The best places to see wildlife in Ecuador

Located in the north-west corner of South America, Ecuador is one of the 17 most biodiverse countries on Earth – despite being little more than the size of the UK. And while most people immediately think of the Galapagos Islands when it comes to wildlife tourism here, that overlooks the 48% of its territory that is covered by the tropical forests of the Amazon basin. There is incredible wildlife and unforgettable landscapes to be found on the mainland, which many travellers miss out on.

Because of Ecuador’s equatorial location, and the difference in altitude between localities caused by having the Andes mountains cut an unwavering path across the country, different territories experience vastly different seasonal weather. So, when attempting a birding or wildlife itinerary, it’s wise to prepare for all types of elevations and conditions – often on the same day! With that in mind, you can easily visit Ecuador year-round, though which part of the country you should head to will depend on what you want to encounter and experience.

Although Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America, it has the fourth-highest avian diversity of any nation in the world, with an official list of some 1,736 species of bird. Tourism was relatively quick to catch on to this, with birdwatching trips starting here in the late 1960s. By 2006, a national strategy was developed for this activity by researchers, communities, conservation organisations and the Ministry of Tourism, helping to create a more sustainable industry for birdwatching.

As ever with nature-minded escapes, a knowledgeable guide is invaluable in making the most of Ecuador’s birdlife. Travellers arriving today to catch a glimpse of the national bird, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), will find plenty of tour options amid the volcanoes and slopes of the Andes. Similarly, Ecuador is home to more than a third (136 species) of all hummingbird species in the Americas, and guides can help you to identify where and when to see them.

Aside from the UNESCO-listed Galápagos Islands, which became the country’s first national park in 1959, Ecuador counts an additional six biosphere reserves and more than 70 protected natural areas. From colonial Quito – the first capital city ever to gain World Heritage status – you can connect with the Amazon lowlands, the Pacific Ocean or the dry forests of the southern region. It’s just a matter of working out what wildlife you’d rather see.

Yasuni National Park

A golden-mantled tamarin (Norby Lopez)

This park offers prime access to the lowland Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, opening up one of the richest and most biodiverse places on our planet. Its forests harbour over 600 bird species and more than 12 types of monkey, as well as giant otters, sloths, jaguars and five other species of wild cat. To get deep into the forests, you’ll need to take a riverboat tour or stay in a nearby jungle lodge, where there are canopy towers and walkways that offer the chance to observe elusive birds on their own terms. Set aside a week to also take in the harpy eagles of Limoncocha and river dolphins of Cuyabeno in reserves around the area.

Best for: Jaguars. But while this wild cat is high on most must-see lists, the park’s clay licks are just as appealing and attract large numbers of parrots, macaws, parakeets and mammals.

The High Andes

A condor in the High Andes (Humberto Castillo)

Quito is surrounded by volcanic mountains covered in magnificent glaciers that deserve dedicated trips just to admire their flora and fauna. Cayambe Coca and Antisana national parks, in particular, are dominated by snowcapped volcanoes, Andean forest and páramo, providing opportunities to spy Andean condors, spectacled bears and carunculated caracara birds of prey. You’ll find access to trails, wildlife observatories and a lush forest interior remarkable for its sightings of tanagers, hummingbirds and toucans.

Best for: Volcanoes. Because the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere (it bulges at the equator!), Chimborazo (6,263m) is the furthest point above the Earth’s centre – greater even than Everest. Further north, Cotopaxi (5,897m) is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, and its glacial lake fills with resident and migratory birds.

The Cloud Forests

A mountain toucan in the Cloud Forests (Alamy)

The western and eastern slopes of the Andes are home to sprawling, misty cloud forests that lie between 800m and 1,500m. These evergreen areas are home to some of Ecuador’s highest concentrations of birdlife, ranging from hummingbirds and colourful tanagers to mountain toucans. You’ll also find larger mammals such as the mountain (woolly) tapir, puma and the only bear species found in South America: the spectacled bear. Most public and private reserves and lodges can be reached by vehicle.

Best for: Birding. The Mindo cloud-forest route, on the north-western slope of the Andean foothills, and the Cosanga Circuit (north-east slope) have both held records for the number of bird species spotted during the annual Christmas bird counts – between 400 and 531 species in just one day!

Where Else?

 

Machalilla National Park

As well as being home to fascinating pre-Columbian archaeological remains, this Pacific-adjacent park is visited by humpback whales between late June and October, who return to the coast to breed. Snorkelling and diving excursions also offer the rare chance to observe the largest colony of oceanic manta rays in the world.

Puyango Petrified Forest

The Puyango Petrified Forest is the site of not just one of the world’s largest collections of plant and marine animal fossils, but also an internationally important birding area. Look out, too, for the annual flowering of guayacán trees in the dry forests of the south-west. The first generous rains of mid-December or early January will trigger this annual bloom, producing bright-yellow flowers that extend to the horizon.

The Andean Chocó

The vast strip of tropical land that lies between the high Andes and the Pacific is home to many endemic bird species, from the toucan barbet to the Andean cock-of-the-rock. Up in the north-west, the Canandé Reserve features some of the last untouched sections of lowland tropical forest in the Chocó, protecting rare bird species such as the great green macaw.

Need to know information for Ecuador

 

When to go: The weather is dictated by regional microclimates. The lowland rainforest is wet and hot (30ºC) throughout the year. The Andean highlands tend to be dry and sunny (20ºC) in summer (Jul–Sep) and rainy between February and April, with the latter coinciding with peak bird migration season in the cloud forests of Cosanga and Mindo. The Pacific coast sees migrating humpbacks travel up from Antarctica to breed between July and October.

Getting there & around: There are no direct flights to Ecuador from the UK. Connections from London to international airports in Quito and Guayaquil usually go via New York and Atlanta in the US, Madrid and Amsterdam in Europe, or Bogotá in Colombia. Airlines flying these routes include KLM, Avianca, and JetBlue. Return flights take from about 14 hours.

Tour operators offering tailor-made trips to Ecuador include Metropolitan Touring, Biotropica Expeditions, and Wildlife Worldwide

Carbon offset: A return flight from London to Quito via Madrid produces 1,057kg of carbon per passenger. Wanderlust encourages you to offset your travel footprint through a reputable provider. For advice on finding one, visit wanderlust.co.uk/sustainable-travel.

Currency & visa: Currency: Ecuador has used the US dollar ($) since 2000. It is currently $1.27 to the UK£.
Visa: UK nationals don’t require a visa for stays of up to 90 days.

Further information: Birds of Ecuador (Helm Field Guide, 2018) by Robin Restall and Juan Freile – A useful primer.