Ecuador Trip Summary and Travel Information
This is the report I filed following my 2006 trip to Ecuador.
Ecuador is a diverse country with plenty of variety. It offers visitors the unique opportunity to explore two of the most fascinating wildlife habitats on the planet: the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon rainforest.
We certainly had an adventure on this trip. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an entirely perfect adventure, as the excellent experiences we enjoyed were marred slightly by some disappointments. Unlike my usual trip summaries in which I list just the highlights, I felt it was important to provide information about several experiences we had, good and bad.
These words are intended for trip planning and education, but always remember that your enjoyment of your journey comes down to your personal background, prior experience, expectations and luck.
La Casa Sol
We were in and out of Quito four different times. Every time we stayed at La Casa Sol. Excellent clean accommodations, helpful service and located near the tourist quarter (“Gringolandia”), it will be the only place we consider when we return to Quito.
They accept credit card deposits, but one can only pay for the room in cash.
Ecuadorian Cloud Forest
This station has UW ties, and was recommended to us by a grad student who has conducted research there. Located about 3.5 hours by bus outside of Quito (followed by a long slow 5k hike up a gravel road), Yanayacu is located in the hilly cloud forest region of the Andes. The station, built and run by Dr. Harold Greeney, is not catered to tourists, but visitors can stay there for $15/person/night. The accomodations are basic, you cook your own meals in a communal kitchen and there’s nothing in the way of a guided tour, though some of the visiting researchers (usually studying birds, insects or plants) may allow you to accompany them into the forest. Rubber boots are required, and visitors should contact the station ahead of time to check on available sizes. I was told I needed to bring my own size 11’s down, when in fact they already had a pair. So if you’re an 11, please enjoy the new boots I left behind!
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A more tourist-friendly alternative near Yanayacu is the San Isidro Lodge, which has a number of hummingbird feeders set up. We witnessed at least 10 different species of hummingbirds here in a couple hours. http://www.sanisidrolodge.com/
Travel to the Galapagos any time of year and you’re likely to have a good time. This was the highlight of our trip. You have a couple of options when planning your Galapagos cruise.
Join Max on a Photo Tour
In 2015 I led a fun and successful photo tour to the Galapagos. I will be leading additional trips in the future, so be sure to check my Tours and Workshops page to see if you can join me on my next tour. See photos from our 2015 tour here.
Happy Gringo Tours
First, you must decide whether to book ahead or just show up on the islands and try to find a boat. The latter option was recommended to us as a way of saving money. However, we were traveling in the low season (October) when many boats are in dry dock or being repaired. Plus, we didn’t have any spare days to be flexible. So we booked ahead of time through Happy Gringo, a UK/Dutch company based in Quito (right near La Casa Sol). Happy gringo is my partner for my own Ecuador photo tours. Let them know I referred you!
How Many Days?
Your next choice is booking for 3, 5 or 8 days in the Galapagos. Go for eight. We were surprised how few of our fellow travelers booked an 8 day tour, and they all seemed to regret not doing it afterward. Days are usually split, with at least one or two hiking excursions and one snorkeling outing every day.
Ecuadorian Amazon and the Oriente
Tiputini Biological Station
One of the biggest disappointments in my recent travels. Tiputini came with a lot of hype. Scientists and researchers we had spoken to had labeled Tiputini as “the best place for wildlife” in all of Ecuador. Several factors contributed to the disappointment we felt after we hardly saw anything. Our expectations were undoubtedly the main culprit. Besides the hype, we had already enjoyed an excellent wildlife adventure in Costa Rica, and this was supposed to trump that. Another factor that left a sour taste in our mouths is the difficulty in reaching Tiputini, and more importantly, the cost.
To reach the station from Quito, one must travel by plane, by car, by boat, through a military checkpoint, by truck and by boat again. This takes around 6 hours (only 25 minutes in the plane). You are journeying into the heart of the Amazon, so it’s an adventure. However, the high cost of lodging and reaching the station make it prohibitive for non-reasearchers to stay there. Tourists, photographers and birders must pay $180/person/night (vs. the researcher rate of $35/night), in addition to the travel costs.
We were haunted by few wildlife sightings and bad luck to be sure, despite having an excellent guide. As a professional photo excursion, it was a waste of money. As a travel adventure, it was highly disappointing. I have mulled over our Tiputini experience several times, and have come to the conclusion that it is difficult to recommend the station to anyone but the wealthy traveler or to serious birders seeking out specific species. We did get glimpses of a number of birds, but viewing opportunities may be better at more tourist-friendly eco lodges. Tiputini is also known for having an unsually dense jaguar population. Don’t expect to see one though. It takes serious good luck, even in the peak months of August and September.
If you go…
Your luck is bound to be better than ours. Request Mayer as your guide. Despite the poor wildlife experience, it is easy to say that Mayer is the best guide we’ve ever hired during our travels (some knowledge of Spanish is useful). The lodging at Tiputini is quite good, by the way. Cold water and partial power are minor inconveniences. Rubber boots are provided by the station.
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2013 Update: While Tiputini remains one of my most disappointing wildlife destinations, it should be noted that a photographer got pictures of an extremely rare black (melanistic) jaguar there in 2012. For some, the gamble is worth it.
Our luck improved dramatically with a visit to Sacha, located on the Rio Napo. The definition of a luxury eco lodge, the accomodations at Sacha were first class. More importantly, the guides at Sacha (specifically Seth From Chicago) recognized that our photographic needs were different from the rest of the travelers who had come in at that time, so they arranged for us to be guided privately during our stay. Seth even set up some night excursions to photograph nocturnal creepy crawlies, which were highly successful.
In addition to the night critters, we saw 6 different species of monkeys in 2 days, and spent time in Sacha’s butterfly house. A trip split between Sacha and neighboring Napo Wildlife Center might make for an excellent Amazon wildlife viewing trip.
See More Ecuador Photos
See photos from my 2015 Galapagos Islands tour. More Ecuador photos will be added to the archive in the future.
What We Packed
Two of us (one male, one female) were traveling in Ecuador and the Galapagos for 3 weeks. Due to a various climates, we were forced to be prepared for anything. The cloud forest can be wet and cold, the rain forest wet and hot, and the Galapagos dry and warm. I was required to pack rubber boots for Yanayacu, which really weighed things down. Most lodges and some research stations will provide boots.
Hiking shoes, sandals, zip pants, swim gear, various length shirts, waterproof fleece jackets, ponchos and other minor gear were carried in one large hiking backpack and a smaller duffle bag. Clothes were stuffed in our favorite travel compressor bags, while we also carried a small day pack for books and other items. In hindsight, we would have ditched the large pack for our slightly smaller travel backpack, to which the day pack could be attached.
Recommended Photo Gear
The different environments meant traveling with additional gear this time around, so I brought my Photo Trekker AWII camera pack in addition to the Mountainsmith lumbar waist pack I use to carry gear for day hikes. Note that since this trip, I have upgraded to the Think Tank Skin System with the Pixel Racing Harness. I much prefer this over the Mountainsmith bag.
One of the two new lenses I brought with me was the Canon 100-400mm IS, which was touted as the best lens for use in the Galapagos. This lens really did the trick and was the ideal lens for Galapagos wildlife. I used it on occasion in the Amazon as well, with a flash extender, with mixed results. Another fine addition for this trip was the Canon SD700, which worked well for point and shoot, as well as video footage. Combined with the underwater housing made specifically for this camera, it occasionally produced decent underwater shots. Underwater video quality was excellent.
During hikes, lenses would be attached to the waist packs straps with a couple caribiners. Note: if using a waist-type pack to tote gear or any valuables, always carry the pack in front (on your tummy) in urban settings. This isn’t entirely comfortable for one’s back, but it’s the best way to avoid giving thieves easy access to your stuff. A small combination lock on the main compartment works well as an added precaution.