A magical birdwatching tour in Ecuador’s Andes and Amazon mixes luxury with the call of the wild
By Dorothy Spears
Illustrations by Alexis Rockman
On our first morning in the Amazon, we awoke in total darkness. After a 4:30 a.m. breakfast at the Sani Lodge, where our group was staying, my husband, Alexis, and I pulled on our rubber boots. Our birding guide, Jeison Gualinga, whistled for a canoe while flashing his light among the reeds by the main dock. Under branches that arched like the interior of a cathedral, we paddled in two boats through the flooded forests. Howler monkeys whirred like gale-force winds in the distance.
“Ringed kingfisher,” Mr. Gualinga whispered, pointing to a perched bird, barely visible in the gloom. Occasionally he’d whistle, perhaps to a ladder-tailed nightjar, or point out an anhinga, with its elegant long neck, still sleeping on a branch, and our boat would rock like a cradle as we drifted in groggy silence, in water the color of chocolate milk.
Our birding trip in Ecuador arose like a bird call, by word of mouth. Our friend Olaf Soltau, a devout birder, was tipped off by a respected birder friend to enlist Pablo Barrera of Adventures Columbia to coordinate a tour. The 15-day trip would descend in steps from the cloud forests of the high Andes, down the mountain range’s easternmost slope and into the rainforest at the heart of Ecuadorean Amazonia.
The idea was to see how bird species evolved and multiplied as the elevation lowered, while staying at four comfortable eco-lodges and enjoying Ecuadorean food. There were seven of us in all, including Olaf and his husband, Steve. Our levels of experience varied, from Olaf, the most skilled, to Alexis and me, first-time birders. Our trip would culminate with five days in the Yasuní National Park, whose humid green jungles are a birding paradise.
Mr. Barrera would serve as our tour operator, accompanied by his exuberant companion, Luz Osorio, who would translate. Luis Panama, who grew up in the cloud forest northwest of Quito and spoke excellent English, would be our chief birder until we reached the Amazon basin, when the Sani Lodge would provide its own guides.
On our first day, our minibus broke down on a dirt road in Cayambe-Coca National Park, in the high Andes region known as the Páramo. Ms. Osorio began naming a few birds we’d spotted that afternoon, and soon bird names were ricocheting from seat to seat, a cheery distraction from the precipitous view and the gloomy prospect of getting stranded overnight in an ecosystem comparable to the Arctic tundra. Mr. Barrera contacted the Guango Lodge; they dispatched a car and two trucks to our rescue, arriving just as night fell.
As we careened through the winding mountain pass of Paso Pallapacta, the light rain switched to blinding fog and sleet. We slid past accidents, breakdowns, police cars, white roadside crosses.
The next morning we were back in the Páramo, having packed rubber boots for mud, ponchos for rain, quick-drying pants and socks and, of course, binoculars. Alexis was still adjusting to the roughly 11,000-foot altitude; I felt fine, if a little tired.
The sky was overcast and clouds clung to rocky ledges as we hiked past a primary forest of knobby, slow-growing Polylepis trees that, according to Mr. Panama, had provided habitats for birds in that inhospitable climate for 20,000 to 40,000 years. Rain clicked on electrical wires above us. Cliffs seemed to exhale steam.
Touching a ravaged heart of palm, Mr. Panama observed that a bear had recently been feeding there. I spotted a brown chestnut-winged cinclodes with a little pointy beak, and a slate-blue plumbeous sierra finch with pink legs. Seeing me struggle with my new binoculars, Mr. Barrera kindly removed one of the lens caps.
At our second stop, a spectacled bear, black with goggle-shaped white markings around its eyes, tore through the mist and down a hill, taking shelter behind a cluster of boulders.
Ms. Osorio was ecstatic. “This is a rare sight!” she cried. “Alexis did you see it? Dorothy, did you see it?”
A black-and-chestnut eagle — among the most endangered birds of prey in South America — flew in circles above us, calling. We admired its beautiful black crest and impressive wingspan before it swooped into the canopy. There are only about a thousand left in the world, Mr. Barrera said, in Spanish, tapping his baseball cap. The black-and-chestnut eagle was the logo for his tour company.
The eagle’s strong talons had evolved to pluck red squirrels and small monkeys from trees, Mr. Panama said. “But now they’ve begun to eat chickens. People think they’re bad luck. So, they kill them.”
When we returned to the lodge for lunch, a fire crackled in the hearth. We sat down at our long communal table to a traditional soup made with peanuts, followed by chicken curry with steamed cauliflower and sweet potato chips. After dinner, staff would pass out hot water bottles in knitted sacks to heat our bedsheets. Guango was rustic, and the rooms were small, but the place had heart.
A luxurious lodge
On our third morning, we watched a breathtaking assortment of hummingbirds buzz around feeders. A hen-like Andean guan and her chicks were perched on a high branch. Two parent torrent ducks taught their chick how to swim in the rapids of the Rio Guango. Afterward we were back in our minibus, chugging above cliffs, in and out of clouds.
Olaf showed us his target list for the first part of our trip. One page long, single-spaced, it named each bird in Latin and English, along with where it was most often spotted and possible locations of where it may be found. The punishing conditions of the high Andes made for far fewer bird species, he explained. “Wait until the lower elevations,” he chuckled. “My lists are two and three times this.”
I gazed out the window. Stunning waterfalls glistened like long needles in the mountainside forest across from us, and the River Quijos cut like a razor through the wooded valley below. But there were an alarming number of oil tanks and storage facilities closer to the road. And a rusted pipeline transporting crude oil up from the Amazon ran alongside the road toward Quito. One portion of pipe bore a graffiti message that translated into “No more Texaco. Respect and repair.”
On a wide deck that wrapped around the main lodge at Cabañas San Isidro, Alexis and I sampled fresh-pressed juices. Two russet-colored woodcreepers nipped insects with their long sturdy bills as they marched up and down tree trunks. Green-winged Inca jays, with yellow bellies and black-and-blue faces, fluttered and squawked in nearby branches, and a dazzling array of hummingbirds purred and thumped, jostling for space at assorted feeders.
Mr. Panama spotted a masked trogon perched on a branch. Its red belly and green throat, improbably paired with a black-and-white pinstriped undertail, were all in perfect view when he casually reached for my iPhone to tap an elegant photo through his spotting scope. The mist lifted over the valley. At his suggestion, we hiked to a waterfall near his friend’s reforestation project, where we each planted a native tree.
But I’d just as soon have stayed at San Isidro, the most comfortable of our four lodges, whose spacious cabins each boasted a hammock hanging from a small porch — some with stunning views. There were miles of fantastic hiking trails on its 4,400-acre property, which bridged two parts of the Antisana National Park. One trail led to a river with a sandy beach, another to a waterfall. Still another led through primary, uncut forest, where lush ferns draped along branches like drying laundry, and night monkeys crept along the treetops, and a summer tanager devoured a moth, scattering its wings like confetti through the air.
One afternoon, a group of us — everyone except Mr. Panama and Olaf, who were checking off birds, and our friend Steve, who was recovering from a medical issue and sticking closer to the lodge — followed Ben Lucking, a volunteer at the lodge, down a trail, where we discovered two brilliant red-orange male Andean cocks-of-the-rock braying across the canopy in full territorial display, their oddly shaped and overstuffed crests bobbing emphatically as they hopped from branch to branch.
It was a bucket-list bird for most of us, and particularly gratifying for our friend Martha, a retired hospice social worker, who had privileged hope over knee pain on the muddy hike down.
Before we arrived at our next stop, Wild Sumaco Lodge, in the eastern foothills of the Andes, Mr. Panama passed some loose change to our bus driver, Darwin Vera, who bought a handful of long green pods from a roadside stand. Mr. Panama opened a pod and passed it around, and we sucked on the sweet pulp of ice cream beans.
Wild Sumaco was named after the 13,000-foot volcano that can be seen looming in the distance. The main lodge resembled a huge log cabin, with high ceilings and a big corner fireplace. The food was good, and the proprietor had a sense of humor, appearing on the wide-open veranda one morning while holding a three-foot earthworm, which Alexis immediately grabbed, delighted, as it hung from his fist, undulating like a live rope.
Donning headlamps, we spent a fun night spotting small frogs, snakes and spiders. We saw our first chestnut-eared aracari, a kind of toucan with a signature blue patch around its eye. We also spotted six large black-mandibled toucans feeding in the treetops, their long banana-shaped, yellow-and-black beaks upturned as they called to each other. Seeing a yellow-tufted woodpecker poke holes in a dead palm, Mr. Panama explained that macaws and other birds would eventually make nests there. “It’s an example of vertical biodiversity,” he said.
“Or a high-rise,” joked Alexis.
But after the comfort of San Isidro, the rooms at Wild Sumaco felt more in keeping with a motel. And beyond the lodge’s lush rainforest property, the expanding wildlife was under increasing threat from loggers.
In the somewhat downtrodden oil-industry city of Coca, we bid farewell to Mr. Panama and Mr. Vera. After a night at a utilitarian hotel, we met Mr. Gualinga and his cousin, Gustavo Javier Andy, our guides for the duration of our stay at Sani Lodge, at the city dock.
The three-hour ride in a motorized canoe along the Rio Napo was broken up by two stops. At the first, we got lucky: Two magnificent harpy eagles high in the canopy were carrying clusters of dried branches to their growing nest in the crown of a ceiba tree. The world’s most powerful bird of prey, the harpy’s wingspan measures up to six-and-a-half feet, and its massive body and four-inch talons are perfect for plucking up monkeys and sloths.
Ms. Osorio burst into tears. Harpy eagles had been spotted along the river a couple of years ago, Mr. Gualinga said, adding that he’d seen them on trips to the area in recent months.
After another bird-filled stop, where we saw our first turkey-like hoatzin — whose ungainly size and clumsy movements made us all laugh — we were transferred into two smaller canoes. Mr. Gualinga, Mr. Andy and two additional oarsmen paddled us — so as not to disturb the wildlife with a motor — the final 45 minutes, until the Sani Lodge came into view on the far bank of a wide lagoon, Chaluacocha, named after a smallmouth fish native to the area.
As we paddled up to the dock, members of Sani’s staff welcomed us with cocktails of lime-juice, vodka and blue curaçao that made our teeth blue. Mr. Gualinga gave a brief introduction in the lodge’s airy open bar. We smiled our blue smiles, happy but weary after a long day, then retreated to our respective thatched cabins, with their lovely polished-wood floors, rotating fans and white towels folded like origami birds on the beds. The canopies were draped with mosquito netting that would be neatly tucked around our mattresses when we returned from dinner.
We spent five blissful days at Sani Lodge, which is owned and operated by the Indigenous Sani tribe. We watched the sun rise over the jungle from a 120-foot-high metal platform — Mr. Gualinga helped build it when he was 14, he said — in the crown of a 900-year-old ceiba tree, and waited for scarlet macaws to descend upon a clay-lick to eat minerals that neutralize toxins in their diet. For lunch one day we took instruction from a group of Sani Village mamitas in the community center, folding tilapia and heart of palm into long, green rumi panka leaves, which we then roasted over an open fire, along with two types of plantains and chontacuro beetle larvae. We paddled through flooded forests looking for anacondas and fished for piranhas along a small creek.
Yes, the Wi-Fi at the lodge was spotty. And no, there was no pool. By this point, Olaf had pretty much gone rogue, disappearing with Mr. Gualinga and another rower before the rest of us met for breakfast, and returning long after lunch, only to head out again on his own, returning after we’d finished dinner.
Richness and wonder
One morning, Martha and I were gazing through our binoculars at a marvelous paradise tanager — green, blue and red — when I was filled with a kind of piercing joy that had been sneaking up on me at odd moments. “This trip is particularly poignant for me,” Martha said, “because it may be the last time I see a lot of these birds in the wild.” I put my arm around her, considering this.
Birding is not for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s for me. What is for me, however, is experiencing the natural world in all its richness and wonder, and seeing how other people live, and hearing their stories, all while understanding how very different we may be, and also how very similar.
By then, I’d gotten used to my binoculars. I’d also noticed that when Mr. Gualinga tracked a bird, he moved low and quiet through the forest, whistling softly, as if speaking directly to the bird until it responded, when he’d stand very still on one leg, while slowly motioning for us to come look.
On our last morning, as we headed back to Coca in our motorized canoe, Mr. Andy smiled gamely in the driving rain as he pushed large Styrofoam containers packed with our breakfast — fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and toast — to the front of our boat. He then handed them out, a parody of a flight attendant on an airplane. Passing around ceramic cups wrapped in napkins, he poured hot coffee from a thermos and offered spoons of sugar to anyone who wanted it. Our alternative to tea in the Sahara was coffee in the Amazon in a torrential downpour. I smiled out at the rain. I am the rain, I thought. I am rain.
Credit: The New York Times