My idea of fun doesn’t usually involve creeping around in the dark, poking in bushes to find tarantulas and leaning in close to inspect their legs.
Yet here I am, walking beside my husband in the dead of night in Ecuador, both of us clad in Wellington boots.
We whoop with joy when we see a tiny, fluffy baby tarantula and practically shriek with excitement at spotting a small stick insect before noticing, a tiny rare frog sitting on a leaf and fluorescent in the darkness.
Three-and-a-half hours from Quito, in the middle of Ecuador’s Chocó-Andean rainforest, is one of the most surreal places I have visited – Mashpi Lodge, a futuristic glass-fronted hotel with 24 luxurious rooms.
It would be impressive no matter where it was. But its remote location has cemented its status as one of the world’s most desirable eco spots: a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World and one of six hotels featured in the BBC’s Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby series.
To wake up and look through the enormous windows straight on to the cloud forest or to dine on locally-sourced delicacies inside the double-storey glass-fronted dining room is memorable, but Mashpi is not just a place for visitors passively to enjoy the views. It is also a centre for scientific research, with guests invited to become adventurers and live like biologists during their stay.
Mashpi’s entire purpose is to preserve the endangered forest, and it does so not just by bringing in tourists and educating them but by hiring most of its staff from the area and funding research into the many local species, some of them discovered only in the past few years.
The lodge is on the site of what was a logging station and many of the staff, now staunch conservationists, were once loggers. One can only imagine, looking round one of the only biodiversity hotspots in the world, how different things could have been.
The hotel organises a variety of hikes for travellers of all fitness levels but they are not just walks in pretty surroundings: every few minutes, we stop to taste edible plants, dive into refreshing waterfalls, even sway on a swing made by the guide from vines wrapped round a tree root.
A night safari is totally different: you might be walking a path you walked during the day, but night is the time to spot very different creatures, pointed out by guides with seemingly supernatural powers of vision.
There’s also the chance to see the rainforest and the cloud forest from different perspectives: riding an aerial bicycle suspended on two points in the forest, and the Dragonfly, an open-air cable car that carries you through the forest canopy so you can spot sloths and birds hiding in the trees.
Mashpi Lodge is a major birdwatching destination, too: rest assured that even if the extent of your experience in this area has been dodging pigeons in Trafalgar Square, you’re guaranteed to go home a bona fide avian enthusiast.
How can you not, after watching tiny hummingbirds fly up to your nose, toucans of all colours snacking on bananas and crested owls hooting from the trees all in the same day? The guides are patient and thorough, explaining each species and never making you feel ignorant for not being able to name them yourself.
There are nightly talks on everything from understanding amphibians to using binoculars to take wildlife photos; my guide, Estuardo, knew all there is to know about birds, mushrooms, trees and any other topics we threw at him.
It is a testament to the enthusiasm, passion and knowledge of the guides that I, who would normally scream if I saw a tiny spider, was now overjoyed to learn more about tarantulas.
After two days at Mashpi, we left the magic of the forest and headed for a more urban adventure in Quito, Ecuador’s capital.
We stayed at Casa Gangotena, a 31-bedroom boutique hotel in a restored historic mansion in the centre of the old town, overlooking Plaza San Francisco. The hotel is magnificent: spacious rooms with original details such as intricate hand-painted ceilings and a terrace with wonderful views over the old town as well as the surrounding mountains and volcanos. The highlight is the light-filled patio, ideal for afternoon tea in one of the cosy sitting areas.
Casa Gangotena is ideally placed to explore the old town, filled with historic churches, bustling cafés and varied museums, the presidential palace, Palacio de Carondelet, and the enormous Gothic church, Basilica del Voto Nacional.
There is Jewish life, too. The community is small, a few hundred families in the whole country, but active: there is a beautiful synagogue, Communidad de Judia de Ecuador, and a Chabad centre that enthusiastically welcomed my husband for Friday-night service and offers tourists kosher meals and accommodation for shabbat.
If you love beautiful cities, stunning natural scenery and learning about conservation in a magical setting, make time for Quito and Mashpi Lodge. You may not lose your fear at the sight of a spider in the bath, but you will come back with a sense of wonder at such an incredible place .
Deborah stayed at Mashpi Lodge (mashpilodge.com), where rates are from £1,017 per room, per night on an all-inclusive basis, including meals, activities and transfers to and from major Quito hotels. She also stayed at Casa Gangotena (www.casagangotena.com), where rates are from £303 per room, per night on a B&B basis.