscapes forged by ice and lava from the island’s famous volcanoes, are jewels far off the beaten track. One of these, at the end of the Borgarfjordur Valley, is Hotel Húsafell, a peaceful sanctuary of Nordic stylishness. Here, the stripped-back elegance of glass walls and contemporary furnishings are here to play second fiddle to the undulating hills, the freezing rivers and the snow-capped summits of its surroundings.
This is a place where the seasons make a turn towards the surreal: where a midnight sun is the perfect light under which to play golf and the Northern Lights are a winter night’s entertainment. And in spite of the cold, it’s always a good time to go swimming in steaming thermal pools warmed by underground volcanic streams.
This is a family-run business that strives to keep Nordic cultures and traditions alive, while celebrating the incredible natural world that sculpted an equally exceptional human history.