“I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown.”-Sir Ernest Shackleton
We all have our version of the unknown; the uncomfortable ignorance that lies just beyond our comfort zones. As kids, most dream of becoming explorers but few dare to take that leap; to reach out to all their wildest questions and in turn learn something about themselves. What would you do if given the chance; the opportunity to live the life of an explorer?
In February of 2018, Kat Golden of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center was selected as one of 40 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows for 2018. This Fellowship is a two-year professional development program for educators made possible by a powerful partnership between National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. In November, seven months after finding out she’d been selected for this opportunity, Kat finally set off on the expedition that would take her flying through the canopy of a cloud rainforest, snorkeling with penguins and sea lions, and hiking to the top of a volcano.
In this post, Kat will continues recounting her journey in becoming an explorer and travels from Quito to Mashpi Lodge, 60 miles outside of Quito in the heart of the cloud rainforest.
Masphi Biodiversity Preserve and Lodge
60 miles Outside of Quito
I closed my eyes and began placing one foot in front of the other. Laughter could be heard from the guests standing with our tour guide up ahead. As for the challenge our guide had set upon me, I failed. Opening my eyes I could see the yellow marking running the width of the street lay several feet to my left, or North. On the way here our group became charged with excitement as we approached the Museum of the Sun only to see it whiz past the window. This museum marked nothing more than geographical error. Mistakes are part of our history. Instead, our bus stopped 100 feet down the road in the center of a small village. The place we stood appeared inconsequential, and was definitely less dazzling than the erroneously placed museum but the yellow line marked something of great geographic significance. The equator. Up until three days ago, I’d never been south of this line; I was now crossing it again as we approached the cloud rainforest on our way to Mashpi Lodge.
After floundering our equatorial challenges, we continued on our way to Mashpi, stopping first at Tulipe Archaeological site. Tulipe is a place of discovery. Covered in nearly 2,000 pyramids and mounds, this site told the story of the Yumbos, an ancient civilization that inhabited the north and northwest valleys of Quito from 800 to 1660 AD. As I peered down from the observation deck to the mounds below, echos of the past stirred more questions than answers. Carefully constructed pools filled with lush green vegetation, known as the emerald carpet, adorned the grounds below. Once filled with water, these pools were fed by a nearby spring. For what purpose remains unknown. Was it for religious ceremony? An ancient auditorium for the Yumbos tribe? Or were the pools once used to follow the path of the stars at night? All that remains are these monuments but their meaning has been lost to time.
Like many before us, we left with questions still unanswered. We boarded the bus and continued the climb to Mashpi. Soon, the mountain landscapes we’d become accustomed to gave way to rolling fields speckled with shack houses. Where acres of dense cloud rainforest once stood, cultivated fields of sugarcane now obscured the hillsides in a way that reminded me of midwest cornfields. As we approached the preserve, we began to see echoes of the once vast rainforest; trees grew higher and higher until the sky was blanketed by a thick canopy and the mountain air turned thick with humidity. It would be a little over an hour before we reached the lodge.
We were greeted at the edge of the preserve by a Lyre-tailed nightjar, a stoic looking bird that almost disappeared among the dense among the dense vegetation. Camera shutters clacked as we photographed our first sign of Mashipi wildlife. Further down the road, beyond the gate, the pavement gave way to a muddy dirt road which raged against our poor van as it persevered through the rainforest. Each bump along the way sent us flying through the air scrambling to catch our baggage. Having survived the experience, we entered the preserve. From our windows we sat in awe of the humbling endless green. Every visible inch of the forest was teaming with life.
As we entered the glass hotel, we were greeted by our guides who shared the story of Mashpi Lodge. In 2001, Roque Sevilla, an orchid enthusiast and the former mayor of Quito, bought 3,200 acres of tropical cloud forest that was slated to be cut down for commercial logging. With walls made entirely out of glass, the Lodge itself was carefully constructed with the goal of stewardship and connecting individuals to the rainforest throughout their stay. Mashpi, nested deep in the Ecuadorian Chocó cloud rainforest, is a region characterized by extremely high precipitation and extraordinary species diversity.
As I was escorted to my room, Mashpi staff outlined the hotel’s commitment to balancing people, planet, and profits. The Lodge’s green practices include recycling waste, composting, energy conservation, and wastewater management. Mashpi has also worked extensively to support local farmers by sourcing organic produce for use in the dining area and building relationships with nearby villages to provide a sustainable livelihood for residents.
Thirty minutes after settling in, we donned rain boots and set off into the forest. Our destination? The Life Center, a place where science is brought to life for curious minds. Here, the walls between laboratory and visitors are non-existent. It is the hub for the preserve’s many scientific studies as well as the butterfly sanctuary. Inside, rows of cabinets with glass doors lined the room, most of them filled with cocoons, chrysalides, and caterpillars awaiting metamorphosis. For a moment, I was home. My thoughts drifted back to our own Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
From the butterfly house, we went bird watching! Resting on the patio overlooking the great forest we could see tropic birds such as the Choco Trogon and Crimson Rumped Toucanet gathering nearby. Mashpi is home to more than 400 species of birds, a testament to the unique biodiversity found in this one forest. While we watched our fine-feathered friends Nestor and Carlos, the naturalists paired with our group, taught us how to identify species and catch them on camera. Nestor explained the significance of the Masphi Biodiversity Preserve and outlined Masphi’s scientific objectives, to document and monitor many species found within the preserve’s forest.
Later, after dinner, inspired by the night’s lecture on the amphibians of the forest, I elected to participate in an optional night hike. The goal– finding the illusive Mashpi Torrenteer frog, a new species discovered as a result of the work of the Mashpi team. Standing in the middle of the forest, the dark surrounding me was overwhelming. Sounds took on new meanings in the night as I began to rely on my hearing to lead the way. Splashes in the water signaled the naturalist’s location. Calls from frogs in the distance pulled me further into the dark of the forest. Slowly my eyes started to adjust, and the night came to life. While we never ended up spotting the Masphi Torrenteer, we uncovered plenty of exciting wildlife like the emerald glass and lavillered frogs as well as creatures that in any other situation would be the stuff of nightmares: including snakes, whip spiders, and tarantula.
On the last day, we spent the morning in the hummingbird garden surrounded by jewel-toned birds. Fearless in their approach of brightly colored clothes worn by other visitors, the birds zipped around as if we weren’t there. Leaving the Garden, we would journey to the lowest and highest parts of the reserve—first by foot, then by gondola, and finally on the Masphi Sky Bike to see every layer of the forest. The first leg of this journey was the only one done with the help of my legs—a hike down to a river that ran through the preserve. Down the slippery slope, our group asked questions about how the trails were laid out and built to allow guests access to the deepest parts of the reserve. We stopped to take a brief dip in the chilly Magnolia waterfall before following the path of the river halfway through the reserve. Here it was time to go up, and up, until we were at the top of the forest. Trees that once towered above me stood below the green cage of the tram. It was in this moment that I realized the scale of this forest—and how much I feared heights, now thinking back to the hummingbirds, I couldn’t help but admire their bravery.
Exploration often takes us to places where we are forced to face fears, to overcome the uncomfortable and ask questions we never wondered about before. Whether its complete darkness or towering heights, overcoming these fears opens oneself up to new understandings about our world. While explorers require a wide range of equipment, it’s the courage to overcome these fears that lead to the greatest adventures.
EarthWays Center Sustainability Education Manager