El Monte Sustainable Lodge :: Mindo, Ecuador

Staying in a jungle lodge with no electricity probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s list of ideas for luxury travel, but a visit to El Monte Sustainable Lodge in Ecuador is a rare treat away from the stresses that come with an electrified life.

While there’s no electricity at the lodge complex, individual propane heaters provide relaxing baths and soothing showers with views of shrub-sized bromeliads, fist-sized butterflies and, if you’re lucky, a big green Toucan or brightly colored Quetzal. The roomy streamside cabanas are appointed with plush furniture crafted from local woods and decorated with indigenous textiles. Well-trained cooks produce some of the most fantastic vegetarian meals I’ve tasted, using propane-fired stoves and working with ingredients pulled from the lodge’s sprawling garden or gathered in the nearby town of Mindo (including eggs and the occasional chicken or turkey). Juices are squeezed fresh daily. The pasta and breads are made from scratch. The liquor cabinet is well stocked with South American reds and whites, Ecuadorean beers and some liquors.

There’s a luxury in the simplicity of life at El Monte, in using a headlamp to read at night; in watching a cook power a blender with a jerry-rigged bicycle gear, chain and pedal; in tasting a glass of freshly-squeezed tree tomato (tamarillo) juice; in playing leisurely board games next to a roaring fire; in having long candle-lit conversations with lodge owners Tom Quesenbery and Mariela Tenorio; in doing all of it while leaving a minimal impact on the environment.

The couple (she’s Ecuadorean; he’s from Mississippi) bought the land northwest of Quito in the high cloud forest jungle 13 years ago and made it their home. They opened El Monte as a sustainable eco-lodge in 1998, drawing from Tom’s experience as a guide at high-end lodges in Ecuador’s Amazonian jungles of the east. It wasn’t an easy endeavor, but the recent addition of three cabanas, bringing the total number of guest houses to six, reached the critical mass needed to keep the operation viable.

About half of the guests come from the US with the other half made of up those from the U.K., Canada and elsewhere. We shared three days at the lodge with a couple from the Netherlands and a family from Ohio. Most visitors are environmentally conscious when they get to the lodge, more so when they leave. “Our hope is that people leave a little differently,? Tom said. “It’s important that even on vacation, people learn about what’s going on in the world.?

Electricity probably will come to El Monte one day, but only on Tom and Mariela’s terms, meaning that it’s as unobtrusive and non-polluting as possible, perhaps from hydro-electric power. Their philosophy is “we’ll do without until we can do it ourselves.? They designed and built the entire complex, with help from local craftsman. Mariela’s new project is finishing a river-fed, rock-lined lap pool.

One thing El Monte will continue to do without is a bridge, in spite of some tour companies’ entreaties to build one. Guests must use a pulley cable-car made of boards and ropes to get themselves and their gear across the Mindo River to the lodge. It’s actually a lot of fun as you swing and sway and zoom from one side of the river to the other.

Each thatch-roofed cabana is unique with a different design and layout. What they have in common is a lot of space and comfort. Some have two floors, others have large rooms spread through one level, all with comfortable beds on raised bamboo platforms, sitting areas, tables and storage space. Candles and kerosene lamps are provided, but bring a headlamp or flashlight for walking around after dark and additional lighting inside.

The main lodge includes several open-air sitting areas, plush floor pillows, a large fireplace and smaller fire pit, huge dining table, the kitchen, a patio and, upstairs, Tom and Mariela’s home. The lodge’s openness was Mariela’s idea, designed to provide a comfortable inside environment without missing what’s going on outside. Meals are served in the main lodge three times a day, flexible enough to meet guests’ schedules, instead of a fixed routine.

El Monte is surrounded by the jungle. Each visit includes a naturalist/guide eager to provide an exploration of the surrounding forests for bird watching, a tour of the nearby butterfly preserve, a hike to a lovely waterfall, a ride on a large valley-crossing cable car, an inner-tube float down the river or a startling roar through the tree tops on the fairly new zip line in the hills above the lodge.

There are only two rules at El Monte: leave your shoes outside (slippers are provided) and don’t put wet towels on the bed. Other than that, you’re free to act as you please and enjoy the luxury of no electricity.

To learn more about El Monte Sustainable Lodge, go to www.ecuadorcloudforest.com. A tip: save money and cater to your own tastes by having your driver from the Quito airport stop at a liquor store to pick up some beverages for your visit. The El Monte staff will uncork and provide wine glasses.

Posted by Janet Day on October 22, 2007 in Food, Travel

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