One of the many fantastic initiatives at Mashpi is The Life Centre, a place conceived for the study of butterflies.
The butterfly ‘lab’ is close to the lodge and easiest to get to by walking through the forest. There’s something undeniably lovely about arriving at each destination by way of a rainforest stroll! Various students from around the world are studying here, completing their PHD thesis papers on these ethereal creatures. The enclosed garden is a tranquil place, bursting with plants and flowers – each a ‘home’ plant for a different species of butterfly to lay their eggs on. As I wander around the garden hundreds of butterflies flutter around me – there are over 200 different types found here, so the variety of size, colour and markings is astonishing. I can’t stop taking photos and it will be a difficult culling process!
But the lab itself is even more interesting – a series of cabinets, tubs and buckets where I am able to see each step of the butterfly metamorphosis. From the tiny white eggs that look like the top of a pin, to larva and various sized caterpillars, to chrysalis and then finally beautiful butterfly. One of the glassed cabinets displays chrysalises (or ‘pupas’) in various stages of action – some empty, some freshly created by its caterpillar, some with a butterfly recently emerged and clinging on, upside down, waiting for its wings to dry.
The pupas differ in size, shape and colour: there are big ones camouflaged to look like a shriveled up leaf; and small, gold ones that are so shiny they look like jewelry – like a pendant to be hung on a chain. As vast as the forest is, sometimes it’s the smallest things that capture your attention. As I stood transfixed by the cabinet full of pupas, a butterfly suddenly emerged from its chrysalis, unfurling its wings to the collective gasp of all of us watching.
The forest is undoubtedly fascinating during the day, so can you imagine it at night?! Armed with a headlamp each, we were guided by our Naturalist on a night walk at 7pm, which is pitch black in the forest. It was an eerily beautiful experience and at one point our guide encouraged us to stop and turn off all our lights… as we strained to see something, anything, fireflies sparked in the sky and vague shapes slowly materialized – many covered in a fungus called Fox Fire that glows in the dark!
It is one of the forest’s many wonders that the guides at Mashpi are yet to discover the purpose of – for as they say, everything in nature has a function and a purpose. The forest looks and feels different at night, with its nocturnal dwellers coming out to play… such as purple, velvety tarantulas, glistening with the wetness of their surrounds. For those wary of spiders, remember that the Naturalists can spot the smallest things from afar and they give plenty of notice – you only get as close as you wish! (And the guides permit.)
Each experience was amazing and fulfilling in its own way but my favourite has to be the Hummingbird Station. Having never seen hummingbirds before, I was fascinated by these speedy, miniature birds. Mashpi is home to 32 different species and some of the colours in their feathers are unbelievable – purples, aquas and greens so shiny and iridescent they look metallic.
These tiny birds are incredibly curious and whiz by and around you at breakneck speed, their wings beating between 50-200 times per second… and if you happen to be wearing bright colours, they’ll come very close, trying to work out if you’re a flower!
Quite by accident I discovered that pink must be their favourite colour; my smartphone case is bright coral pink and as I had it outstretched, attempting to take a photo, several of the hummingbirds flew right up to it, hovering around it midair while their wings flapped rapidly – one actually perched on the phone for a couple of seconds, thinking it might be a flower to feed from! The Naturalist gasped, saying he had never seen that before.
The site has a great view and there are some feeders set up, which the birds eagerly buzz between as you observe them… but taking a good photo is another story! They move so fast that they’re hard to capture without a good camera and lens.
My smartphone has a slo-mo video setting and I had great fun recording these adorable birds. I recorded them at 240fps (the video is 10 times slower than ‘real’ time, which is 24 frames per second) and it makes for fascinating viewing – the birds move so fast that the real time videos look like they’re in fast forward and the slo-mo videos look like real time! A hummingbird that hovered in front of my phone for a split second in real time is slowed down enough in the video that it hovers for several seconds, looking directly at the lens while its wings flap, before it drifts off.
I can’t say it any other way – I love hummingbirds!
On the morning of my last day at Mashpi, departure wasn’t till1.30pm, so after an hour of bird watching and then breakfast, a walk down to a waterfall for a swim was on the agenda. It was a steep hike down to the bottom and I couldn’t help but think about the trek back up… but strangely it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I anticipated, which was the same for every hike.
The Naturalists set a leisurely pace and there’s not a lot of chatter as everyone concentrates on the upwards climb. Being a tropical rainforest, it is humid and sticky… but maybe it’s the sheer wonder of the place that takes your mind off the cardio effort! The waterfall was of course incredibly picturesque and well worth the trip down and back up – we all eagerly stripped down to our swimsuits to jump into the pool at its base.
The water pounded down with such force that swimming up to the cascade itself proved difficult, the fall hitting the pool and sending a strong current away from it. After a few attempts we all managed to push through the force of the water and swim across to the rocky alcoves on either side of the cascade – the rocks worn smooth and shiny over time. Inching under the waterfall made for a strong massage as the water pummelled our shoulders!
My time at Mashpi was equal parts relaxation and activity – an awesome combination! The lodge environment is extremely peaceful and calm (and the food is amazing), but the friendly and enormously knowledgeable Naturalist guides ensure you spend plenty of time in the forest. Just as I was settling into tranquil Chocó life, it was time to leave… but the 4-hour drive back to Quito provided some nice reflection – and time to cull my MANY hummingbird photos!
Click to read the first part of Amy’s Adventure.
Written by Amy McCulloch
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