Recommendations for Ecuador Nature travel

This section is being written shortly after our return from Ecuador – when we have clear memories of what worked – and what didn’t – during our travels.  As with all of our recommendations, more detailed information about any particular site can be found via web searching.  However, our perspectives are as naturalists wanting to see the unique aspects of Ecuador, so finding such perspectives may be less commonly encountered.

In our opinion what Ecuador stands out for are its birding lodges and its volcanoes.  These attract two very different sets of tourists.  The volcanoes attract climbers – since the higher volcanoes are all glacier-covered this means ice axes and the likes.  This we would classify as “adventure tourism” since there is little “nature” involved.  Unless you are a vulcanologist or glaciologist (there are these folks and their subjects are interesting).

Birding lodges or not?

Lets focus on the birder destinations.  There are lodges for birders (primarily) on both the western and eastern slopes of the Andes and in the Amazon lowlands.  These have trails, feeders for hummingbirds and fruit- and insect-eaters and an ambience that caters to those wanting to photograph birds.  While there are birding lodges in various parts of the world, there are relatively few countries with a comparable diversity of lodges as Ecuador.  They are usually expensive by comparison with normal hotels, but you are paying for the ambience and seeing the birds at close range.

Self-drive versus taxi’s to get around.

We like to do self-drive in most countries we visit.  We like the freedom to stop anywhere along our route if something interesting appears by the side of the road.  We rented a Susuki Vitara in Ecuador, in part because of its somewhat higher clearance – to handle the lodge access roads (sometimes rough dirt).  In retrospect, we would not likely do self-drive again in Ecuador.  Why not?  There are several reasons, described below.

  1. It is difficult to pull-off of Ecuadorean roads.  Newer roads in Ecuador have deep culverts on the side of the road which prevents you from pulling off onto the shoulder.  Thus, you can only stop on the road – even when you have a break-down.  Thus, our expectation of being able to pull off the road to see interesting plants of birds could not safely be done – negating the main advantage of self-drive.
  2. Driving is stressful – especially if you must cross Quito.  Even using Wayz on our smartphones you could have difficult traffic situations.
  3. Very slow trucks make passing on windy mountain roads dangerous.  There are many complaints about Ecuadorean drivers, but our observations is that the main problem is very slow trucks (overloaded and no enforcement of vehicle weights) combined with the absolute lack of any passing lanes on most mountain roads.  We did not see one passing lane anywhere in Ecuador.  There was a good two lane each way road from Quito to Papallacta, but elsewhere passing lanes were absent.
  4. Taxi’s are inexpensive enough for the short distances connecting most birding lodges and rental vehicles are expensive and often in poor condition.  Our Suzuki Vitara had 140,000 km (about 87,000 mi) on it and was about 4 years old.  Then, there is a 100km/day limit for free mileage.  And since a birder may spend a few days at each lodge the rental vehicle has limited value.  Some of the lodges have special arrangements with drivers to transport guests between lodges, and see seems a logical procedure to use – if lodges are your main destination.

Guides versus no Guides

Private English-speaking birding guides are available for roughly $100 per day.  We did not contract any guides during our stays but we did talk with guides (in Spanish) at several lodges and found them to be very knowledgeable about birds and how to find them.  If you have no Spanish-language skills a guide could be effective in improving your overall experience in Ecuador.

Botanical and ecological help

While there is plenty of information about birds and guides to help you find birds, the same cannot be said for plants, or animals other than birds.  Yes, the main mammals and reptiles are relatively well known to guides and the lodge personnel, but it is clear that birds dominate the nature scene.  Only one lodge had a plant guide – which despite being laminated had faded considerably.  Thus, if you wanted to know what palms you were seeing, or what species of bromeliads were covering the trees, you could not find such information.  And no one at the lodges could help you identify them either.

While it is understandable that plant identification is difficult, we also noticed a lack of general ecological information about where the lodges were situated and how the Ecuadorean environment differed from place to place.  Fore example, the mean rainfall and its seasonality at each lodge was rarely known with confidence, and no observations were made routinely.  Likewise, the national meteorological service (INAMHI) does not provide a concise description of Ecuador’s climate available online.

Since most tourists to cloud forest birding lodges come from the US or Europe, it might be logical to expect that a basic description of the cloud forest environment would be readily available and offered by guides and by the lodges.  Yet we found no mention of epiphytes in the cloud forest environment, nor of palms, nor of other obvious members of the flora (tree ferns, philodendrons, liverworts etc).  Either the birders are very focused on birds, or the lodges and guides have little interest in nature other than birds.  Something is missing.