Ecuador’s Enigmatic Wildlife

This is one of our new series of tours that we are calling Enigmatic Wildlife Tours (EWT). While most birding and wildlife tours focus on seeing as much as possible, very few focus on quality encounters with the least known and most charismatic wildlife on the planet. Tropical Birding’s new EWT tours focus on encounters with some of Earth’s most desirable and poorly-known species, and we shall use our time to make sure we maximize our chances of unforgettable encounters. While we do so, we shall certainly enjoy all the other wildlife around us, and not neglect all the other surrounding beauty. It’s important to mention that while we will do everything we can do to find these rare animals, nothing is guaranteed.

The tiny nation of Ecuador in South America is a well-known hotspot for biodiversity, being located in the richest part of the world – the tropics of northern South America. Birds abound there, and there are some tasty mammals too. The windswept paramo grasslands of the high Andes are home to Spectacled Bears and Mountain Tapirs, while the Amazon jungle hosts a series of primates, like Golden-mantled Tamarin, Monk Saki and Pygmy Marmoset, as well as Pink River Dolphin, prehistoric Hoatzins, and busy parrot licks. We will also search for the Olinguito, an Andean mammal only described to science in 2013! The combination of incredible tropical birds, a heathy accompaniment of mammals, and other creatures like colorful poison dart frogs will leave you in no doubt you have visited one of the most treasured parts of the World for natural history. This will all be done while staying in very good accommodation throughout.


Day 1: Arrival in Quito. After arrival in Quito, you will be transferred to a hotel in Ecuador’s capital for the night.

Tayra at Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Tayra at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 2: Quito to the Tandayapa Valley. Leaving the capital early, we will depart for a feeder site near Mindo, where the scarce Mountain Coati sometimes visits the feeders. Even without the coati, our visit will be worthwhile, with tanagers and hummingbirds always present, even if the species mix fluctuates. Some of the exciting possibilities include Golden-naped and Golden Tanagers, Red-headed Barbet, Velvet-purple Coronet, and Empress Brilliant. After a morning in this area we will move to a lodge in the cloudforest – Tandayapa Bird Lodge. Red-tailed Squirrel, Central American Agouti and Tayra all drop into the feeders from time to time. At night, a walk on the forest trails might produce an Allen’s Olingo, Kinkajou, or Colombian Screech-Owl. A single night will be spent in Tandayapa Bird Lodge.

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan near Tandayapa
Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan near Tandayapa (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Cock-of-the-rocks and the Tandayapa Valley. In the early morning we will find ourselves inside the cloudforest awaiting dawn. The end of night, and the arrival of dawn, will be announced by the harsh, pig-like squeals of the spectacular Andean Cock-of-the-rock, males of which gather at dawn to lure in females with their dancing and ugly noises! These vermilion red birds are like no others in the World, being an iconic bird of the Andes mountains. On the way back to Tandayapa Bird Lodge for lunch, we will stop in on a feeder site where the spectacular Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan can be found. We will also spend time at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge feeders, awaiting the arrival of birds and mammals into the afternoon. Later, we shall check into a higher elevation cloudforest lodge, where at night, we will look for Olinguito (a mammal only described in 2013) and Andean White-eared Possum. Another night will be spent in the Tandayapa Valley.

Andean Cock-of-the-rock a dazzling cloudforest bird
Andean Cock-of-the-rock a dazzling cloudforest bird (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 4: Tandayapa Valley to Papallacta. Our early morning activity will depend on our success thus far, we may return to feeders to check for Tayras or Mountain Coatis, or bird the local cloudforest, with its many specialties of the Choco bioregion. By the afternoon, we will depart for Papallacta, in the high Andes, where our mammal searches will begin that afternoon. The next two nights we will be staying in a wonderful hotel with hot baths, fed from hot springs sourced from the local mountains.

When the hummingbirds depart for the night, the bats move in!
When the hummingbirds depart for the night, the bats move in! (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 5: Papallacta and Coca Cayambe National Park. Our focus on this day will be the scenic, windswept paramo grasslands above the treeline close to the town of Papallacta. This is the hallowed ground for two very special mammals – Spectacled Bear and Mountain Tapir. These high Andes are also home to an eclectic mix of birds, including hummingbirds like Ecuadorian Hillstar, Shining Sunbeam, and Blue-mantled Thornbill that managed to eke out a living among this dramatic landscape. A second night will be spent in a good hotel in Papallacta.

Spectacled Bear in the high Andes
Spectacled Bear in the high Andes (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Papallacta and Guango. This highland lodge lies a little lower down the east side of the mountains from Papallacta and is included for several reasons. Firstly, the forest trails are home to Mountain Tapirs at night, and secondly the hummingbird feeders are legendary, attracting species like the outlandish Sword-billed Hummingbird, jewel-like Tourmaline Sunangel, and tiny, bee-like White-bellied Woodstar. Torrent Ducks and White-capped Dippers also frequent the rushing Andean waters below the lodge. A single night will be spent at the lodge.

Mountain Tapir at Guango
Mountain Tapir at Guango (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Guango to San Isidro. After some final time around Guango or Papallacta (depending on what we are still seeking), we will continue our descent of the eastern side of the Andes, spending a night at another wonderful cloudforest lodge, San Isidro. This night we will be seeking two special animals, the Colombian (Lemurine) Night Monkey, and a mystery owl that both frequent the lodge grounds at night.

Day 8: San Isidro to The Amazon. The mornings around the lodge at San Isidro can be an exciting place to be with birds attracted in to prey on the many insects that come to the lodge lights overnight; species like Masked Trogon, Green Jay, and Subtropical Cacique are often among the throng. After breakfast we shall also attend visit a forest feeding station, where the rare White-bellied Antpitta often visits. By mid-morning, we will be on our way again, and again descending the Andes to reach the low-lying town of Coca our gateway to the Amazon. After lunch, we will take first a motorized canoe, then paddled canoe, to Napo Wildlife Center, our home for the next three nights.

Masked Crimson Tanager in the Amazon
Masked Crimson Tanager in the Amazon (Sam Woods)

Days 9-10: The Amazon Part I (Napo Wildlife Center). After the previous days combing the highland grasses of the Andes, this will be very different, as we walk forest trails, search for animals by canoe, view from canopy towers, and spotlight at night in the lowland tropical rainforest of the Amazon. Mammals are best represented here than anywhere else in Ecuador, with a jaw-dropping selection of primates possible; White-bellied Spider Monkey, Golden-mantled Tamarin, Red Titi Monkey, Napo Saki, Spix’s Night Monkey, and Venezuelan Red Howler Monkey, and Pygmy Marmoset all possible! Giant Otters are also a real possibility in this area too. A canopy tower gives access to canopy bird species, like parrots, including macaws, toucans, trogons, tanagers, and cotingas. Some of the most interesting birds in the area include Hoatzins that lurk by the lakesides, Sungrebe along the forested waterways, and Agami Heron that frequents the shady edges of narrow rivers and creeks, where all 5 American kingfishers can also be found. There is also a bewildering variety of puffbirds, antbirds, woodcreepers, trogons, manakins, and flycatchers on offer. As well as these species, nocturnal birds like Great Potoo and Crested Owl are often available at day roosts, and we can experience some great creatures on nightwalks, along with the dazzling red, blue, yellow and black Wikiri Poison Frog by day.

Black Caimans live in the lagoon beside the Amazon lodges
Black Caimans live in the lagoon beside the Amazon lodges (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 11: The Amazon Part II (Napo Wildlife Center to Sani Lodge). On this day we will swap one Amazon lodge for another, this one located nearer the main Napo River, a major tributary of the mighty Amazon itself. Our transfer between the lodge will allow us to visit the famous parrot lick in Yasuni National Park, where hundreds of parrots gather daily to get their daily mineral intake. This sometimes includes Scarlet Macaws, alongside Orange-cheeked Parrot and Cobalt-winged Parakeet. Two nights will be spent at Sani Lodge.

We'll visit a parrot lick in the Amazon
We'll visit a parrot lick in the Amazon (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 12: The Amazon Part II (Sani Lodge area). On this morning we will make a special visit to a secluded blackwater lake, where Pink River Dolphins are often found swimming within the glassy waters. We will take a boxed lunch with us allowing us to be flexible with the afternoon plan; we can peruse for mammals from forest-lined creeks, drop in on river islands for a special selection of birds, like Oriole Blackbirds, or seek out Pygmy Marmosets around the lodge! A final night will be spent in the Amazon, at Sani Lodge.

Poepigg's Woolly Monkey in the Amazon
Poepigg's Woolly Monkey in the Amazon (Sam Woods)

Day 13: The Amazon to Quito. In the morning we shall regrettably leave the Amazon behind, returning to Quito by air, following a boat trip back to the city of Coca.

Day 14: Departure from Quito. Departures can be taken out anytime during this day or late night the evening before, as that is when many flights depart.

Culpeo at Papallacta
Culpeo at Papallacta (Sam Woods)

Toucan Barbet from the Andean cloudforest
Toucan Barbet from the Andean cloudforest (Sam Woods)

Venezuela Howler Monkey in the Amazon
Venezuela Howler Monkey in the Amazon (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Another colorful canopy bird from the Amazon: Purple-throated Cotinga
Another colorful canopy bird from the Amazon: Purple-throated Cotinga (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts will be needed to be out in the field early. Breakfast is typically served between 05:00-05:30am. The driving on this tour is generally on good roads, with only short periods of driving on dirt roads. The drives are not especially long on this tour, the longest being around 3 hours on . There will be some optional night walks and drives offered to try and find the nocturnal animals throughout. On some days there will be some downtime offered during the day, mainly during the Amazon section of the trip. A few packed lunches may be taken in the field. There are regular boat rides in the Amazon, with one of around 5 hours on day 8 (the latter part of this often being good for wildlife), to go in, and another of around 3 hours coming out of there on day 13. There are also shorter boat rides while based there.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. You will need to be able to walk at least 3 miles (5 km) per day on average, some of that on mountain trails. Some short sections of trails might be muddy and slippery (e.g. Guango Lodge). We will walk slowly, especially at altitude. Some parts of this tour are spent at altitude. Quito is located at 9,350 ft (2850m). Around Tandayapa on days 2-4), the altitudes covered will be between 5580-7545ft (1700-2300m). The highest days of the tour will be the last part of day 4 through the morning of day 7, which will be between 8530-13780ft (2600-4200m). However, on these days the walking is limited and almost entirely from roads, with some short forest trails walks optional there.

CLIMATE: Highly variable. In the high Andes, it can be near freezing and windy. At Tandayapa and San Isidro it is quite pleasant (usually 53°-78°F, 12°-26°C). In the Amazon it is hot and humid (usually 72°-90°F, 22°-32°C). Some rain can be expected, especially in the afternoons and evenings.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. Electricity is available everywhere 24 hours a day, except at Sani Lodge, where the generator is turned off from about 10pm-4am. Both Napo Wildlife Center and Sani Lodge have ceiling fans, though they only operate when the generator is running. The nights in the Ecuadorian Amazon are surprisingly cool.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all European countries. Visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help. Proof of medical insurance is required to visit Ecuador. While this is rarely checked, it is important that you have a policy that covers you in Ecuador, and to bring proof of coverage to present to immigration officials.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; one-way air ticket from Coca to Quito on day 13; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 13; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 14 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the night of day 13; local guide at Napo Wildlife Center and Sani Lodge; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 8 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; boat transport between Coca and Napo Wildlife Center on day 8 (may be shared with other lodge guests); private boat transport in both hand-paddled and motorized canoes for the group while at Napo Wildlife Center and Sani Lodge; boat transport between Sani Lodge and Coca on day 14 (may be shared with other lodge guests); entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in the city hotels (if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.