Zen is not a state I achieve with any ease. I’ve never been able to sit at the summit of a mountain and just take it all in without getting antsy.
But I maybe finally found the one activity that had me internally peaceful and contemplative—river walking.
Rocking knee-high rubber boots, I found myself earlier this year walking the ankle-to-thigh-high stream at the preserve maintained by the luxury eco-retreat Mashpi Lodge in the Choco rainforest of Ecuador. Maybe it was the sound—water over stones, rain droplets cascading from giant leaf to giant leaf, or me sloshing—but something about mindlessly trudging through the river in a light drizzle with only my guide was one of the more delightful things things I’ve ever done. Even the fact that my final destination was a spectacular waterfall where I could swim didn’t have me wondering when the heck this was going to be over.
I was at Mashpi because I wanted to get at least a taste of Ecuador’s wonders before I headed off to the Galapagos, which was ramping back up. Quasar, the expedition company that operated the boat I’d be on, also had a mainland team. I only had five days, and so while I can’t wait to go back and see some of the volcanos and highlands, that meant I spent my time in Quito and out at Mashpi.
Landing in Quito, the first thing you notice is something I never got used to—the altitude. This ancient city is more than 9,000 feet above sea level. The second thing you notice once you arrive in the historic center, is how incredibly grand it is—which is pretty amazing for a city built on the slopes of a volcano. In fact, it’s so grand (and historic) that it was the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site (along with Krakow) in 1978.
I stayed at the Illa Experience Hotel, which is located in a converted mansion a couple blocks from Santo Domingo Church on a colorful street with a number of art galleries. The hotel is focused on giving guests access to artisans living and working in the area, and giving those same artisans access to guests in the hopes that the area won’t become a living museum of hotels and Airbnbs. So every evening you’ll be asked if you want to tag along to some milliner’s shop or see a painter who lives a couple blocks away. The hotel also has Nuema as its in-house restaurant—which has been named one of Latin America’s 50 best.
As for Quito itself, the stars of its urban show are its churches. Many of you have no doubt seen your fair share of churches over your years of travel, but Quito has a few that for purely earthly reasons will delight. Basically, they have a lot of gold.
The two most spectacular for me were Santo Domingo and La Compañía (or the Church of the Society of Jesus). Santo Domingo has three major draws. The first is the main church hall which is covered in trompe l’oeil. The second is the refectory, where alongside a Mudejar coffered ceiling are two rows of elaborate and comically gory portraits of Christian martyrs. The third is the Chapel of the Rosary, a domed blood-red room accented in gold (as if accenting was done by Midas himself) filled with statues and reliquaries.
La Compañía is Baroque excess made manifest. Located near the presidential palace, it took nearly two centuries to build. Photography is forbidden inside, alas. It is gold, gold, gold everywhere. The central nave is a frenzy of Mudejar carving and while one might normally be drawn to the central altar in most churches of this grandeur, the designers of the side chapels seemed intent on ensuring they compete for your eyes as they are just as excessive.
While there are a multitude of sights and experiences I didn’t get to in my two days, I can recommend the illuminating collection of pre-Columbian art and artifacts at the Museo Casa del Alabado. And if you want a meal that will truly make you marvel at what chefs can do with ingredients you’ve never heard of, grab a table at Quitu Identidad Culinaria.
While I didn’t have time to follow in the footsteps of my hero Alexander von Humboldt and climb Cotopaxi or Chimborazo, I knew I wanted to see something outside Quito.
Quasar suggested I check out Mashpi, which is just a three-hour drive from Quito—albeit a tough three hours for those prone, as I am, to motion sickness. Once you escape the sprawl of Quito, you drive through jagged mountains softened by the lush forests carpeting them. Featuring skinny trees with plumed tops and every manner of brush and vine underfoot—the landscape is a Frederick Church painting come to life. These mountains slowly give way to something between mountains and hills, all blanketed by perpetual fog. It is in these foggy hills that one finds Mashpi.
Operated as a science lab (they’ve discovered a number of endemic species, including a frog), high-end retreat, and spearhead for cloud forest preservation, the lodge is housed in a modern glass, wood, and steel building. While comfortable, it’s not focused on frills. Still, it’s hard to beat sitting in one of their bedrooms with the jungle pressing against the floor-to-ceiling glass windows as a rainstorm drowns out every thought in your head.
Your days (and nights) as a guest are spent on walking safaris into the jungle. Mashpi controls most of what is left in this region of the cloud forest and is slowly trying to expand (while simultaneously employing the regional population) to preserve more. In case I needed clarity on whether I ever could have been a botanist, zoologist, or geologist, there is zero doubt after this trip that I couldn’t be. Not that I don’t find plants, animals, and rocks fascinating—my “I’m getting older” dream is hiking with guides who point things out to me. I love that I’ve had a begonia leaf that tastes like a green apple pointed out to me or translucent butterflies that were invisible to my eye. I want my walks to be filled with nuggets like how walking palms can move 50 centimeters a year or the symbiotic relationship between cecropias and fire ants. But the idea that I could remember this stuff or spot a fishing spider on a ledge 15 feet away is laughable.
And I would never, ever, have done a nighttime jungle walk without a guide. (Although I really, really want to see the translucent frog someday.)
But after a couple days of river walks, lazy afternoons spent in what was essentially a glass box surrounded by fronds with rain on speakers (every millennial’s dream scenario) and mornings spent with dozens of hummingbirds of all colors and sizes (the most shocking part is hearing them fly), I was more relaxed than I’d been in as long as I could remember.
So much so that on the long drive back I kept my mouth shut when, in a rainstorm, the driver kept manually flicking the windshield wiper switch on and off rather than just leaving it on.
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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