The very notion of luxury travel is being re-worked. Old-fashioned, ostentatious “luxury” hotels are clearly outmoded, as today’s high-end travelers are searching for experiential adventure. They are looking to “get inside” a destination – connecting with the indigenous culture, sampling the local food, and appreciating local designs. These modern-day explorers pursue not just vacations, but life-changing experiences. We should note, though, that this search for authentic experience and adventure is inclined to be balanced with the desire for responsible and environmentally conscious travel.
For these reasons, the Latin American “eco-lodges” are increasingly attractive. A host of these jungle lodges can be found in and near the Amazonian rainforest, as this region stretches across several countries and over thousands of square miles. We’ve picked out our five best eco-lodges in the country where the Amazon is most accessible: Ecuador.
1. Mashpi Lodge: A big-city hotel in the middle of the cloud forest
Though situated in the Ecuadorian cloud forest — rather than in the lower Amazonian basin — this jewel of a property is internationally recognized as one of Latin America’s most upscale eco-lodges.
Perched at 3,116 feet (900 m) above sea level, the lodge’s grounds cover over 2,500 acres of the endangered Choco forest. Within this, an incredible 500 species of birds (36 of which are endemic) call it home. Meanwhile, monkeys, peccaries, and even puma also inhabit the reserve, as do a profusion of plant species – from ferns and bromeliads to hundreds of orchid species, many newly-discovered ones.
This is no stripped-down, sweaty jungle refuge; instead, its amenities on par with a big-city guesthouse. This boutique hotel is designed in glass that’s set within a steel framework to give guests a front-row seat to one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet.
Here, you awake with nature within arm’s reach of your floor-to-ceiling windows. The lodge itself was constructed employing the latest techniques in sustainable building, after being fashioned to sensitively blend into its natural surroundings. Here, you are not going to a rustic, accommodating a maximum of 44 visitors, Mashpi Lodge’s 22 luxurious rooms and suites each looking out on the cacophony of trees, vines, and birds just a few feet away. Indeed, each of the guest quarters features minimalist decor, mixing warm earth tones, notes of bright color, clean lines, and striking angles and vistas to form a “luxury cocoon in the cloud forest.” Dining is a gourmet affair that spotlights regional cuisine prepared with fresh local products and served in the stunning two-story dining room, while the daily cloud forest excursions are led by professional guides who can take you on fascinating treks along nature trails, dips in waterfalls, and introduce you to a completely different world on nocturnal cloud forest walks.
These facilities and the setting provide an ideal place for contemplation and relaxation for those travelers with discerning tastes.
2. Hamadryade Lodge: Grand luxury, Amazonian-style
At the Hamadryade Lodge, you’ll also find a “luxurious” quality that is increasingly scarce: time, a pause, the chance to disconnect. Only 3½ hours from the Ecuadorian capital city of Quito, this primeval world awaits deep in the Amazonian rainforest, though your stay will be in this lodge’s elegant and urbane ambiance.
Exclusive and exceedingly private, the five spacious bungalows at Hamadryade eco-lodge provide for the perfect blend of such adventure and luxury. The smart accommodations come with Italian linen, large windows that look out onto a majestic tributary of the Amazon River, and luxurious bathrooms. Indeed, the spacious showers feature natural stones for a private, soothing experience. Yet for those guests requiring deeper relaxation, there’s an on-site massage hut. Each of the bungalows forms a harmonious alliance between tradition and modern design, as their traditional toquilla roofs and interior decorations pay homage to the mysterious cultures of various Amazonian ethnic groups. Meals are prepared on-site by the eco-lodge’s French owner-managers, who are known especially for their three-course candlelight dinners in the middle of the world’s most famous jungle.
As the lodge is situated in the High Amazon, at a 1,500-foot altitude, the ecosystem here is quite different from the lower regions. All year-round, the temperature in this area averages a pleasant 75°F (24°C), while the absence of swamps means the area doesn’t suffer from the presence of annoying mosquitoes.
This undulating topography also offers the chance to enjoy pristine whitewater rivers during day trips, whether by rafting, kayaking, or “tubing.” However, the wider range of activities includes everything from hikes in the primary and secondary forest, to specialized tours (ornithology or entomology, among others), as well as visits to indigenous Kichwa and Waorani communities, and night walks to discover the nocturnal wildlife of the rainforest jungle.
3. Selva Lodge: The best of Yasuni Reserve
An eco-friendly facility whose name itself means “the jungle, the Selva Lodge is one of those destinations where one truly feels more like a true traveler rather than a simple “tourist.” This 30-year-old lodge is located near eastern Ecuador’s border with Peru in Yasuni National Park, which itself covers more than 3,600 square miles (9,820 km2) of primary rainforest.
This reserve — considered one of the most biologically diverse spots on the planet — was designated a UNESCO “Biosphere Reserve” in 1989 and lies within the claimed ancestral territory of the indigenous Huaorani community and two “uncontacted” tribes. Yet, despite its remote location, the recently renovated La Selva is now the most luxurious eco-lodge in the Yasuni.
Distributed across the lodge’s grounds in a number of structures are 18 deluxe suites built in part from local materials like bamboo and thatching. Nevertheless, the lodge’s European owner has imported a host of stylish elements, such as fine linens, smartly styled reading lights, and L’Occitane toiletries, as well as marble-tile and hardwood floors. Still, you’re more likely to spend more of your downtime out on your balcony or deck, or relaxing in a hot tub with a glass of good wine following the day’s rainforest excursion.
Yet the lavish pampering doesn’t stop there. You can get a massage at the on-site spa, or participate in one of the daily Selva Lodge yoga classes. Plus, the cuisine here also gets high marks – as does the lodge’s lounge, restaurant and bar facilities.
On top of all this, La Selva Lodge offers an observation tower that provides an eye-level view of rainforest birds and wildlife from above the rainforest canopy. Such biodiversity can also be revealed to you from the ground level during one of the naturalist-guided hikes provided at the La Selva eco-lodge. After hours of treetop observations, an excursion to local villages, a swim in the lake, and a night hike with flashlight in hand, you’ll be lulled to sleep by the sounds of the jungle – a special way to end the day.
4. Napo Wildlife Center Eco-lodge: In touch with ancestral traditions
Owned and managed by the local indigenous community itself, travelers are given an authentic introduction to life in the Amazon at the Napo Wildlife Center & Eco-lodge. The complex’s “Interpretation Centre” is one of the main attractions, as it is a place where you can learn about ancestral traditions and the way of life of the indigenous Kichwa Añangu community, the plants and wildlife of the region, surviving in the jungle, medicinal plants, and more.
Built according to traditional architectural principles — but with all the modern conveniences included — the Napo Wildlife Center Eco-Lodge consists of 16 luxury thatched bungalows, each with a private bathroom, insect screens, mosquito nets, and views of the forest and the center’s own private lake: serene Lake Añangucocha.
The lodge has a large open-air restaurant/dining area, a reading room, and a well-stocked bar, in addition to providing laundry service and Internet access (charges payable on-site). There are also two observation towers: one next to public rooms and another one in the forest. The one attached to the bar is a 15-meter-high (50-foot) viewing tower. Deep in the forest nearby, there’s also a 36.5 meter (120-foot) stainless steel canopy tower built next to a giant 47-meter high (155-foot) kapok tree with a viewing platform, allowing guests to observe the wildlife above the forest floor.
5. Sacha Lodge: A diamond in the rough
Sacha Lodge can pretty much be summed up in the expression “Roughing it in Style.” You won’t get a bath butler, a pillow menu or room service – in fact, you might even find a frog hopping into your shower; but at this 5,000-acre private reserve, you’ll be surrounded by all the amazing biodiversity that the rainforest has to offer …including eight species of monkeys, exotic birds, bats, frogs, caimans, and tapirs.
Getting there means a 25-minute flight from Quito to the provincial capital, followed by a 2½-hour ride downriver in a motorized canoe, and ending with a 20-minute walk through the rainforest. But the scenic trip is more than worth the effort.
Sacha Lodge offers its guests comfortable accommodations and hearty meals in a true jungle setting. Each of its 26 cabins is built on a boardwalk and has a view of the jungle rainforest from its terrace. Activities at Sacha Lodge include birdwatching, hiking, night walks, and nocturnal canoe trips for caimans spotting.
A lovely view over the adjacent lake can be taken in from the open-air restaurant and bar area, while Sacha’s “canopy walk” — stretching 900 feet (275 meters) and elevated 100 feet (30 meters) above the ground — provides a unique and amazing opportunity to view the tropical rainforest from a totally different perspective. Because it was built for stability, it’s even accessible to those people who are nervous about heights. The services of bilingual naturalists and native guides are also available.
To discover travel experiences like these found in the Ecuadorian Amazon, we suggest that you select a knowledgeable tour operator (Surtrek, of course) that can work with you to custom design such adventures. Expert travel coordinators will help you to plan and seamlessly carry out a tour that introduces you to the real — “authentic” — Ecuador in a sustainable manner that leaves the most minimal impact on this nature-rich region.