Travel in the time of COVID-19: This is the first in a series of periodic stories about travel documentaries and shows available on streaming services to help sate our passion for travel while sheltered at home during the coronavirus epidemic.
By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
The world-wide coronavirus pandemic has brought travel to a standstill.
The desire to see the world remains strong yet temporarily unattainable amid lockdown orders and with many of us afraid to even venture to the grocery store.
The best way — the only safe way — presently to visit intriguing places near or far is vicariously via travel documentaries.
My search for the ultimate hideaway from the coronavirus led to the very remote Mashpi Lodge situated on a plateau 3,100 feet above sea level in the Ecuadorian cloud forest.
This is a difficult place to reach, a difficult drive of more than three hours from Ecuador’s capital of Quito , the last segment on an unpaved logging road.
Much easier when you take a virtual trip on the free streaming channel Journy for a pleasant and educational hour away from the relentlessly rising pandemic statistics.
Travel on ‘Journy’ channel
My new favorite for travel programming is Journy, run by arts network Ovation TV. It offers a diverse treasure trove of travel series the platform refers to as cultural tourism.
Best part, it’s all free to view with the Journy Now app (iPhone and Android) or Roku device, as well as with XUMO, Plex, and VEWD streaming platforms.
I will address more of the Journy itinerary in upcoming reports.
Right now my head is in the clouds at Mashpi Lodge, featured on an episode of the BBC travel series “Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby.”
Mashpi is part of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection of world-class accommodations that enable guests to discover some of the planet’s most treasured places.
Luxury treehouse in the clouds
Think of Mashpi Lodge as a luxury treehouse — a five-star hotel in the middle of one of the most biodiverse and biosensitive spots in the world.
With walls of glass spanning 1,000 square meters, it serves as window to a vital ecological wonder.
“Visitors come here not to see the hotel, but the forest,” Roque Sevilla, the owner of Mashpi Lodge tells the “Amazing Hotels” crew. “That’s the main objective. It shouldn’t compete with the beauty of nature.
“So I decided to build this bubble of glass that allows you to be in constant contact with the forest.”
The lodge is in the heart of a 3,200-acre nature reserve teeming with life — trees, lush plants including numerous varieties of orchids. There a vast array of birds (more than 500 species), insects, snakes and amphibians; monkeys and wild cats. There are 35 butterfly species native to the Mashpi Reserve.
The hotel itself is a marvel — that it even got built.
Preserving the jungle
Sevilla is a 72-year-old former mayor of Quito who made a fortune in insurance and communications. Foremost, he is an ecologist and nature lover.
Mashpi is his gift to the natural world, a haven for adventuresome travelers and scientists.
Nearly 20 years ago Sevilla purchased a large tract of the Chocó-Andean forest from a logging company to save it from destruction.
It took two years and $10 million to construct the 22-room hotel. Sevilla chose a site the logging company had cleared, and care was taken to impact the forest as little as possible. Equipment and materials were brought in on the existing dirt road.
“I wanted to show other people the beauty of this place,” Sevilla says in the show from the lodge’s 20-meter high observation tower. “This is probably the cheapest thing I’ve bought in my life because it’s the most valuable to me.”
The result is a first-class accommodation amid the most primitive of surroundings.
Reviews attest that service is top-notch and cuisine gourmet caliber — meals are served in a dining room with two-story-high glass walls. There is a wellness center spa with two massage rooms.
And, yes, there is free Wifi for guests.
Ride cable car in the clouds
Sevilla doesn’t want his guests to just stare out the window walls, he wants them to get out and experience the jungle and its inhabitants.
So he built a cable car, known as the Dragonfly, to carry passengers nearly a mile through the treetops, where 70 percent of the life in the forest is found. It cost another $3 million and was a painstaking process that took four years to complete with care being taken to not remove a single tree.
There are also nine miles of hiking trails ranging out from the lodge that are used to take guests on guided hikes. One path leads to the Life Center, which has a butterfly garden and a bird-watching terrace.
The Mashpi staff puts as much emphasis on natural sciences as on hospitality.
Biologist Carlos Morochz, the lodge’s resident research director the past 10 years, discovered a new species of tree frog, now known as the Mashpi Torrenteer (Hyloscirtus mashpi). The “Amazing Hotels” crew had the good fortune of seeing one on a hike.
Another biologist, Anderson Medina, heads a long-term butterfly study.
Machete man becomes orchid lover
The majority of workers at Mashpi Lodge are residents of a nearby village. The first hired by Sevilla was Jose Napa, who serves as a guide and is responsible for maintaining the trails.
Napa knows his way around the forest better than anyone. For years he hunted there, and confides in the interview that he had no regard for the ecological importance of the habitat before joining the Mashpi staff.
Nor had he appreciated the beauty of the forest and the plants that grow there.
“All my life I used my machete to cut down the forest,” Napa says in the show. “I never stopped to look at these plants. But then a man came and said, ‘Wow, look at these orchids.’ And I said, what’s an orchid?
“He started to explain and I started to change. I started to love them and now I adore them.”
Napa has collected more than 200 species of orchids, which he attends to in a garden at his home. The man with the machete is now a passionate orchid aficionado.
Sevilla’s objective is that his guests gain a measure of appreciation for this rare natural wonder — Mashpi Reserve is one of the few regions that encompasses both rainforest and cloud forest.
Building an appreciation for the forest
“What we would like is when people come here their view of the planet will change, that they will consider themselves as part of the whole system and not as the king of creation,” Sevilla says.
Even the virtual visit was enlightening, and provided a welcome hour of diversion from the steady stream of dreary coronavirus news.
The Mashpi Lodge episode is one of 12 in the “Amazing Hotels: Beyond the Lobby” BCC series with hosts Giles Coren and Monica Galetti.
I have viewed several and plan to make my way through the whole series — other unusual destinations include the Giraffe Manor in Kenya, Icehotel in Sweden’s Lapland, Hacienda Vira Vira in Chile and Ashford Castle in Ireland.
Once it’s safe to travel again, Mashpi Lodge would be worthy of considering for an actual visit.
Staying at Mashpi Lodge
The standard rate is $1,098 per night, double occupancy. Price includes:
Room overlooking the forest
3 meals (per night booked)
Unlimited non-alcoholic beverages (juices, water, soft drinks, coffee, tea)
Tours of Mashpi Reserve with one native and one specialized (university-trained) guide.
Specially designed activities — including Sky Bike; Observation tower; Life Center (with butterfly research and exhibition); Hummingbird Lookout; Waterfalls and hikes; Birdwatching and wildlife observation; Night walks
Rain ponchos, rubber boots and walking sticks
Transfer in /out on a shared basis from main hotels in Quito
Extra charges include alcoholic drinks, spa treatments and use of the Dragonfly canopy gondola.
More information: mashpilodge.com