This is a route that could equally be called the path of the forest, or the fallen trees. Because while the richness of this slice of the Andean Chocó is plain to see as you pass along it with its cloud forest full of life, you also bear witness to its disappearance, pushed aside to make way for pastureland and agricultural cultivation.
After the Life Centre, where I’d seen toucans, butterflies, tayras and prowling monkeys, the trek begins, filing down a narrow, muddy path coming from behind the back of the butterfly house. Our destination the village of Mashpi, approximately six kilometres walk along a beautiful path that passes through dense forest, to reach the little town home to some 70 families.
And en route, José Napa, whose home was once located where the butterfly house is today before the lands were bought by Mashpi Lodge’s owners, shows us the tracks made by mules as they entered the forest to pull out huge tree trunks from the space that was once the pastureland of his neighbour. He tells us about the times when loggers would loiter around the area, and revealed to us other secrets of the forest, like how some leaves have their tips painted bright red just so that pollinating hummingbirds can tell them apart from the others.
Giant trunks that embrace and protect us, sources of crystalline water, trees that rise up higher than the roof of the forest: this is the Ecuadorian Andean Chocó, guardian of an amazing biodiversity, and part of a natural corridor that begins in Panamá, crosses over the west of Colombia, passes through the northeast of Ecuador and finishes in the extreme north of Peru.
It means that this corridor crosses through the Pacific coastal region of four countries. In Ecuador it is formed of the provinces of Esmeraldas, Manabí, Carchi, Imbabura and Pichincha.
José tells us about the times of the loggers, when each day they were pulling down so many trees that destroying one with a chainsaw would take no more than 15 minutes. In their fall from high they’d take with them many other smaller ones, with orchids, nests, bushes and more life. He says that logging was not a real financial success because they were after just one type of tree, and the forest here had too much variety, dispersed far and wide.
“Here, the first inhabitants lived off hunting and fishing and to be able to legally take possession of the land, they had to prove that they had been working it by chopping down trees and farming. That was what the authorities asked for,” he tells us.
When the forest exploitation companies came to extract in the zone, the flora and fauna started to disappear.
“Before you would see lots of spider monkeys, but not now. And the best trees, the lignum vitae and copal, were all chopped down except in this place. Some lands became pasture; others were seeded for agriculture.”
We pass through primary forest and learn that there are also sectors that are not original, but instead are secondary forest. We are approximately 600 metres above sea level and the climate is tropical rainy, most of the time it is cloudy and the humidity created is part of the magic and is key to the flourishing of life. The camera traps that the scientists place in strategic positions of the reserve shine a light on the great variety of animal species that pass through and live here, like felines, snakes, butterflies, toucans, tayras, peccaries and an infinity of insects.
After an hour of walking downhill, we emerge from the forest and the beautiful, pristine Mashpi River appears, imposing with its beaches, bends and meandering course. We walk around a kilometre passing agricultural and fishing farms. The landscape is beautiful, even if the primary forest has disappeared to make way for other activities.
Mashpi is a little hamlet located in the heart of the protected natural reserve in the Metropolitan District of Quito, known as Mashpi, Guaycuyacu and Sahuangal and has an area of 17,000 hectares. Travelling from the hotel to the Mashpi Village, it is more agreeable to walk that than to go by vehicle along the narrow, dirt track.
Although all hotel employees that live there are offered transport, many prefer to walk through the forest, and they manage it in 40 minutes flat.
In the last few years the residents of the village have organised themselves to receive visitors from the city that come to swim in the river pools. They speak of creating a forest nursery in the community to re-forest the barren lands, and offer local cuisine. They understand that tourism is a viable option to obtain an income and that the forest has greater value in the long run than logging, according to community leader Carlos Angulo.
Marcia Pastrana remembers that when she was a girl, the forest was closed off, dense, a source of hunting for the grownups. Life revolved around the extraction of wood. There was no consciousness around the importance of what today they fight to preserve, and the climate has changed so much with the advance of deforestation. They were unaware that local tourism could be source of income or employment. Today they receive visitors into their community and many have become guides or collaborators in other areas of operation of Mashpi Lodge.
The mission of those who promote the Mashpi Reserve and the sustainable hotel project is, above all, to preserve the forest, and that is not only happening within the 1,300 hectares of the reserve, but also in the neighbouring communities. That is the main objective: to benefit and involve all residents of the Mashpi zone and to become an example of a project that can be replicated on a large scale in the neighbouring populations.