Periodically, I feel a need to retreat from civilization. The remote becomes irresistible, and I long for the tranquility of unspoiled nature. Two ecolodges recently gave me the perfect excuse to decamp to Ecuador, a small country with an extraordinarily rich diversity of natural wonders that includes the tropical Amazonian jungle, the temperate cloud forests of the Andean highlands and, of course, the Galápagos archipelago.
Despite their fame, most of the islands of the Galápagos remain unspoiled and uninhabited. It is true that there is ongoing controversy about the environmental impact of increasing visitor numbers, as well as the growth of Ecuadorian populations on the islands of San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz, but in many places in the Galápagos you still have the uncanny feeling that you are standing at the edge of the world.
This most recent visit did nothing to dissuade me from the belief that the superlatives heaped upon the archipelago are well-deserved. The situation of these volcanic islands on the equator and at the confluence of three major ocean currents allows an astonishing ecosystem to thrive, one that includes creatures as varied as sea lions, giant tortoises, marine iguanas and the only penguin species found in the tropics. Landscapes veer dramatically from moss-draped forest to cactus-speckled desert, often on the same small island. And because humans discovered the archipelago only about 500 years ago, and most of it is still uninhabited, much of the wildlife has little or no fear of people. In the Galápagos, successful nature photography does not require a telephoto lens.
We took a nonstop two-and-a-half-hour flight from Quito to Baltra. At the end of the covered walkway leading to the terminal, a man with a giant grin and a “Pikaia Lodge” sign ushered us into the VIP waiting room, where we had tea and cookies while he took care of entry formalities and collected our checked baggage. Within about 10 minutes, a vehicle whisked us from the airport, driving past green-barked palo verde trees rising from the rugged plains of lava rock and festooned with ribbonlike leaves. We crossed the channel between the Baltra and Santa Cruz islands by boat and continued on to the new 14-room Pikaia Lodge. The entire transfer took less than an hour.
Staying at a lodge in the Galápagos may seem like an odd choice; most people explore the archipelago aboard a small cruise ship, yacht or catamaran. However, a terrestrial base has significant advantages: The accommodations are likely to be more spacious; there is no risk of seasickness unless you opt for a boat trip; and those traveling with younger children may find the experience a good deal more convenient and relaxing when staying on dry land. A lodge also better suits those with limited time, as cruise itineraries are generally of one or two weeks’ duration. In contrast, we stayed at Pikaia just three nights, spending what was essentially a long weekend in the Galápagos. The two full days of exploration allowed us to see most of the major animal species — penguins and manta rays excepted, though guests who stayed longer (four- and seven-night packages are also available) made good on these omissions.
Seeing giant tortoises lumbering through the grass and wallowing in mud pools at Rancho El Chato was the highlight of our first day exploring the island of Santa Cruz. We also peered over the edge of two massive sinkholes, each surrounded by the kind of misty scalesia forest that is endemic to the Galápagos, and walked through an immense lava tube. Some sections were smooth enough to resemble a large subway tunnel. Near the main town, Puerto Ayora, we strolled through Seussian stands of tree-shaped prickly pear cacti to the white sand beach fronting Tortuga Bay. There, algae-grazing marine iguanas relaxed in the sun beside a mangrove, and the heads of green sea turtles poked above the surf.
Our second day aboard the resort’s well-appointed yacht, the Pikaia I, proved even more memorable. Because we traveled in the cooler low season (June to November), we shared the ship with just one other family, though it has a capacity of 16. After a full cooked-to-order breakfast in the lounge, we disembarked with our guide on North Seymour Island. Red-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs skittered away across the black lava boulders, and male blue-footed boobies danced, lifting one periwinkle foot after the other, their calls sounding like someone attempting to play the flute for the first time. Many of the boobies had fluffy-feathered hatchlings. Frigate birds watched them carefully, often trying to snatch the fish a parent booby was feeding to its young, but many of the male frigates simply sat in the branches of bushes, their huge, bright red neck pouches inflated to attract a mate.
We snorkeled nearby, spotting myriad tropical fish as well as rays and whitetip reef sharks. Back on board, we went for a dip in the hot tub at the bow before we showered in our private cabin and changed into fresh clothes for a buffet lunch. Afterward, we landed on the island of Mosquera, where sea lions were napping and nursing on a sweep of white sand.
The accommodations at Pikaia Lodge are surprisingly impressive. Perched on a hill amid 75 acres that have been replanted with some 9,000 native trees, the strikingly contemporary hotel has 12 suites with either patios or balconies, plus two larger suites, one of which has a private plunge pool. We opted for a Balcony Room, one floor up from the entry-level Terrace Rooms. In exchange for a negligible price increase, we received higher ceilings and unobstructed views toward the distant coast through floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside, dark bamboo floors contrasted with white walls. A king-size bed was draped with a red coverlet, and in a separate triangular room, a white leather sofa faced a flat-screen television. Inexplicably, this room lacked a table, which proved occasionally frustrating. The travertine bath contained an ample storage area, a lengthy counter with dual vanities, a spacious walk-in shower and a deep tub beneath a picture window.
Public spaces proved even more striking. In the airy lobby-lounge, a slab of black marble formed the front desk, and floor-to-ceiling windows faced a wide infinity pool that slowly changed color when illuminated at night. A sculpture of a DNA double helix rose like an exclamation point in the center of the adjacent restaurant, and other evolution-themed sculptures stood throughout the hotel. Many were quite beautiful and imaginative, such as a sculpture consisting of a convex mirror surrounded by metal finch heads and branches that was called “Darwin’s Insight.”
The restaurant (named, of course, Evolution) served satisfying if not world-class cuisine. A dish of local cod, for example, came with a delicate lemon cream sauce but also ponderous rolls of yucca and plantain encased in fried egg roll wrappers. The rare tuna teriyaki with al dente vegetables was flawless at lunch one day, but at the final barbecue dinner, the tuna was overcooked. The octopus, chicken, shrimp and local organic beef, however, were all well-prepared. Desserts were consistently excellent: I especially liked the creamy panna cotta with fresh berries, meringue and cake infused with local myrtle. After dinner one night, we headed to the Homo Sapiens Explorers Lounge in order to watch David Attenborough’s “Galapagos 3D” documentary. Alas, technical difficulties prevented us from seeing the program on the immense screen, but we enjoyed it in our own living room instead.
Mrs. Harper also enjoyed a massage in the Sumaq Spa, which has a couple’s treatment room, a Jacuzzi with a view and a perfunctory fitness center (no steam room or sauna). Her therapist looked petite but had hands of iron, and she gave a massage that was therapeutic as well as relaxing. However, no water or tea was offered afterward, and the lockers in the changing room lacked slippers.
In general, we had a magnificent time at Pikaia Lodge, but certain details such as the overcooked tuna and the spa oversights were problematic. These were likely not the fault of the staff, who were cheerful and eager to please, but rather the absent management. We met the general manager when we arrived at the property, but for the remaining three days, we never saw him again. With better staff training and more attention to detail, Pikaia could be an extraordinary property.
The extraordinary excursions; the spacious accommodations; the panoramic views; the always-friendly staff.
The spotty management presence; the occasional overlooked detail; the extremely high price.
I regretted not booking the four-night package, which includes two excursions on the lodge’s yacht.
Back on the mainland, the 22-room Mashpi Lodge provided a sharp contrast. General Manager Marc Bery always seemed to be about, checking in with guests and making the rounds in the dining room during meals. Mashpi makes an excellent companion property to Pikaia, having a similarly contemporary style but an utterly different setting in a cloud forest about three and a half hours northwest of Quito.
After the last of Quito’s suburbs had disappeared, we traveled through a landscape of soft mountains covered with dense forests that was interrupted only by an occasional small town. En route, we stopped at the Tulipe Archaeological Site, a series of now-empty sacred pools built by the enigmatic Yumbo people. In the surrounding region stand numerous unexcavated pyramids, still partially concealed by the jungle.
The last 50 minutes of the drive to Mashpi Lodge are along a bumpy gravel-and-dirt road, but once you arrive, there is no need to leave the property. A private 3,212-acre enclave is surrounded by a public reserve of 42,000 acres. These protect a vast swath of pristine cloud forest, part of the larger Chocó region, which ranks among the world’s biodiversity hot spots. According to our guide, there are about 95 endemic species of birds, reptiles and amphibians at Mashpi, to say nothing of the hundreds of nonendemic creatures. The reserve started as a logging concession, but because few mature hardwoods were easily accessible, the land has remained essentially untouched.
After a hospitable check-in, we settled into our Wayra King Room. The uncluttered décor focused our attention on the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lush forest. Along a white wall, a teak headboard accented the king-size bed, and a row of vertical teak fins partially shielded a side window, assuring privacy. A teak lattice formed a small chest of drawers and supported one side of a granite writing desk. The slate-tile floor continued into the bath, which contained a single vanity (surrounded by unpolished white-and-black granite) and a spacious walk-in shower. The room wasn’t large at 366 square feet, but we didn’t feel cramped, and I appreciated the intelligent design.
In the spectacular restaurant and bar, dramatic two-story windows faced the jungle. Torpedo-shaped floor lamps stood among the midcentury modern-style tables and chairs. To one side, a long L-shaped buffet provided a lavish breakfast selection as well as a surprisingly refined set of options at lunch, which featured dishes such as ceviche, steak with chimichurri, and Peruvian golden berry Bavarian cream. Three-course dinners proved equally appetizing: I relished my octopus with mushrooms and white truffle oil, perfectly cooked lamb chops with cilantro and local root vegetables, and passion fruit flan. The bar, in addition to serving cocktails often made with local Ecuadorian spirits, offered a wide range of wines by the glass.
Mashpi also has a full-service spa as well as a large hot tub with jungle views, which is available to anyone who wishes to reserve it (use of the tub is always private). There is no swimming pool, but I didn’t miss one, as we were too busy going on the well-run excursions.
After donning hefty rubber boots provided by the resort, we set off on our first hike down to the Copal waterfall, named for a tall hardwood with menthol-scented sap. Along the way, our guide pointed out brown dwarf iguanas, red lady’s slipper flowers and a rare black umbrellabird, resting on a branch not 50 feet away. Ferns, mosses and epiphytes flanked the silvery ribbon of a waterfall, which emptied into a shallow pool. On another hike, we descended to the equally beautiful Cucharillo waterfall, following its stream through a narrow valley that seemed straight out of the Jurassic. Our goal was Mashpi’s new aerial tram, an open-air cable car extending two kilometers through the jungle canopy and across deep, verdant gorges. Gliding in near silence above the forest, spotting birds and butterflies fluttering across the treetops, was an experience I won’t soon forget.
On our last morning, our superlative guide, Oscar, convinced me to meet at 6:30 a.m. in order to try the resort’s unique “Sky Bike,” a pedal-driven cable car for two that passes through a different section of the jungle canopy. Oscar gamely pedaled me along the cable so that I could observe the awakening forest. Before the sun peeked above a ridge, the jungle remained shrouded in mist, giving it a mysterious, almost ominous character. By the time we had finished, the sky had become a radiant blue. From the platform of an observation tower next to the bike, I could see the tops of nearby hills poking through the clouds below, like jungle islands in the sky. The view could scarcely have been more beautiful.
The pristine environment of the cloud forest; our good-humored and knowledgeable guide, Oscar; the superlative birding; the delicious food; the stylish contemporary design.
The lack of a second armchair in our room; the unreliable Wi-Fi.
Yaku Suites have separate tubs; no accommodations have televisions.