I’ll be forever grateful for a past Virtuoso Life assignment that brought me to the Galápagos Islands, but my follow-up trip to explore and report on continental Ecuador left an equally indelible impression. The country’s mainland, I found, has plenty of its own magic, made from its mix of indigenous cultures, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and one of the world’s highest concentrations of natural biodiversity.

One of my favorite stops was Mashpi Lodge, sequestered in a private nature reserve 100 miles northwest of Quito. The lodge partners with local communities to create a sustainable future and its formation led to the protection of more than 40,000 acres of surrounding rain and cloud forest. During my stay I observed endemic orchid and bird species (and, equally intriguing, birding fanatics from as far as Australia), hiked to hidden waterfalls, rode a “sky bike” (yes, that’s a thing, read on), met passionate conservationists, dined on traditional Ecuadorian dishes (and loads of local chocolate), and gazed at bioluminescent flora on night treks through the forest. Here, a few of my favorite photos from the trip.

Flora in Ecuador's Mashpi Reserve.
Green giants: Massive tree ferns, walking palms, and elephant-ear plants thrive in the forest’s understory.
Mashpi Lodge interior.
From the inside, Mashpi’s minimalist design and floor-to-ceiling windows keep nature close.
A Mashpi guide showing off forest flora.
More than two-thirds of Mashpi’s staff come from local communities, including naturalist guides who once earned a living as loggers. At the lodge’s Life Centre, a farmer who previously poisoned caterpillars with pesticides now helps care for scores of resident butterflies.
A Mashpi guide showing off forest fauna.
One of my guides, shown here handling a millipede, devoted his off-hours to saving the region’s vulnerable spectacled bears.
Birding book at Mashpi Lodge.
For the birds – and the birders: Some 400 avian species – 36 of which are endemic – roost in the reserve.
Avian life in Ecuador's cloud forest.
A broad-billed motmot perches on a mossy limb.
The "sky bike" at Mashpi Lodge.
Wild ride: Mashpi’s recumbent “sky bike” travels 200 feet above the forest floor.
Morning in Ecuador's cloud forest.
When the world feels chaotic, I channel my mornings spent on the lodge’s second-story terrace, simply watching clouds dissolve into the surrounding forest.

See more of Virtuoso senior editor Joel Centano’s photos at joelcentanophoto.com and on Instagram @joelcentano.

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