Eastern Ecuador: High Andes to Vast Amazon

On this varied tour we cover everything from the windswept páramo grasslands and snow-capped peaks of the high Andes all the way down to the humid rainforests of the Amazon basin. The biodiversity of this area is arguably the highest in the world, with more than 1000 bird species recorded from the region. A series of excellent lodges makes this trip a delight and accessible for anyone.



See more photos on our Flickr site.

Day 1: Quito
Most flights arrive in the evenings. You will be met at the airport and taken to a Quito hotel for the night. On this tour we highly recommend arriving a day early to prepare for the high altitude of the first two days. Our office can arrange this for you as well as provide an airport transfer.

Antisana holds the largest population of Andean Condors in Ecuador
Antisana holds the largest population of Andean Condors in Ecuador (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Antisana
As we climb up the eastern Andes, we leave the crowded metropolis of Quito far below us. On clear days the views of the snow-clad volcanoes of Antisana and Cotopaxi are staggering. Today we bird montane scrub and verdant páramo looking for Black-faced (Andean) Ibis, Andean Condor, Carunculated Caracara, Ecuadorian Hillstar, and many other high Andean species. A nearby lake holds a variety of waterfowl, including Silvery Grebe. Later we drive over Papallacta Pass and down to Guango Lodge for the night (a journey of around an hour and a quarter). This small lodge boasts great hummer feeders, which attract Tourmaline Sunangel, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Collared Inca, Long-tailed Sylph, and the incredible Sword-billed Hummingbird.

We'll need to reach nearly 14,000ft to try for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe
We'll need to reach nearly 14,000ft to try for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Papallacta, Guango, and San Isidro
We start birding near Papallacta Pass. The páramo here is wet and lush, and we’ll look for species that we didn’t see yesterday, like the charismatic Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe and the skulking White-chinned Thistletail. Lower down we search the Polylepis woodland for Giant Conebill and Black-backed Bush-Tanager before birding our way down to San Isidro, checking for Torrent Ducks as we go. Located on an old ranch adjacent to extensive subtropical cloudforest, Cabañas San Isidro will be our base for the next two nights.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet; one of the most numerous hummers at the Guango feeders
Chestnut-breasted Coronet; one of the most numerous hummers at the Guango feeders (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 4: San Isidro
We spend the whole day birding the subtropical forest, and there is plenty to keep us busy. Large mixed species flocks roam the forest and hold flashy birds such as Saffron-crowned Tanager, Black-eared Hemispingus, and Rufous-breasted Flycatcher. Cute Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatchers, and Long-tailed Antbirds skulk in the bamboo but can be found with a little work. At night we’ll search for the “mystery” owl that lives near the cabins; this bird could be an undescribed race or even a new species.

The subtropical forests around San Isdiro hold the gorgeous Golden-collared Honeycreeper
The subtropical forests around San Isdiro hold the gorgeous Golden-collared Honeycreeper (Iain Campbell)

Day 5: Guacamayos to Sumaco
Only 30 minutes’ drive from San Isidro is the famous Cordillera de Guacamayos, an outlying ridge of the Andes with extensive forest and numerous rare and local species. Birding a trail along the ridge, we may see Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Slate-crowned Antpitta, Dusky Piha, and Barred Antthrush. Later, we drive to WildSumaco (a 3 hour drive), located in the beautiful mid-elevation cloudforests at the base of the Sumaco volcano. We’ll spend the next three nights at this nice lodge.

Days 6-7: Sumaco
The forests near the lodge are loaded with east slope specialties; with a combination of road and trail birding we are sure to see plenty of exciting birds here. Coppery-chested Jacamar, Ecuadorian Piedtail, Napo Sabrewing, Gray-tailed Piha, Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, Blue-rumped Manakin, and Rufous-naped Greenlet are just a sample of some of the birds we have a good chance to see. Rarities like Yellow-throated Spadebill and Crimson-bellied Woodpecker are also possible. At night we can look for some hard-to-find nightbirds like Band-bellied Owl and Foothill Screech-owl.

Orange-cheeked Parrot, another visitor to the Yasuni clay lick
Orange-cheeked Parrot, another visitor to the Yasuni clay lick (Nick Athanas)

Day 8: WildSumaco to Napo Wildlife Center
After some early morning birding near WildSumaco, we drive to the steamy town of Coca on the edge of the Napo River (a 2 hour drive), where we board motorized canoes for a two-hour journey in a motorized canoe. Along the way we’ll be entertained by White-winged Swallows flitting over the banks, Yellow-billed Terns plunging into the river, and stately Cocoi Herons and egrets watching our passage. Napo Wildlife Center is a very comfortable and wonderfully remote lodge, only accessible by canoeing for two hours up a magical forest-lined channel that can be pumping with birds. Local guides do the paddling while you sit back and watch White-chinned Jacamars, five species of kingfisher, and even Zigzag Heron if you’re out at dusk in this area, along with many more. On arrival at the lodge, we will be greeted by hissing Hoatzins and the noisy Black-capped Donacobius.

Days 9-10: Napo Wildlife Center
Napo Wildlife Center is located right in the heart of some of the most biodiverse forest on the planet, with easy access to both hilly terra firme forest and flooded várzea forest. On one day, we will work the terra firme trails, and with the help of eagle-eyed local guides, we’ll search out leks of the glowing Black-necked Red Cotinga, several species of manakin, other handsome birds like Yellow-billed Jacamar and Collared Puffbird, and many species of antbird. We need to keep an eye out for ants – if we luck into a big army antswarm, we could find the outrageous White-plumed and Hairy-crested Antbirds along with Sooty White-cheeked, Lunulated, and more.

We’ll also spend a morning at the well-known clay lick within Yasuni National Park. There are two different licks; at the first one near the Napo, Mealy and Yellow-crowned Amazons, Dusky-headed Parakeet, and Blue-headed Parrot often congregate in staggering numbers. The second lick is farther from the river and may attract some rarer species like Orange-cheeked Parrot, Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet, and Scarlet Macaw among the hordes of Cobalt-winged parakeets.

Birding the flooded forest along the edge of the lake and channel is a great way to spend the afternoons when the trails can be slow. Greater Ani, Azure Galliule, Lesser Kiskadee, many herons and egrets including the superb Agami Heron, Chestnut-capped Puffbird, Rufous-tailed Flatbill, Casqued Oropendola, Pale-tailed Barbthroat, and Rufous-breasted Hermit are just a few possible species that can be seen on these outings.

A Channel-billed Toucan drops into photographic range
A Channel-billed Toucan drops into photographic range (Iain Campbell)

Day 11: Napo Wildlife Center to Sani Lodge
We’ll spend the morning on one of Napo Wildlife Center’s canopy towers, build around a towering kapok tree. From our high perch we can look down on gangs of aracaris, a multitude of oropendolas, flocks of brilliant tanagers, and plenty of other tree-top species. Later in the morning, we will transfer to Sani Lodge, which is located on a long oxbow lake a bit north of the Napo River. For our first afternoon, we may target Cocha Antshrike, a specialty of Sani Lodge and an Ecuadorian endemic.

Days 12-13: Sani Lodge
The Napo River is a species barrier, and the avifauna is slightly different on the north side. We’ll spend time on forest trails looking for species such as Wire-tailed Manakin and Golden-headed Manakins, Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, and Striated Antthrush, which are harder (or not present) on the south side. The staff have also been experimenting with forest blinds and feeders, and have already had success attracting White-lored Antpitta – by February, hopefully even more birds will be coming, and with luck tapirs may soon start visiting a salt lick.

Sani’s canopy tower is truly superb. The wide metal stairway makes access much easier than most towers, and the platform is spacious. Harpy Eagles are seen from the tower with some regularity along with other raptors such as Slate-colored Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and Double-toothed Kite. Other species that are often seen include Many-banded Aracari, Gilded Barbet, Great Jacamar, Paradise and Opal-crowned Tanagers, Yellow-billed and White-fronted Nunbirds, White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans, Plum-throated Cotinga, along with numerous trogons, woodcreepers, and flycatchers.

We’ll be sure to spend some time on one of the river islands in the Napo, where a number of species are restricted, such as Castlenau’s Antshrike, Oriole Blackbird, Black-and-white Antbird, Parker’s Spinetail, and Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant.

Black-mantled Tamarins are curious creatures sometimes coming around the Amazon lodges
Black-mantled Tamarins are curious creatures sometimes coming around the Amazon lodges (Iain Campbell)

Day 14: Sani Lodge to Quito
After another morning of birding at Sani, we’ll have an early lunch and then travel by motorized canoe back to Coca. We then take a short flight over the snow-capped volcanoes of the Andes, that often allows spectacular views of snow-capped volcanos. Flight schedules vary, but typically you will be back in Quito by around 6pm.

Day 15: Departure
After breakfast, you will be transferred to the Quito airport for departure.

The black water lagoons in the Amazon are home to Black-capped Donacobius
The black water lagoons in the Amazon are home to Black-capped Donacobius (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Fairly early starts are necessary since birding is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will typically start between 5:00 and 5:30am. On most (but not all) days there will be some downtime after lunch to relax. You will usually get to the lodge before dark, but on at least one or two evenings there will be some nightbirding, meaning you will arrive back at the lodge after dark. At least four lunches will be packed lunches. The drives are not especially long on this tour, with the longest being about three hours on day 5. There are also boat rides on the Napo River of about 2 to 3 hours on day 8 and day 14, and shorter canoe and boat rides while in the Amazon Lodges. As afternoon birding is usually less productive than morning birding, some participants choose to skip some of the afternoon birding sessions and relax around the lodge instead.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Moderate. There will be a mixture of trail birding and road birding. Most of the trails and roads are flat or only slightly inclined, but we will bird some steeper and moderately difficult trails on at least three days of the tour (a walking stick helps a lot). You can expect to walk around 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) per day on average. Much of the first two days of the tour will be spent at high elevations ranging from 11,500-13,800 ft (3500-4200 m), though the night will be spent much lower at 8,500 ft (2600 m).

CLIMATE: Highly variable. In the high Andes, it can be near freezing and windy. At San Isidro and WildSumaco 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, but in the Amazon sudden downpours can occur almost at any time with little warning.

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.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds at feeders at Guango Lodge, San Isidro, and WildSumaco, as well as a few other places; photography in the rainforest is difficult. Serious bird photographers may wish to check out our Ecuador Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round. The climate does not vary greatly from month to month compared to most other regions, and the “driest” months on average are December-February; note that dry weather does not necessarily mean better birding, and even during this period, rain can be expected.

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.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; one-way air ticket from Coca to Quito on day 14; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 14; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 15 (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 as well as tea and coffee are available at Guango Lodge, San Isidro, WildSumaco, Napo Wildlife Center, and Sani Lodge at any time; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 14; 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); group airport transfer to the Quito hotel on day 14; 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 Quito hotels (if you require their services); international flights; excess luggage charges; 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.