Ecuador: Amazing Amazon (Safety Tours)

This is a birding tour. This tour has been designed, specifically, to be as safe as possible in this Post-Covid-19 era, by staying at only two, small hotels/lodges, and only eating in very limited places throughout, with contact with others minimized throughout in doing so. There are also no domestic flights involved.


This is designed as a Safety Tour, (for the post-Covid era) which means:

HOTEL and FOOD:

ONLY 2, SMALL HOTELS ARE USED. THE MEALS WILL ALL BE PROVIDED BY THESE TWO HOTELS ONLY, WITH NO EXTERNAL RESTAURANTS USED.

• The lodging selected on this tour is relatively small. We have picked a small, but good, hotel near the airport for the first and last nights of the tour; all of the nights in between (5 nights) will be spent at Sani Lodge, an excellent lodge in the Amazon of Ecuador.

• By using only two places, minimal unpacking will be required on this tour.

• Both accommodations used also have on site restaurants; to ensure all of our meals will come out of the kitchens of just two places throughout. No external restaurants will be used. Where we take a day trip out from the lodge, we will take a boxed lunch in order to avoid this, and source our meals from as few places as possible.

GROUP VEHICLE: In order to get in and out of the port city of Coca, to take a boat to Sani Lodge, we will use a large bus for the entire group to transport them together there. We have opted for driving from Quito to Coca and back from there, instead of flying to cut out the risks of further air travel. To get to the lodge from Coca, we will use a motorized canoe. While staying at the lodge, we will be getting around on foot, and by way of canoes, provided by the lodge. All of the canoes used at the lodge will be private and only shared with our group and lodge staff aiding the group. This is the normal way to travel around at Amazon lodges in Ecuador.

AIRPORT TRANSFERS: On day 1 at the start and day 8 at the end. These will be in vans provided by a trusted local transport company, and will not be shared with other hotel guests (i.e. it will not be a hotel shuttle). It will only ever be shared with a limited number of people on the same tour.

• There are no domestic flights on this tour, so no further air travel is required. Although it is possible to fly to the port city of Coca, we have chosen to undertake this by road in a large bus, in order to avoid contact with others. This is a drive of around 5 hours.

In summary, the use of only two, small hotels, with a large bus for the group, and only eating out of two restaurants (and using packed lunches from these, when not possible), will ensure as little contact with people outside of the Tropical Birding group as possible. This offers one of the safest Ecuador tours possible under current conditions.

Hoatzin, a classic Amazonian species, easily seen at Sani
Hoatzin, a classic Amazonian species, easily seen at Sani (Daniel Aldana Schumann)

The incredible diversity of the Amazon is well known, and causes many birding and non-birding travelers to visit there. What is perhaps less known, is that Ecuador offers some of the easiest access to the Amazon, with excellent quality lodges in which to stay in while there. Sani Lodge is one of the premier Amazon lodges. There is no need to rough it. We have chosen Sani, one of the smaller, high end lodges in the region, so that if we are sharing with other guests during our visit, this will not be a large number. If you are looking for somewhere to minimize contact with others whilst on a birding trip, the Ecuadorian Amazon fits the bill perfectly. The lodge is away from others in the region, and has masses of natural areas to visit locally for birds, including their own private lagoon, forest trails and canopy tower so that we will encounter few people while there. All of this will be done while staying in somewhere with all the mod cons expected, like full time electricity, hot water, and WIFI internet. You will away from the rest of the world for your safety, but not cut off from it, when needed.

Black-capped Donocobius is found around the lake beside the lodge
Black-capped Donocobius is found around the lake beside the lodge (Sam Woods)

Day 1: Arrival in Quito. After you arrival in Ecuador’s capital, Quito you will be met at the airport and taken in a van by private transfer to our nearby hotel, a short drive from the airport. The van will be private for a limited number of our guests only, and not shared with other hotel guests. There is no birding on this day, so please take time to relax, and the group will meet for dinner at 6:30pm, for the first meal of the tour. This will be a welcome dinner in the hotel restaurant.

We'll visit a parrot lick by canoe
We'll visit a parrot lick by canoe (Nick Athanas)

Day 2: Quito to the Amazon. After a sit down breakfast in the Quito hotel, your guide will meet with you, and load up into a large bus for the trip to the small, Amazon port city of Coca. The port is where we shall take our motorized canoe to our Amazon lodge, Sani. The drive will be taken to avoid the contact issues with flying internally, and will take around 5 hours from Quito to Coca. After a boxed lunch provided on arrival in Coca, we will load up into the motorized canoe and travel 3 hours along the Napo River, to the private dock for Sani Lodge. From there, we walk into the forest to another dock, where the local staff will paddle us by hand canoe across the lake to the lodge. Even though this is a travel day, with our arrival to be around midafternoon, we will start seeing birds around the lake from the canoe, like Hoatzin, Greater Ani, and Black-capped Donacobious, while Tropical Screech-Owl can sometimes be found roosting by the bar on arrival, or Masked Crimson Tanagers hanging around the lodge restaurant. Five nights will be spent in this wonderful location, which being the Amazon, will never feel like enough, with so much diversity of birds and other animals on offer!

Birds will not be the only things on our minds
Birds will not be the only things on our minds (Iain Campbell)

Days 3-6: Sani Lodge, The Amazon. With four full days in the Amazon, we will have plenty to do. There are many classic Amazon experiences to be part of, and we will drink them in, for while the Amazon may appear to the untrained eye uniform, it is far from it. There are a number of distinct areas with specialty birds in them all, from parrot licks, to Amazon blackwater lagoons, to the impressive canopy tower, to seasonally flooded forest to drier forests that never flood, to river islands, all of them will be experienced, and all of them will provide distinctive birding highlights…

One at least one morning, we will visit the lodge’s own private canopy tower. Standing on a platform built within the huge branches of a giant kapok tree, is worth it for the views of vast canopy surrounding it, but there are of course many birds to be seen up there too. Among the long, long list of possibilities include Great Potoo (a regular birds sleeps in the kapok tree!), Bare-necked Fruit-crow, Pied and White-necked Puffbirds, White-fronted and Yellow-billed Nunbirds, Gilded Barbet, Many-banded Aracari, White-throated Toucan, Orange-winged and Mealy Parrots, Blue-and-yellow Macaw, Spangled and Plum-throated Cotingas, White-browed Purpletuft, Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher, Cinnamon Attila, Rufous-bellied Euphonia, Opal-rumped and Opal-crowned Tanagers, and Blue Dacnis! In the forest around the base of the tower, other species occur such as Golden-headed and Dwarf-Tyrant Manakins.

The Amazon is the home of antbirds
The Amazon is the home of antbirds (Andres Vasquez)

Trail walking can be done, in varzea-type near the lodge, where Dusky-throated and Cinereous Antshrikes occur, alongside Great Jacamar, Amazonian Motmot, and Chestnut-belted Gnateater, while doing walks within the terra firma forest in Yasuni National Park can yield different species within this different forest type, such as a heady selection of antbirds, like Sooty, Yellow-browed, and White-shouldered Antbirds, or even scarcer ones like Lunulated or White-plumed if we are lucky enough to encounter an army antswarm. Wire-tailed Manakin and Rusty-belted Tapaculo also occur within these forests too.

An extended canoe ride around the lake, and nearby creeks can add birds like, Sungrebe, Capped and Cocoi Herons, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Yellow-rumped Caciques and Crested and Russet-backed Oropendolas. Carefully working our way along forested creeks can lead to Silvered, Dot-backed and Plumbeous Antbirds, White-chinned Jacamar, Yellow-crowned Elaenia, and Long-billed Woodcreeper that all favor this habitat. Doing this at dusk close to the lodge may also produce a Blackish Nightjar.

Many-banded Aracari is one of the most abundant toucan species on site
Many-banded Aracari is one of the most abundant toucan species on site (Sam Woods)

Returning to the main river, we can also observe a parrot clay lick, alongside the Napo, where Dusky-headed Parakeets, and Mealy, Yellow-crowned and Blue-headed Parrots gather on a muddy bank for their daily mineral intake, while we shall watch from the boat.
Lastly, there are the small river islands within the Napo River, where a special selection of birds inhabits various islands, but are rarely seen way from them, This includes Amazonia Umbrellabird, Orange-headed Tanager, Rufous-headed Woodpecker, Castelneau’s Antshrike, Oriole Blackbird, and Parker’s Spinetail among them.

The Amazon is a heady place for fans of nightbirds, like owls, nightjars, and potoos, which all occur in the area, and are sometimes located during the daytime. Regularly encountered species in the daytime include Great and Common Potoos, Tropical Screech-Owl, and the spectacular Crested Owl. Of course, the Amazon is not only about birds, as we will also have a chance to encounter primates, such as Red Howler, Common Squirrel, White-fronted Capuchin, and woolly monkeys, as well as agoutis. Guided nightwalks can also be taken to look for frogs or other creatures of the night too.

As you can see, the Amazon will keep us busy during our stay at Sani Lodge, and you are likely to leave wishing for more time!

Masked Crimson Tanagers can turn right by the lodge bar!
Masked Crimson Tanagers can turn right by the lodge bar! (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 7: The Amazon to Quito. After breakfast we will make our way back to the dock on the main river, and take the motored canoe back to the city of Coca, where our local driver and large bus will be waiting to transport us back to Quito. We will travel five hours back along good highways back to Quito, taking a boxed lunch with us to eat along the way. We plan to arrive back in Quito by midafternoon. A final, farewell dinner will be taken at our hotel near Quito airport. Although the departure day is scheduled for the next day, it is possible to take night flights out if preferred, with ones leaving later than 9pm recommended.

Day 8: Departure from Quito. There is no birding on this day, so flight departures at any time are possible (or even late in the night before if preferable). Breakfast is the last meal of the tour on this day, if you do not leave before the hotel serves that. The airport transfer will be provided by a private transport company, and will only be shared with a limited number of other participants, if at all.

Capped Herons are regular on Sani's own private lake
Capped Herons are regular on Sani's own private lake (Sam Woods)

Sani Lodge sits on its own private blackwater lagoon
Sani Lodge sits on its own private blackwater lagoon (Sam Woods)

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Harpy Eagle Amazon Custom Extension (3 extra days)


In late 2020, a pair of Harpy Eagles began nesting in a very accessible part of the Amazon in Ecuador, making for an easy 3-day custom tour extension on either end of this tour. This can be ran at any time before or after the tour. This is an incredible opportunity to see Harpy Eagle, as unlike most other nest sites of this species around the world, it is very accessible, and not physically challenging to reach (i.e. a 20 minute boat ride, followed by a relatively easy 20-minute walk along a flat trail, only 40 minutes travel time from a town hotel). Generally, if the Harpy Eagles nest successfully, they are around the nest site for about a year, meaning that all 2021 trips have a good likelihood of being able to do this short extension. As well as the Harpy Eagle, there are many other Amazonian birds available, including chances for scarce species, like White-lored Antpitta and Black-banded Crake. This is a custom extension, and therefore is priced based on how many people choose to do it. We can run it for 1 person, up to 9 people. Please call the office for pricing.

Harpy Eagle is one of largest and most impressive eagles on Earth
Harpy Eagle is one of largest and most impressive eagles on Earth (Andres Vasquez)

NOTE: While both the main tour and the Harpy Eagle Extension are both Amazonian sites, they are very different. At Sani Lodge we will be staying in a high-end, community-owned, lodge on the edge of their own private lake. For the Harpy Eagle, the only option is to stay in a small town hotel. Sani Lodge (main tour) is on a massive property, where experiences like visiting both forest types of Igapo (seasonally flooded), and Terra Firma (not flooded) are readily possible. Both of these forest types, and the distinctly different bird communities, are not available on the extension, only at Sani. There are also other classic Amazon experiences like visiting a parrot clay lick, and visiting a canopy tower, are simply not available in the Limoncocha area on the extension, only on the main tour.

Thus, these two sections, while having some overlap, are very different, and compliment each extremely well. The best lakeside birding is on the extension, and the best trail birding is on the main tour, plus the canopy tower and parrot licks are also only on the Sani section. However, if you want a Harpy Eagle at their prime time for viewing, the extension is critical for that species, but also other rare ones, like White-lored Antpitta (at a new feeding station), and other specialties not easy in the Sani area. These are meant to be taken together, to both expand the bird list and Amazon experience, during an exceptional time when a Harpy Eagle is nesting in a very accessible area (no long walk required), which they do not usually do.

The rare Zigzag Heron will be looked for on our Amazon boat ride
The rare Zigzag Heron will be looked for on our Amazon boat ride (Andres Vasquez)

Day 1: (this would be day 7 of the main tour): Quito to Limoncocha.

After breakfast at Sani Lodge, we will make our way back to the dock on the main river, and take the motored canoe back towards the city of Coca. For people joining this extension, instead of returning all the way to Coca, these people will stop at a dock about an hour out of Sani towards Coca, and meet with a driver and guide there, to carry on the 10-minute journey to Limoncocha, where the Harpy Eagle is nesting closeby. We should arrive in time for lunch within the town of Limoncocha, our base for a 2-night stay.

In the afternoon a relaxing, but bird-filled, boat ride will be taken on an idyllic oxbow lake in Limoncocha, where Hoatzins, Masked Crimson Tanagers, Black-capped Donacobiuses, Greater Anis, Azure Gallinules, and Zigzag Heron are among a long list of possibilities on this large, jungle-lined lake. Two nights will be spent in a simple, town hotel (with electricity, hot water, western toilets).

A boat ride on a beautiful Amazonian lake may yield Azure Gallinule
A boat ride on a beautiful Amazonian lake may yield Azure Gallinule (Andres Vasquez)

Day 2: Harpy Eagle visit. Before we set out for the nest site, we will check in on some other specialty local birds, like a White-lored Antpitta at a forest feeding station, and a good local spot for the usually- difficult Black-banded Crake. Late morning/early afternoon, we shall visit the Harpy Eagle, and then following this in the afternoon will take our boat to some river islands along a large nearby river, where we can search for specialties of the river islands, like several woodpecker species, spinetails, flycatchers, Oriole Blackbirds, and others, which are rarely seen away from the islands. A second night will be spent in the same town hotel.

We'll visit a forest feeding station for the scarce White-lored Antpitta
We'll visit a forest feeding station for the scarce White-lored Antpitta (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Amazon to Quito. In the morning we will take a boat to a nearby Amazon forest trail, where we can look for Wire-tailed Manakins, a series of antbirds and many other Amazonian species, as well as pick up more waterbirds around the lake during the boat rides to and from the trailhead. This will take us to mid-morning, when we will depart for the drive to Quito. The drive passes through some good birding areas, and several stops will be made to break up the journey. A final night will be spent in Quito, although you will get back in time for a late-night departure if that is preferred.

Day 4: Departure from Quito. You will be transferred to Quito airport for flights back home.

The hooting of Gilded Barbets is a familiar Amazon sound
The hooting of Gilded Barbets is a familiar Amazon sound (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary since birding is almost always best early in the morning in the Amazon, with breakfast typically between 5:00 and 5:30am. On two days there will be some downtime after lunch to relax. Boxed lunches will be taken on the travel days to and from Quito, in order to avoid using external restaurants and contact with other people. There is likely to be one other boxed lunch, during our stay at Sani Lodge too.

The drives between Quito and Coca, to connect with Amazon boats, are around 5 hours, and are being undertaken to avoid the contact concerns associated with traveling on a domestic flight. This is on good paved roads for the entire journey. The boat ride from Coca to the main dock for Sani Lodge is 2 – 3 hours.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Birding in the Amazon involves mainly trail walking, but also some birding from canoes too. The trail walking is mostly on flat trails, but these can be slippery, and rubber boots are the suggested footwear. They have these boots to use at Sani Lodge, although we recommend bringing with you your preferred brand from back home, to ensure you have a comfortable pair. These should be lightweight, not winter boots, as the Amazon is hot and humid! Except for the two nights in Quito, the entire tour is based in the lowlands of the Amazon with no elevational concerns. Quito, Ecuador’s capital, is located at 9190ft (2800m).

CLIMATE: 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. Raingear is an essential item, and this can include a small portable umbrella, which can be very useful.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and WI-FI Internet. Electricity is also available 24 hours a day. This sometimes needs to be powered by generator at Sani Lodge.

WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round. The temperature and day length does not vary greatly from month to month compared to most other regions, and the “driest” months on average are December-February. Rain is to be expected, even in dry parts of the year in the Amazon, and this is usually beneficial to the birding. The very driest times can be less active for birds in general in the Amazon in particular.

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; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 7; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 8 (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 Sani Lodge at any time (bringing your own personal refillable water is highly recommended); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 7; local guide at 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, but will not be shared with other hotel guests); group airport transfer to the Quito hotel on day 7; ground transport in a large bus with a local driver for the drive from Quito-Coca on day 2, and Coca-Quito on day 7; boat transport between Coca and Sani Lodge on day 2 (may be shared with other lodge guests); private boat transport in both hand-paddled and motorized canoes for the group while at Napo Sani Lodge; boat transport between Sani Lodge and Coca on day 7 (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-we suggest to avoid these if you wish for less contact with others); 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.