Let’s start with by drawing a parallel between Ecuador and Costa Rica; Both countries are politically stable, safe for travelers, have excellent tourism infrastructure, and pack lots of wildlife into a small area. What Costa Rica is to Central America, Ecuador is to South America – a great first destination for someone traveling to the respective geography. But Ecuador offers significantly more, and on no front is that more evidenced than by the birds. While Costa Rica hosts 900 bird species, Ecuador boasts nearly 1700! Ecuador also has more extreme and varied habitats, and nothing anywhere in Central America can compete with high Andean peaks in the west or the expansive Amazonian Basin in the east. I recently returned from Northwestern Ecuador, and I am going to use this post to highlight my experiences in that specific region.
Among many possible Ecuador itineraries, none are more logistically straightforward or easily afforded that a 6-10 day run through the highlands northwest of Quito, an international destination that is conveniently serviced by direct flights from several US airports. Within just three driving hours of that capital city, one can find incredibly varied habitats, over 500 species of birds, and many nice lodges. Highway 28, the main artery from Quito to the northwest, is in pristine shape, and the region’s many dirt roads are in generally good condition and mostly navigable in a standard 2-wheel drive rental car (though an sport-utility or high-clearance vehicle is best). It is thus completely possible to fly into Quito, rent a car and drive yourself to all of the birding locations that I here describe.
The first (or last) stop on any northwestern loop should be the Yanacocha reserve an hour’s drive west of Quito. Situated at 11,500 feet, it is high elevation Andean birding at its finest. It’s a bit of bumpy ride up the 10km road to reach the reserve, but it’s worth it for the birds and the views. Those views are, however, exclusively a morning phenomenon as those highest elevations cloud over later in the day. An early arrival will maximize time at the reserve and give you the chance to find Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Andean Guan, Great Thrush, Andean Condor, Giant Conebill, and Imperial Snipe. Hummingbirds include Golden-breasted and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, Shining Sunbeam, Giant Hummingbird, Great Sapphirewing, and the unbelievable Sword-billed Hummingbird!
From Yanacocha, the more conservative can back-track through Quito and join Highway 28 to reach the Tandayapa Valley and points farther west. The more adventurous should descend directly to the valley along the unpaved Nono-Mindo Road. Either way, you’ll be dropping major elevation as you move west down the Andean Slope. There are any number of lodges in the valley, and each offers a slightly different experience and complement of birds. Alambi, a tiny guesthouse at the lowest, northern end of the Valley is amazing. It only accommodates 6 people but is a wonderfully intimate experience and has a fantastic hummingbird garden in the back yard. The Tandayapa Bird Lodge at valley’s midpoint is great and perfect for larger groups. Bellavista at the southern, upper end of the valley has the best birding as it is situated squarely in the cloud forest. Bird highlights from the valley included 20 species of hummingbird, Blue-necked Tanager, Barred Hawk, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Red-faced Spinetail, White-winged Tanager, Rufous Motmot, Tricolored Brushfinch, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Scaled Antpitta, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Grass-green Tanager and the incomparable Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan.
On the map below, mentioned areas are indicated. The unpaved Nono-Mindo Road in light blue. Paved Highway 28 to north in yellow.
After a few days in Tandayapa, head farther west to Mindo either by returning to Highway 28 or continuing along the Nono-Mindo Road. Mindo (population ~3000) isn’t so much a specific birding destination as it a great base of operations. It’s possible, for example, to find amazing birding just by driving and walking the dirt roads that lead out of town. Accommodations in Mindo vary from hostels, to cheap hotels, to Airbnb-type places. Séptimo Paraíso is probably the most notable lodge and is an exceedingly convenient point from which to access the birding areas in and beyond Mindo. I would highly suggest using day trips from Mindo to visit the four areas I highlight below. We stayed exclusively at Airbnbs and found hosts to be welcoming and entertaining. Beware though, not all speak English well – if at all! But that’s part of the adventure, right?
The first ‘can’t miss’ is Refugio Paz de Las Aves. Run by Angel Paz and family, a guided tour is the best way to view the shy and secretive antpittas that call the preserve’s dense understory home. Up to 5 species can be seen in a single morning. We missed Giant but saw Chestnut-crowned, Yellow-bellied, Moustached, and the tiny Ochre-breasted. They also have a very nice Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, and we saw upwards of a dozen displaying birds on it. There were tons of other birds too, Golden-headed Quetzal included. Its just north of Mindo on the east hand side of Highway 28. The tour costs like $40/person and includes breakfast. But beware! Though scheduled to run from 6-10am, the tour usually runs up to 2 hours longer than that. So, eat something significant before you go and don’t schedule your next activity until around 1pm!
A bit farther away (and accessed through Pacto) is the Mashpi-Amagusa reserve. Effectively just a private family property with fruit feeders, the place teams with cloud forest birds and Chocó endemics. Hummingbirds included Velvet-purple Coronet, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, and Empress Brilliant, but it was really the tanagers that starred; Moss-backed, Glistening-green, and Flame-faced all provided close views. Beyond those, Golden-collared Honeycreeper and Indigo Flowerpiecer also put in brief appearances.
Those particularly interested in building up their bird lists should also visit Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary. About a hour west along Highway 28, the reserve is several thousand feet lower than Mindo and hosts species more characteristic of the western lowlands. We found Hook-billed Kite, Blue-tailed Trogon, White-tailed Trogon, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Bronze-winged Parrot, Pacific Antwren, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, and Green Honeycreeper. I would suggest a whole day at Silanche, but remember to bring a lunch as there isn’t much around to eat!
Those interested in photography should also check out the Birder’s House on the Nono-Mindo Road between Bellavista and Mindo. Run by a very friendly local guy, Vinicio Perez, the place has several great blinds as well as a covered hummingbird viewing area. If you get a rainy Mindo day, it’s a dry, relaxing place to pass the afternoon. The $10 fee is well worth it. Vinicio has several small rooms for rent, and those very photographically inclined should think about staying on-site. His wife even cooks for the guests! I has stunning views of Violet-tailed Sylph and at least 10 other hummingbird species, Blue-capped Tanager, Masked Trogon, Smoke-colored Pewee, and the super-elusive Spillman’s Tapaculo.
So, by the time you do all of these excursions and spend a day or two kicking around the hotspots in Mindo, you’re easily fill up 3-5 days. Coupled with a 3-4 days in Tandayapa and a night or two in Quito on either end of your trip, you’ve not the the makings of a great introduction to Ecuador!
Do note that the wet season runs from December to March/April. We went around Christmas and it rained some each day but never all day. Those that want to minimize their rain exposure might consider visiting outside those months, but be aware that it is the tropics there’s always going to be some rain. Safety concerns are generally minimal, and the use of the US dollar as currency helps stabilize prices. Vaccinations for Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and B, and Malaria are recommended but not required. Though a working knowledge of Spanish is helpful, it is no more necessary than anywhere else in Latin America. So there it is! All the info for your next trip! Enjoy!