Ecuador Photo Tour
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. What sets this tour apart from other hummingbird photo tours to Ecuador is that the guides also understand all that Ecuador has to offer besides hummers, so you may spend part of the day doing hummingbirds and spend other times chasing toucans, barbets, tanagers and motmots. If you hit a feeding flock the photography becomes a frenzy of opportunistic shooting; a buzz hard to get anywhere else.
Day 1: Arrival in Quito. You will be met at the airport and transferred to a comfortable Quito hotel for the night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Amazon extension, you will be transferred to the Quito airport for international departures home
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.
ECUADOR 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.
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.
$3290, single supplement: $340Space available; tour will be confirmed with 1 more booking.
Amazon extension:24-29 July$2490, single supplement: $300Space available; we will run this extension with a minimum of 2 people
11 - 20 February
29 July - 7 August
$3290, single supplement: $340
Space available; tour will be confirmed with 1 more booking.
2017 price is $3290, single supplement: $340Space available; tour will be confirmed with 1 more booking.
20 - 25 February
7 - 12 August
$2490, single supplement: $300
Space available; we will run this extension with a minimum of 2 people
Length: 10 days
Starting city: Quito
Ending city: Quito
Pace: relaxed to moderate
Physical difficulty: moderate
Max group size: 6 + 1 leader
Ecuador is famous for its incredible number and diversity of hummingbirds and tanagers. These will be our main targets, but there is still so much more to focus our lenses on, not to mention breathtaking Andean scenery.