Ecuador Photo Journey

Ecuador is famed for its extraordinary diversity, but perhaps less well known as a top quality destination for a photo safari. This short tour will visit two famous hummingbird lodges: Tandayapa Bird Lodge on the west slope, which boasts extraordinarily high species numbers; and Guango Lodge on the east slope that has a very different selection, including the incredible Sword-billed Hummingbird, a living cartoon.



Note: Due to limited availability in Guango Lodge, some tours will run in reverse order and/or use a different lodge. This does not significantly affect how the tour runs.

Day 1: Arrival in Quito. You will be met at the airport and transferred to a comfortable Quito hotel for the night.

The snow-capped peak of Antisana is breathtaking on a clear day
The snow-capped peak of Antisana is breathtaking on a clear day (Nick Athanas)

Day 2: Antisana to Guango Lodge. Our first morning of the tour will be truly spectacular and for good reason, as we visit the open grasslands surrounding the enormous Antisana volcano. This is often voted as the favorite site of the tour by many, for the wonderful surroundings in which we will be shooting. The towering peak of the Antisana Volcano itself is impressive, with a large snow-covered top, and dramatic rocky sides. The grasslands are interspersed with rocky outcrops and scenic high Andean lakes dotted with high altitude waterfowl. Indeed the scenery itself may be our biggest photo asset. Aside from these breathtaking Andean scenes, the upper paramo is carpeted with Carunculated Caracaras, a striking pied raptor that occurs up there in impressive numbers and will provide us with repeated opportunities to shoot it. Black-faced Ibis patrol these high plains as do flocks of Andean Lapwings and large flocks of Andean Gulls roam the highlands too. It is a site that will leave a lasting impression, and provide ample shots for processing at the end of the tour. After lunch at a hacienda on site, we shall drive on to one of the best hummingbird lodges in the country, Guango, where we will spend two nights.

Carunculated Caracaras can be extremely tame in Antisana
Carunculated Caracaras can be extremely tame in Antisana (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Guango Lodge. Guango is a small lodge that is rightly considered one of the ultimate hummingbird lodges and will complement our later visit to Tandayapa very well. The lodge is positioned higher up in the Andes and also on the opposite side, leading to a very different hummingbird community. Like Tandayapa, Guango has a varied set of feeders that attract hundreds of hummingbirds, and again will attract well over ten species, including such extravagant species as the “cartoonesque” Sword-billed Hummingbird, the dapper black-and-white Collared Inca, aggressive Chestnut-breasted Coronet, tiny White-bellied Woodstar, and sublime Tourmaline Sunangel. The hummer feeders are also a target for other local birds, most notably the indigo blue Masked Flowerpiercer that too will make for a wonderful subject for our cameras. The temperate forest that overhangs this comfortable Andean lodge also attracts passing flocks of birds, some of which can be remarkably confiding and photogenic, that includes the cerulean-blue Turquoise Jay.

Masked Trogons occur right around the lodges used
Masked Trogons occur right around the lodges used (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 4: Papallacta or Guango to Quito. We will have two options open to us today. Those wishing to feast on the many hummingbird shots available at the lodge can remain there to do so. For those who want to do something different we will venture into the paramo grasslands of the high Andes, around Papallacta Pass (4000m/13,125ft), that on fine days may reward us with spectacular views over the Andes and shooting opportunities at neighboring volcanoes: Antisana and Cotopaxi. The other appeal of Andean habitats like the paramo is that the high altitude birds that reside there can be remarkably confiding. Comical cinclodes bound around on the paramo, Tawny Antpittas hop along the roads, and with the use of playback, high Andean birds like canasteros and tit-spinetails can often be brought in close. At lunch time we will return to Guango, where will have the most of the afternoon to shoot at hummingbirds, walk the forest trails behind the lodge, or scan the river alongside for Torrent Ducks. Once the light starts to go, in the mid afternoon, we shall pack up and head back to Quito for a night, to break our journey west to Tandayapa.

Booted Racket-tail is the most common hummer at Tandayapa
Booted Racket-tail is the most common hummer at Tandayapa (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Quito to Tandayapa Bird Lodge. We’ll leave the capital behind and make the short journey into the forested hills of the Tandayapa Valley, for a four-night stay. The lodge is nestled within lush subtropical forest (1750m/5740ft) on the west slope of the Andes, a renowned area for high bird species diversity. This is especially evident in the impressive hummingbird community found right around the lodge that will occupy much of our photographic energies. The lodge feeders attract thousands of individual hummingbirds, and on some days over twenty different species drop in within a single hour! The valley holds a myriad of colorful tanagers, toucans, barbets, and of course, hummingbirds, lots and lots of hummingbirds. For those who cannot resist the Tandayapa Bird Lodge hummer feeders you can stick to the considerable task of shooting them and remain at the lodge for much of the day, (while others may choose to take an optional outing in the afternoon), entrenched among a myriad of glittering hummingbirds, many of which are local species not commonly photographed away from this world-class hummingbird lodge. Among the many regulars is the outrageous Booted Racket-tail, the male of which has a strange long tail, with two motmot-like paddles at the end. This bizarre hummingbird makes for a great photo subject for this reason, and on top of that it is also one of the commonest birds at the lodge. Other regular drop ins are a number of glistening species that are only found within this rich region of Ecuador and in Colombia (the so-called Choco region) like the audacious Violet-tailed Sylph, the standout Purple-bibbed Whitetip, the gem-like Western Emerald, and the more subtle Brown Inca. Less local in their range but just as spectacular and just as approachable are the numerous dinky Purple-throated Woodstars that regularly buzz around the Tandayapa balcony. If hummingbird photography is your goal, you are certain to walk away with thousands of shots of over ten species of hummingbird, many of which are hard to photograph away from Tandayapa. Fruit feeders at the lodge can also produce Technicolor birds like Red-headed Barbet, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager or even Red-tailed Squirrels,

Golden-naped Tanager sometimes visits feeders, allowing great photo opps
Golden-naped Tanager sometimes visits feeders, allowing great photo opps (Sam Woods)

Other birds that regular roam right around the lodge include White-winged Brush-Finches, and a delightful pair of Masked Trogons. For those who like a bigger challenge, or wish to try shots of other Tandayapa residents we will break up our time at the feeders with a visit to other areas of the valley, where passing flocks can be loaded with colorful tanagers, warblers, woodcreepers, treerunners and other flock followers, and the other areas of the valley also offer the chances of running into some of the more spectacular species of the area like the outrageously colorful Toucan Barbet and Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan.

One of many hummingbirds on offer: Violet-tailed Sylph
One of many hummingbirds on offer: Violet-tailed Sylph (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 6: Tandayapa Valley and Rancho Suamox. The morning will be spent in the rich forests of the Tandayapa Valley. In the afternoon, we’ll drive down to the lowlands where some different species await our cameras. Rancho Suamox is a local farm where the owner has set up both fruit feeders and hummingbird feeders that attract tanagers, woodpeckers, and a couple of different hummingbird species, only found in the lowlands. Golden-olive and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot, Dusky-faced, Flame-rumped, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Ecuadorian Thrush, Buff-throated Saltator, Thick-billed and Orange-bellied Euphonias, can all often be seen and photographed at the feeders. After spending most of the day in this area, we’ll return to Tandayapa for the night.

Flame-faced Tanager often visits feeders in the area
Flame-faced Tanager often visits feeders in the area (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Milpe. For those who want to venture into another exciting corner of the Andes we offer this side trip from the lodge, lower down slope to a small reserve within the foothills of the Andes that subsequently offers a very different suite of birds. This reserve, run by an Ecuadorian NGO, the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation, has some nice forest and a tiny café with very busy hummingbird feeders alongside. The beauty of this combining this with Tandayapa is that you will get a while new set of hummers to compliment the ones found higher up at our lodge that include the incredibly cute Green Thorntail, the exquisite, jewel-like Green-crowned Woodnymph, and butch Green-crowned Brilliant, in addition to the hyperactive White-whiskered Hermit. The area will also offer up other photo opportunities as fruit feeders both within the reserve and a local restaurant where we will lunch overlooking a stunning set of banana feeders that attract colorful tanager species, euphonias, and sometimes even motmots and small toucans.

The gorgeous Blue-necked Tanager regularly visits fruit feeders
The gorgeous Blue-necked Tanager regularly visits fruit feeders (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Mashpi Amagusa. An early start is required this day to drive to the superb Amagusa reserve. Tanagers will be a sure highlight as numerous species visit the banana feeders, including the truly superb Flame-faced Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, Golden Tanager, Moss-backed Tanager, and others. This is also the best spot to get shots of Velvet-purple Coronet and Empress Brilliant, two of the region’s top hummers (note that flash is not permitted at this site). We will spend most of the day here, as different species seem to favor different periods of the day to come in. We will spend a final night at Tandayapa Bird Lodge.

Glistening-green Tanager is one of a throng of tanagers that occur in the region
Glistening-green Tanager is one of a throng of tanagers that occur in the region (Sam Woods)

Day 9: Paz de las Aves to Quito. On this day we will depart from Tandayapa Bird Lodge very early and head to the Mindo area to visit one of the most important bird sites in the area, the wonderful Paz de las Aves Refuge. This beautiful reserve is set within subtropical forest where the moist, moss-covered trees are burdened with bright red bromeliads. Our early rise will let us visit an area deep within the forest where a short time after dawn the bright scarlet forms of several displaying Andean Cock-of-the-rocks will start the day off with a spectacular forest performance from these vivid red cotingas. However, what has made this place such a joy for photographers and birders alike is the habituating of several rare and shy antpitta species. The highlight will be sitting quietly on a forest trail while a Giant Antpitta hops around on the trail just feet away from our trained lenses. Up to five different antpitta species occur on site, with Moustached, Yellow-breasted Antpittas, Ochre-breasted, and Chestnut-crowned being equally photogenic on many occasions too. Other birds we will be trying to photograph include Dark-backed Wood-Quail, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, and White-capped Dipper. In the afternoon, after we have returned to Tandayapa for lunch, we will drive back to Quito for the final night of the tour.

Day 10 Departure. If not joining the extension, you will be transferred to the Quito airport for international departures home.

Crimson-rumped Toucanets compete with tanagers for fruit
Crimson-rumped Toucanets compete with tanagers for fruit (Iain Campbell)


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AMAZON EXTENSION TO SANI LODGE

Wildlife photography in the Amazon is as tough as it gets. We had hesitated offering a trip until we went to Sani Lodge in early June 2015, and that totally changed our minds. After a few days there, we came back with chips loaded with great photos, and were convinced that this was THE place to do it. The staff and guides are determined to improve things, and are setting up feeders and blinds to make the most of the photo opportunities, as well as constantly looking for new stakeouts. This extension can also be done at any time as a custom tour, and longer and shorted packages are possible.



Day 1: Quito to Sani Lodge. After a short flight to the lowland city of Coca, staff from Sani Lodge will meet us and take us to a dock, where we’ll board a large, covered motorized canoe for the 2.5 hour journey down the Napo River. There won’t be much in the way of photo opportunities during this trip, so just sit back in relax. Upon arrival at Sani’s dock, you’ll have a chance to unpack your camera and get ready. Here in the virgin Amazon rainforest, you never know when something amazing will pop into view and it pays to be prepared! The path to Sani goes along a boardwalk through seasonally flooded várzea forest to another dock at the edge of the Challuayacu River, a small channel that winds through beautiful swamp forest to an oxbow lake. Five species of kingfishers occur along here along with herons and other water-loving species. Shy species like Cocha Antshrike can sometimes be lured into view, and while the dark rainforest makes the photography challenging, with persistence, the right gear, and a little luck, great shots are still possible. We’ll have lunch at Sani, and spend the afternoon either on the lake or river, or spend time at the feeders depending on activity. We’ll have four nights total based in Sani Lodge.

Days 2-4: Full days based out of Sani Lodge. The day to day activities here are highly subject to change based on current conditions. Local guides are keeping up with the current hotspots, and their knowledge will be vital in deciding where best to spend our days at Sani Lodge. Here are some of the most likely areas we will visit during our time at Sani Lodge:

Feeders and fruiting trees around the lodge. The Sani clearing can be a great place to photography numerous colorful species coming to either fruiting trees or the new feeders. White-chinned Jacamar, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, various toucans and aracaris, Orange-crested Manakin, Gray-fronted Dove, Masked Crimson and Silver-beaked Tanagers, Purple Honeycreeper, Golden-bellied Euphonia, are some of the possibilities. This is a great area to spend time in during the heat of the day, which can be slow in other locations.

Oxbow lake and Challuayacu River. Using canoes or a floating platform/blind suitable for tripods, we’ll work the edge of the oxbow lake, which is great for getting photos of Hoatzin, Black-capped Donacobius, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Capped Heron, Pale-vented Pigeon, White-winged Swallow, Lesser Kiskadee, and more. There is usually plenty of light to work with and the photography is easier than in the forest. The previously-mentioned Challuayacu River is darker but offers the chance for perched hummingbirds, manakins, various antbirds, and even monkeys and sloths.

Canopy tower. Sani’s canopy tower is built into enormous kapok tree, and the platform is the largest we’ve ever seen, allowing for lots of space to set up a tripod or to move around for the perfect angle. Activity can vary, but if a mixed flock comes through, this can be one of the best places in Sani to get great shots, and there is plenty of light. Some birds we have photographed there include Many-banded Aracari, Paradise and Opal-crowned Tanagers, Great Jacamar, Yellow-billed and White-fronted Nunbirds, Gilded and Lemon-throated Barbets, Cinnamon-throated and Buff-throated Woodcreepers, Black-tailed and Green-backed Trogons, Black-tailed Tityra, Cinnamon Attila, though many more are possible.

Forest blinds. Antpitta feeding has arrived in the Amazon! Sani has had great success putting out worms for a White-lored Antpitta, which is normally an amazingly tough bird to even see. They are also going to test a blind that uses lights to attract moths, and if it works, it will be a great opportunity to get antbirds and other shy understory species. They have also put a salt lick in the forest in an area frequented by a Brazilian Tapir, and if that works they will build another blind just for it.

Yasuní parrot licks. Not far from Sani Lodge are the famous clay licks that on dry days bring in hundreds and hundreds of parrots. Both have blinds and are well worth visiting. Flash is not allowed here, so a very fast lens and a tripod are recommended. The first clay lick is active early, and is great for Yellow-crowned, Mealy, and Blue-headed Parrots, and Dusky-headed Parakeet. Another lick is about a 20 minute walk into the forest and offers a chance at some rare species like Orange-cheeked Parrot, Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet, and Scarlet Macaw among the hordes of Cobalt-winged Parakeets.

Napo River islands. River islands hold a totally different set of birds, and the scrub and young forest makes the lighting easier than inside the rainforest. It can be good to spend a few hours looking for the specialties including Oriole Blackbird, Black-and-white Antbird, Castlenau’s Antshrike, and Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant. Occasionally a roosting Striped Owl is also found here.
Roosting nightbird stakeouts. Local guides usually know where at least some nightbirds are sleeping during the day, such as Common and Great Potoo, Tropical and Tawny-bellied Screech-owl, and Crested and Mottled Owls. Sometimes they are partly obscured our badly backlit, but other times they show very well allowing for nice shots. It’s always worth checking them out.

Night photography. Numerous bizarre insects, colorful frogs and reptiles, and other macro targets can be found on a night walk behind the lodge. If you are into macro photography, or want to try it out for the first time, it’s a lot of fun. Of course there is also a chance for a nightbird or even a night monkey as well.

Day 5: Sani to Quito. One nice thing about Sani is that they use an afternoon flight back to Quito. That gives us the best part of the morning to spend shooting before we have to travel back up the Napo River to Coca and fly back to Quito. We’ll the spend the night in a hotel near the airport.

Day 6: Departure. The extension ends this morning with a transfer to the airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed to moderate. Breakfast times are typically 5:30-6:30am, with one earlier breakfast required on the day we visit a cock-of-the-rock lek. Most days will have several hours of downtime to relax or download photos – this is often in the late afternoon when the light may be poor and when it is more likely to rain, or in the middle of the day on the extension when it is hot and slow. There is a fair amount of driving involved on the main tour, with the longest drive being on day 4 at around 3 hours.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Much of the main tour will be spent near feeders which are accessed by only a short walk. At Refugio Paz we will need to walk roughly half a mile (about 1 km) on moderately steep and often slippery trails in order to photograph some of the special birds. There will also be short walks on trails to target a few things at Milpe and Guango. Parts of days 8 and 9 will be spent at high elevations above 11,500 ft. (3500 m.), however little walking is done at these altitudes, and those nights are spent much lower at 8500 ft. (2600 m). On the extension, much more walking is required, up to 3 miles (4.8 km) a day, and sometimes on trails that are very muddy (the lodge provides rubber boots), and accessing the canopy tower requires climbing up 120 ft. (37 m.) via a sturdy and well-made staircase.

CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant (mostly 55°-75°F, 13°-24°C), but cold at Papallacta and Antisana (possibly down to near freezing) and hot on the one day at Suamox and for the entire extension (up to c. 90°F/32°C). Some rain can be expected, especially in the afternoons and evenings, and intense downpours are not unexpected on the extension (good rain protection for your gear is essential).

ACCOMMODATION: Good, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. All lodges on the main tour have 24hr electricity. On the extension, electricity is provided by generator that is turned on for limited hours, but it provides sufficient time to charge camera batteries and devices.

WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round. While climate has become rather unpredictable in recent years, the driest months on average are June-August, the wettest months are March-April, and the other months are intermediate. Bird activity is slower when it is very dry, but even in the dry season, some rain can be expected. Rainy season tours are usually very productive, since most days the mornings are dry, and the increased cloud cover means there is usually less harsh sunlight to deal with in the middle of the day. On the extension, rain can be expected year round, but it usually falls in short, intense bursts; December-February are usually the driest months on average in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but even then you will likely get some rain.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: On the main tour, at least half the time will be spent on birds coming to feeders (with the option for some multi-flash hummingbird photography) or photographing birds that come in to eat insects that were attracted by the lights over the night. The rest of the time will be spent targeting things along roads or short tracks/trails. On the extension, only a little time will be spent at feeders, and the rest of the time will be divided between boats, the canopy tower, the boardwalk, trails, the parrot lick, and other sites depending on current conditions.

GEAR: A good 300mm lens (or high end zoom that covers 300mm) and a full-frame camera are ideal for hummingbirds, but a longer lens is better for other birds like tanagers, at Antisana where the birds are often at a distance, and, on the extension, in the canopy tower. A 500mm with a 1.4x or 600mm is the best option, but a 300mm with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters also usually does a great job. A smaller lens can be nice for scenery shots in the high Andes. A flash (where permitted) is also useful since light can be quite low early in the morning and inside forest. Weather permitting, there will be some opportunities for optional nocturnal macro photography, especially on the extension, where a good macro lens and flash (a ring flash or off-camera flash is best) would be useful. Flash is not permitted at Paz de las Aves or Mashpi Amaguza.

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; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 9 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 10 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension (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 Tandayapa Bird Lodge, Guango Lodge, and Sani Lodge at any time; one of our photo guides with camera and audio playback gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 9 if taking only the main tour, and to the afternoon of day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 9 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; if taking the extension, airport transfers to and from the Quito airport, roundtrip airfare from Quito to Coca, roundtrip boat transport from Coca to Sani Lodge (may be shared with other lodge guests), private boat transport while at Sani Lodge, and private Sani local guide are also included; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to help keep track of what you have photographed (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 hotel (if you require their services); flights (except for the included roundtrip flight from Quito to Coca on the extension); 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; excess luggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.