For a nature trip that pretty much has it all, you can’t beat a wildlife tour in Ecuador. Of the 17 countries with the highest level of biodiversity on earth, surely one of the most impressive is this unassuming and compact South American nation. Favio Fernandez Arauz, manager of Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge and Reserve in Ecuador, introduces the natural wonders of this ecologically famous country.
Ecuador is situated right along the Equator (hence its name). Its Pacific coastal lowlands, along with its Amazonian region, are separated longitudinally and biologically by the towering Andean Cordillera. Its famed Galapagos Archipelago floats out in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000km to the west. Ecuador’s coastline is bathed in both warm- and cold-water ocean currents to the north and south respectively, which between them create very distinct climatic conditions in the western portion of the country.
Want to travel to see Ecuador’s wildlife?
The local specialist tour operators on Blue Sky Wildlife offer set departure or bespoke organised trips to Ecuador. Enquire direct or book through Blue Sky Wildlife for the best deals.
From the Top to the Bottom
The Andean mountain chain adds an array of microclimates to the mix, from the numerous sky-high snow-capped volcanic peaks to the tundra-like páramo grasslands and elfin woodlands. Travelling downwards you pass through dense humid montane forests and rich, subtropical mist-shrouded cloud forests until you reach the lowlands. Along with the more seasonally varied deciduous forests, arid scrublands and desert regions of the southwest there are the tropical wet lowland rainforests of the northwest and Amazonian regions.
Photo Credit: Ben Porter, Bellavista Cloud Forest – Blue-winged Mountain tanager
All-in-all, it’s easy to imagine why this mini wonderland has so much to offer. The diversity of its orchid and butterfly species is unparalleled, and it can match its South American neighbours in the variety of its amphibian, fish, mammal, insect and botanical life.
Furthermore, for birding in Ecuador there is an impressive bird list that surpasses 1,700 species and gives the country its place as the world’s Number 4 for avian species. Considering its small size in comparison to the other contenders, this a huge claim to fame! In fact, counting the number of species on a ‘per sq km’ basis, Ecuador comes out as Number 1!
Ecuador’s Birding and Wildlife Regions
Now let’s break down the various regions of Ecuador and see what they have to offer the birding and wildlife visitor.
Ecuador boasts a good road and highway network, varying from adequate to excellent, which makes it relatively easy to travel to most regional hotspots. Birder-friendly lodges and wildlife viewing opportunities are available pretty much nationwide. The country’s two largest cities with their international airports – Quito, the capital, located in the northern highlands and Guayaquil, a port city located in the southwest coastal lowlands – are the principal hubs from which all regions can be accessed. Local flights to almost any area within continental Ecuador take no more than 30-45 minutes. Flights to Galapagos take an hour and a half from Guayaquil, with most Galapagos flights from Quito stopping at Guayaquil to pick up additional passengers.
The Northwest (the Chocó bioregion)
This can hands-down be considered the gateway to birding in Ecuador, as it is renowned for its Chocó bioregional endemic species and it is where the most abundant birder-friendly infrastructure can be found, especially just west of the city of Quito. The area offers excellent lodges, nature reserves and private ‘birding gardens’ located at a variety of altitudes and with a broad array of habitats, from the high temperate and subtropical zones down through the foothills and tropical lowlands, and species diversity.
Photo Credit: Nature Experience – Andean Condor
To sample all these habitats a field trip of at least eight days is to be recommended and combining that with a visit to the northeast Andean slopes or parts of the Pacific coast is viable.
The Northeastern Andean Slopes
Also easily accessed from the city of Quito, this region offers great birding and wildlife options at high-elevation paramo and temperate and subtropical habitats to the east of the Andean foothills, and even down into the Amazonian lowlands at a few key sites. There are a select number of excellent birding lodges within each zone. Combining this region with the northwest Andean slopes and/or the Amazon basin would be a viable option depending on available time.
The Pacific Coast
This area is perhaps best accessed from the port city of Guayaquil (although it can also be reached from Quito and areas in the northwest). It is known for its coastal towns and villages along with popular beach resorts and therefore there are multiple lodging options for a wildlife tourist in Ecuador. It is a region of arid scrubland and desert, deciduous and semi-humid woodland and forest, sandy beaches, areas of rocky coastline, mudflats and salt-ponds. There are several National Parks and protected reserves there and a scattering of oceanic islands (including Isla de la Plata) which are home to a fascinating mix of shorebirds, seabirds and tumbesian endemic species. Along the northern portion of the coastline there are fringes of dense mangroves. In the lowland rainforest of Esmeraldas Province, which borders Colombia, you find tropical wet forest. The area is teeming with Chocó bioregion endemics, making this a must-visit area for birding in Ecuador, although there are only a select few and less accessible lodging opportunities here.
Photo Credit: Favio Fernandez – Bellavista Cloud Forest – Ocellated Tapaculo
The south is a relatively diverse and logistically more geographically complex region that includes coastal wetlands, southwestern tumbesian deciduous forest and woodland and southwest-Andean foothill cloud forest. The southern and southeastern Andes ranges from páramo to temperate- and subtropical-zone forests. There are state-run and private reserves, National Parks and a series of excellent birding lodges scattered throughout this territory.
A recommended minimum of 10 days is needed to explore some of the best-known locations, and you need to expect comparatively more long drives between hotspots than in most other areas of the country but, be assured, it is well worth the effort! This region is accessible by road from Guayaquil or by air from Quito.
The south of Ecuador can also be subdivided into two or three distinct regions, which can be visited separately, and may accommodate a shorter trip.
Photo Credit: Nature Experience – San Isidro Cloud Forest – Agouti
The Southwest (the Tumbesian bioregion)
The western portion of this area (just east and south of Guayaquil) covers lowland areas of tropical wetlands, mangroves, deciduous tumbesian bioregional forest, woodland and scrub, and foothill cloud forest. There are a select few, but excellent, birding lodges, reserves and National Parks and a visit here can commonly be combined with the southern Andes and southeast Andean slopes or a visit to sites along the Pacific Coast.
The Southern Andean Highlands and Southeast Andean Slopes
These two regions (often combined) are best accessed by road or by air from Guayaquil, although daily flights are available from Quito to the Andean cities of Cuenca or Loja. The region holds a number of important National Parks and private reserves along with all-around great birding opportunities in this part of Ecuador, with good birder-friendly lodging at several key locations in both the highlands and the eastern foothills. Cuenca and several surrounding towns and villages are especially known for their interesting cultural tourism as well.
Photo Credit: Think Galapagos -Booted RacketTail Hummingbird
The Amazon Basin (El Oriente)
Wildlife in Ecuador’s magnificent lowland Amazon basin is most easily accessed by air directly from Quito (jet service to the towns of Coca or Lago Agrio along with small-plane service to Shell Mera and Maldonado), but it can also be reached by road as an extension to a trip from the northeast Andean slopes or the southern Andean Highlands and southeast Andean slopes.
Three main river systems are the principal access routes to most lodging. The key birder-friendly lodges are located along the Río Napo and the lower Río Pastaza, all of which can only be reached by motor-driven canoes from the local airport towns. Between five and seven days at any of these lodges is recommended for a wildlife tour.
The Galapagos Archipelago
These spectacular oceanic islands have become a most popular ‘bucket-list’ destination for wildlife watching in Ecuador, due in part to the many documentaries that have aired over the years highlighting their unique wildlife, geography, geological and human history. The unforgettable experience of visiting this wonderful archipelago, particularly for birding in Ecuador, cannot be overstated. Of the 13 main islands and many islets that make up the Galapagos, only four have freshwater and therefore can sustain human populations.
Land-based lodging is available on all of them, although Santa Cruz and San Cristobal are the most visited. To a lesser extent people visit the southeastern coast of Isabela and, even less so, Floreana. Most wildlife touring is done by ocean excursions – either short daytrips from mainland hotels, hosterías or lodges, or on multi-day cruises aboard vessels of varying sizes, from which there are many to choose.
The different islands are home to often distinct floral and faunal communities and many species or nesting colonies are unique to specific locations on a given island. Cruise itineraries are organised into seven-day segments and to visit all the major islands booking two segments is necessary.
Photo Credit: Favio Fernandez – Bellavista Cloud Forest – Red-headed Barbet
However, a single week-long cruise is certainly adequate for most wildlife tours in part of Ecuador, but it is important to research itineraries to see what’s on offer on a single-segment tour and what will be missed.
See our section on climate (below) to understand the best time to visit the Galapagos for specific expectations. If birding in Ecuador is a priority, it is recommended that you book a cruise with one of the many specialised birding tour companies who will focus your Galapagos experience on its rich avifauna.
When to Visit for Ecuador’s Wildlife
Ecuador offers great birding and wildlife watching opportunities year-round, but seasonal climatic conditions, along with a few additional factors, may be worth taking into account when planning a visit. Two major seasons are recognised in the country – Verano or summer, which is generally drier, and Invierno or winter, which is generally wetter, although both of these can vary regionally in intensity and distinction.
Photo: Map of Ecuador
Overall, in the more humid areas of Ecuador the difference between rainy invierno and ‘less’ rainy verano may not be all that obvious, whereas in the southwest of the country verano has little to no precipitation while invierno is very wet. The rainy season can bring on flooding and landslides, along with road blockages, which may well cause problems when travelling from place to place.
The following is a general climate breakdown by region within Ecuador:
The Coastal Lowlands
Generally, the northwest experiences a relatively uniform precipitation throughout the year, with invierno running from January through April.
In the southwest the wet-dry seasonality is distinct: it is rainy, green and hot from the end of December/January through to May. It is dry, leafless and not so hot from June to early December.
The Andean Slopes
Generally this region also experiences a relatively uniform precipitation throughout the year, although it is not uncommon for there to be a somewhat drier period known locally as Veranillo, or ‘little summer’, during July and August. See also the sections on the Coastal Lowlands (above) and the Eastern Lowlands (below) as their respective regional climatic conditions can impact the western and eastern Andean slopes respectively.
Photo Credit: Think Galapagos – Magnificent Frigatebird
Eastern Lowlands (the “Oriente”/Amazon Basin)
This rainforest area presents a relatively uniform climate for wildlife and birding in Ecuador throughout the year, although there are often periods of less rain from August to September and December to March. Austral (Southern) winter periods between June and August can bring the odd cold front to the region from time to time.
The Highlands (La Sierra)
Overall, this region experiences a somewhat distinct seasonality. There is more precipitation from November to early December and February to early June and less precipitation from mid-June to September and December and January.
The Galapagos Islands
The same two invierno and verano seasons exist on the archipelago but here they can markedly affect the nature viewing opportunities along with potential travel planning. Invierno from mid-January to early May is hot and rainy, brought on by the presence of warm water ocean currents. The vegetation on the islands is green and water temperatures are warm, making it more comfortable for snorkeling and the seas are also calmer. However, this is not a prime time for enjoying seabird colonies on a wildlife trip in Ecuador. The famed Waved Albatross, frigatebirds, Nasca, Red-footed and Blue-footed Boobies, among other pelagic species, will have finished nesting and may have departed from the islands, although land-based resident species such as the famous ‘Darwin’ finches, mockingbirds, etc, will be busy raising young.
Photo Credit: Think Galapagos – Sea Turtle
Verano, known locally as the ‘Garúa’ season, is from late May to early January. This brings cloudier skies, cooler land and water temperatures, and the sea can be choppy. There is little or no rain but there can be bouts of mist and drizzle. Most of the trees and shrubs, especially along the coast, will be leafless, but this is the prime birding season in Ecuador, when seabird nesting colonies are in full swing and land birding is also productive.
As far as migrant species are concerned, boreal (northern) migrants are expected in Ecuador and off-shore waters from roughly mid-October to mid-April. Austral (southern) migrants can generally be expected from May through to September.
NOTE: During the often unpredictable El Niño warm water ocean current incursions, rainy conditions can become extreme anywhere in Ecuador, including on the Galapagos. By the same token, during La Niña cold water ocean current incursions, conditions can become excessively dry without much warning. Additionally, global warming has, in recent years, caused a greater degree of unpredictability to climatic conditions throughout the entire country. So, the traveller must be prepared to find that weather conditions are not exactly what’s expected based on centuries-long traditional predictions.
Want to Organise a Wildlife or Birding Tour in Ecuador?
The local specialist tour operators on Blue Sky Wildlife can offer set departure or bespoke trips to see the wildlife of Ecuador and the Galapagos. Enquire and book direct, or book through Blue Sky Wildlife for the best deals.
Original Date of Publish: 9th August 2022