Focus on Birds in Ecuador's Highlands and Lowlands

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14805A, International


  • Experience Ecuador, one of the world’s most acclaimed birding destinations
  • Explore montane cloud forest, Amazon lowlands, and high altitude páramo and Polylepis forest
  • Learn from master bird guide, Charlie Gomez, accompaning us the entire trip


  • All lodging, tips, and meals (except one dinner in Quito)
  • All on-trip transportation, including in-country flights and riverboats
  • Airport transfers, entrance fees, and full-time guidance


DatesOct 19–Nov 7, 2014
StaffCarol Dienger

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Trip Overview

The Trip

In a way, Ecuador could be called the center of the Western world. It spans the equator and is draped over the continental divide at the Andes.  On this 20-day trip, we will focus on birds. Jewel-like hummingbirds, flamboyant tanagers, raucous parrots and macaws, soaring raptors, exotic umbrellabirds, and shy antpittas will be some of the star attractions. Expect to be dazzled by the amazing diversity of tropical birds as we explore this new birding itinerary that features the eastern slopes of the Andes.

After a night in Quito, we will fly south to Loja and then drive east over the Andes to Zamora for three days. Next we move north to Cuenca and Cajas National Park, visiting Saraguro along the way. After three days, we fly back to Quito before we fly again, this time east to the Napo River lowlands. After four nights at a remote lodge, we will drive up the eastern slope of the Andes, over Papallacta Pass, and back to Quito, spending seven days and staying at three different lodges. 

Although our trip will focus on birds, we will keep an ever-watchful eye for resident mammals of the montane forests, including the rarely seen spectacled bear, the puma, and the South American tapir, to begin a list of possibilities. In the lowlands we will surely see black caimans and several species of monkeys, and there is always possibility of seeing the rare giant otters.

Bird guide and master naturalist, Carlos “Charlie” Gomez, will again join us throughout the trip to help us in locating and identifying the many secretive and challenging birds of the tropics.



Day 1: Most flights from the U.S arrive in Quito in the evening. You will be met at the airport and transferred to our hotel. Now that we are at 9,000 feet, it is time to get a good night’s sleep at our very comfortable hotel. 

Day 2: This morning fly south to Catamayo, the airport for the city of Loja. We will immediately start birding looking for some specialties of this region’s dry scrub vegetation, such as: Long-tailed Mockingbird, Pacific Parrotlet, Peruvian meadowlark, Saffron Finch, Croaking Ground-dove, and Elegant Crescent-chest. After lunch, drive to the eastern lowlands to a lovely lodge near Zamora (2,900 feet) for three nights.

Days 3-4: Two full days for Bombuscaro, the eastern entrance to Podocarpus National Park. In this wonderfully diverse area, look for many species of narrow distribution such as White-breasted Parakeet, Coppery-chested Jacamar, Paradise Tanager, Lanceolated Monklet, Black-mandibled Toucan, Foothill Antwren, and Blue-rumped Manakin. Hiking in the low montane forest along the river at Bombuscaro is delightful.

Day 5: Today drive thru some very “birdy” cloud forest (to 9,190 feet) on the “old Loja-Zamora road” -- lots of tanagers! The day will end in Saraguro, home of a distinct group of indigenous people whose fore-bearers originally came from the altiplano region of Titicaca, Bolivia. Relocated in Saraguro by the Incas, they still maintain many of their traditions as well as their very distinctive clothing. Our lodging will be near the central plaza of Saraguro, where pleasant strolls await.

Day 6: Before leaving the Saraguro area, we should look for several mountain tanagers, Red-crested Cotinga, Bar-bellied Woodpecker, and possibly the rare Crescent-faced Antpitta. Destination: Cuenca (8,301feet), possibly Ecuador’s most beautiful colonial city (declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999). It is a classic example of a “planned Renaissance town in the Americas” with narrow cobbled streets, balconied homes, interior courtyards, and an abundance of churches. It was founded by Spaniards in 1557 and built over the ruins of the Inca city, Tomebamba. We will divide our time in Cuenca between birding and exploring the city and the surrounding countryside.

Day 7: This day is for Cajas National Park (9,842-15,764 feet), only 45 minutes from the city of Cuenca. One of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Ecuador, this is a landscape of craggy hills and glacier-scoured valleys, glittering lakes, swirling mists, and superb hiking. On the continental divide, the park includes páramo, high grasslands, and dense humid cloudforest. Some of the unique birds to look for are the Andean Snipe, Titlike Dacnis, Gray-breasted Mountain-toucan, Giant Conebill, Sword-billed Hummingbird, and Violet-throated Metaltail (endemic to the Cajas region). Rains often come to the high country in early afternoon, so if it happens, then it's time for city sightseeing in Cuenca.

Day 8: More time for Cajas and Cuenca before taking a late-afternoon flight back to Quito. We will stay close to the new airport for the night.

Day 9: At a rather leisurely hour, fly by jet from Quito to the town of Coca, an oil “boomtown” on the Napo River in the “Oriente." This town gives a firsthand look at the consequences of oil development mixed with rainforest. In Coca we will board a large, motorized, covered riverboat for a scenic two and a half-hour trip down the muddy, brown Napo River, one of the major tributaries of the upper Amazon. Upon arriving at the creek entrance to the river, we tranfer to smaller, dugout canoes, which will be paddled by our hosts, upstream to a blackwater lake. The paddle could take several hours as we look for hoatzins, jacamars, kingfishers, macaws, and several species of monkeys along the way. It will be a late-afternoon arrival for a four-night stay at luxurious Anangu Lodge, an extraordinary place for bird watching in Amazonian lowland rain forest. This lodge is owned and operated by the indigenous Quichua community of Anangu.  Logging, market hunting, and oil extraction are all actively destroying local forests, but the income from this lodge allows this community to continue to resist these pressures and provide virtually all of Yasuni’s National Park’s tourism income.

Days 10-12: We will have three days for walking forest trails around the lodge and for canoeing creeks and classic cochas (oxbow lakes), always on the lookout for Giant Otters. The birding in surrounding Yasuni National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is in terra firme (upland) and varzea (seasonally flooded forest); expect to find such regularly occurring species as Great Tinamou, Marbled Wood-quail, Great Potoo, Crested Owl -- just a start to the long list.

Highlights at Napo Wildlife Center will include birding from a 120-foot tower high in the forest canopy and visiting some of the most accessible parrot and macaw licks in Ecuador.  From the tower it is possible to spot many of the canopy birds and animals that are virtually impossible to see from the forest floor far below; among the birds are some of the most colorful in the tropics: tanagers, cotingas, honeycreepers, toucans, and parrots. Some genuine rarities to look for are Collared Puffbird, Rufous-headed Woodpecker, and the Amazonian Umbrellabird.  Blinds near some of the clay licks allow birders to watch gatherings of hundreds of colorful parrots and macaws. Locals knew of the clay licks of western Amazonia long before they gained the attention of scientists in 1984. Both parrots and macaws live by eating nuts from a variety of trees; some of those nuts contain toxins for self-protection against predation. Parrots and macaws have evolved their own response to the toxins by eating certain clays to neutralize the effects of the toxins.

Days 13-14: We return by boat upriver to Coca and retrace, in reverse order, the journey of La Condamine’s French expedition from Quito to the Napo River and down the Amazon (See Map Maker’s Wife on reading list). It is a two-hour drive to Wild Sumaco Lodge (4,500 feet), our destination for two nights. Here -- almost on the equator in the densely forested foothills of the Eastern Andes adjacent to Sumaco National Park -- an extraordinary mix of new birds will be found.

Days 15-16: Now we continue to drive uphill over the Huacamayo Ridge, birding all the way to Cosanga, and nearby Cabañas San Isidro (7,000 feet), renowned not only for outstanding birding, but also for excellent food. We will look for San Isidro’s very own Black-and-white Owl (possibly a new species), close up antpittas, hummers at feeders, and many other avian specialties of the eastern montane habitat -- and hopefully some mammals, too. Cabañas San Isidro is dedicated to forest conservation and has facilitated land purchases protecting large tracts of land adjacent to Antisana Reserve.

Days 17-18: The next destination is not far in miles, but the Papallacta-Baeza Road's alder forests are so rich with good birding that we will be lucky to make it in time for dinner at Guango Lodge; hummingbirds are fabulous here. The last full day in the highlands will be spent exploring the Polylepis woodlands and the páramo above Las Termes de Papallacta for even more species of hummingbirds, as well as canasteros, cincloides, ground-tyrants and mountain-tanagers.

Day 19: A true highpoint of the trip will be the morning spent at Papallacta Pass (13,400 feet), searching for the elusive Rufous-bellied Seed-snipe and high soaring Andean Condors. After a picnic lunch it will be time to make the short drive on the Old Papallacta Road back to Quito for a farewell dinner and last night together.

Day 20: Transfer to the international airport for flights departing to the U.S., or plan a post-trip adventure on your own or with the help of our friends at Neblina Forest.



Getting There

Your passport should be valid for at least six months from the starting date of this trip. No visa is required for holders of U. S. passports.

Travelers from the U.S. can choose from a number of airlines. Most flights from the U. S. arrive in the evening, and this is anticipated in planning the itinerary. Return flights generally leave in the morning, sometimes very early. Participants should arrive no later than Sunday, October 19. Return flights can be scheduled anytime Friday, November 7 or later. Please do not make non-refundable travel arrangements until notified to do so by the trip leader.

Quito, the nation’s capital, sits at the northern end of the country in a high Andean valley 14 miles south of the Equator. Culturally, Quito provides a fascinating mix of colonial and aboriginal. Colorful native markets and fiestas, pre-Columbian artifacts, and historically impressive 16th-century Spanish colonial architecture mingle with modern glass-and-steel buildings. This centuries-old city lies in an arid, intermontane valley between north-south cordilleras and is surrounded by breathtaking scenery. On clear days you can view the majesty of snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano from Quito.

When you make your plans for travel you should consider a few extra days before or after the trip to visit the artesania (folk art and crafts) center in Otavalo, to check out a few museums, galleries, and the botanical garden; to experience the equator; or to extend your trip bird list with a visit to one of the Mindo lodges on the western slopes.

Accommodations and Food

This is not a camping trip, but it is not a luxury trip either. Our accommodations vary from pleasant lodges to a very comfortable hotel.  Rooms are double occupancy, and roommates will be assigned for those traveling solo. Single rooms, when available, may be requested for an additional cost. Most of the time, the rooms have private baths, hot water and electricity. Windows are screened. Food will vary with each location; vegetarians can be accommodated. (Please let the leader know in advance if you have special diet needs.)  Water should be bottled or boiled.

Trip Difficulty

To enjoy this trip, you need to have a strong interest in birds. You must be in reasonably good health and you should be able to walk up to possibly three miles each day at a “birder’s pace,” sometimes over irregular, muddy, even steep trails. You can count on early morning starts each day to take advantage of those precious hours when birds are most active.  When birds are resting in the early afternoon, we may also rest, but when the rain or heat of the day is over, we will be birding again, sometimes until well after sunset. It is not a strenuous trip and could be classified as leisurely, except that days will be very full and we will often be in the field from dawn to dusk. Stamina is important. A good-humored and flexible attitude toward traveling in Latin America is required. Weather happens. Surprises are the rule. Plans are made, and plans get changed, often resulting with a fine reward.

Activities will include considerable walking, some hours sitting in a riverboat, some standing around while searching for birds, and also climbing of a 120-foot tower (optional, but highly recommended). A good sense of balance will be needed while boarding and disembarking the dugout canoes. Elevation gain and loss on our hikes will be minimal, but we will be birding above 9,000 feet on several different days -- including  time above 12,000 feet for a few hours on three or four days. The heat and humidity in the lowlands may bother those not used to it. While all hikes are optional, the trip will be more satisfying to those physically able to participate in all activities and willing to enjoy the wet weather expected in the equatorial tropics.

No vaccinations are required although inoculation for yellow fever is strongly recommended for travel in the Amazonian lowlands. Be sure your hepatitis A and tetanus vaccinations are up-to-date. While malaria and typhoid are not a high risk, each visitor to the Amazon should consult with his personal physician regarding precautions. If you are prone to discomfort at high altitudes, you should also discuss this issue with your doctor. Diamox, when taken prior to sudden exposure to high altitude (arriving by air in Quito at 9,000 feet, for example), can be helpful for most people.

Equipment and Clothing

You must have a good pair of birding binoculars. These should be gas filled to prevent moisture from getting inside. This trip would be a good excuse to treat yourself to a new, excellent pair of binoculars, but be sure you take plenty of time to get thoroughly used to them and to test them well before the trip. You will need good rain gear, an umbrella, a daybag, boots for muddy trails, clothes for a warm, humid climate, for hot, dry times, and also for cool, damp days. It can snow at Antisana! A packing list and many more details will be provided later.



Ridgely, Robert, and Greenfield, Paul J., The Birds of EcuadorVol. I Field Guide. New, heavy, and expensive, but the most complete field guide for Ecuador.

Roos, Wilma and Omer van Renterghem, Ecuador In Focus. Concise and current survey of politics and history, people and culture, economics and oil.  Quite readable.

Pearson, David L., and Beletsky, Les, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. One of the Travellers’ Wildlife Guides, it covers some more common birds, mammals, reptiles, and butterflies, with discussions of family groups. (Borrow from library for pre-trip study.)

Forsyth, A., and K. Miyata, Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America. An excellent introduction to rainforest ecology.

Hilty, Steven, Birds of Tropical America. Very readable natural history of bird life of tropical Central and South America.

Whitaker, Robert, Map Maker’s Wife. A great true story about the wife of a member of La Condamine’s French Expedition to Ecuador more than two centuries ago. We will travel the same path as the expedition over the Andes, in reverse order. This is a “must read.”


International Travel Maps, scale 1:700,000. (Available from


With one of the densest human populations in South America and with close to a third of its people living in poverty, Ecuador faces a host of environmental problems and disasters waiting to happen. The list includes deforestation at a high rate to accommodate hungry colonists in search of new agricultural fields and cattle pastures, logging companies interested in quick profits, but not in conservation, mining, destruction of mangroves to create shrimp beds, urban sprawl and road development, the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture, and the introduction of domestic species (bananas and African Oil Palm) that compete with native species. However, dominating most political decisions is the economic power of oil. 

But behind all this pessimism, there is hope. With increasing frequency, environmental awareness is being taught in schools and discussed on television and in newspapers. Groups of NGOs, tourist agencies, and indigenous peoples are working together to solidify their power and convince the government that ecotourism is an important part of Ecuador’s future. You will see and hear of examples of the progress in the land-acquisition accomplishments by the Jocotoco Foundation, Cabañas San Isidro, national parks, and the community-owned Napo lodge. Part of our tourist dollars are converted into land purchases by these groups and are an investment in the Ecuadorian people.



A birding enthusiast and naturalist, Carol Dienger began leading trips over 40 years ago. Beginning with backpack trips in the Sierra Nevada for Sierra Club families and for Santa Clara County Girl Scouts, she soon added leading trips to Baja, Costa Rica and Alaska for sea-kayaking, to Austria for cross-country skiing, and a whole variety of wilderness exploration trips in Alaska and Canada. For close to 20 years her trips have focused on natural history, and in particular, on birding. Retired from her work as an architectural designer specializing in solar mountain homes and from her volunteer job as the coordinator of the Club's national outing program in Alaska, Carol spends her newly gained "leisure time" gardening, woodworking, studying Spanish, enjoying the grandkids, and chasing birds wherever they may be. This will be her seventh trip to Ecuador. Your trip leader is one of the many who have a great passion for hummingbirds. She savors the gem-like names of these iridescent little beauties: Violet-throated Metal-tail, Flame-throated Sunangel, Rainbow Starfrontlet, Mountain Velvet-breast, Wire-crested Thorntail, Shining Sunbeam, and Mountain Avocetbill. The names are almost as spectacular as these miraculous little birds, which are unique to the Americas. Most lodges that cater to birders have feeders hung to attract hummers in for close observation. It is not unrealistic to see 40 or even 50 species on this trip. A list of hummingbirds that we might expect will be provided for pre-trip study.

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