content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1">Birding the Americas Trip Report and Planning Repository
July - August 1998
by Matt Heindel
I just returned from a 17 day trip to Ecuador and will post a few things in hopes of helping anyone planning a trip to the area. If you are not interested in the topic, delete this now!
Seven of us went down for two-plus weeks of birding. We wanted an independent tour and considered a number of options. We have lots of friends in the business and considered all the major tour groups, doing it on our own, etc. In the end, we decided to use Neblina Forest. Let me talk a bit about our experience with them and some other relevant issues.
I had seen ads from Neblina in various places but knew little first hand. I saw a post from Mercedes (she runs Neblina) in response to a post on Birdchat a year ago and thought she handled a weird situation well. We worked together on putting together a trip and I can say she was very responsive in building the trip around our wishes. Now that I am back, I can say they did an excellent job and I would not hesitate to use them again. We had two primary guides- the infamous Giovanni at Sacha. He is incredible- a talented birder and great personality. Although he does not speak English, he is easy to communicate with for non-Spanish speakers. Without belaboring it, he is an A+. The best. We also had Tony Nunnery for our week in Papallacta, San Isidro and Mindo Gardens. Tony is fairly new to Ecuador and is still learning some of the vocalizations (he was in Costa Rica the last 6-7 years). But, he knew enough to be effective and was also very easy to get along with. We were not the kind of group that had to eke out every special bird, life bird, etc. But, both guides were always asking us if there was a special bird we were interested in, so I am sure there would have been no problem for people that have that drive. (The guide provided by La Selva, Jose, was pretty mediocre and left us missing Giovanni more than we thought possible!).
We had one blip with Neblina but they handled the event correctly. When on any trip, you should plan on having a problem or two, so for me, having someone handle hiccups correctly is important. They helped us solve a problem with the people at La Selva that kept us on schedule. And, they were responsive during the trip, making sure everything was going well. In short, they made sure our trip was going the way we wanted it to.
A couple items on locations: Mindo Gardens just (re) opened. There were some problems that caused us some birding time as they are not yet ready in tune with birders, but it is the place to stay. There is forest along the road to the place and forest behind it. They will work out the bumps and this needs to be on birders' itineraries again. San Isidro is awesome. The food is great, accommodations are decent and the birding is spectacular. It is on the east slope and has significant birding but I believe caters only to groups (as opposed to individuals). Papallacta is important for a number of high altitude birds but is usually hit coming or going to the east slope. A new place with thermal pools opened recently and we stayed there. There was a hill above the pools with a swarm of hummingbirds (including 4-5 Sword-billed, Purple-backed Thornbill, Tyrian and Viridian Metaltails, Shining Sunbeam, etc.) It may be worth consideration
In trying to determine how to best spend time in Ecuador, we were quite interested in how to spend our time in the Amazon. We had boiled our choices to the two most popular lodges, Sacha and la Selva. In talking with many friends, almost all had their preferences but almost none had spent significant time at both places. After much thought we decided to spend time at both. This gave us 8 days in the Amazon and a chance to compare these two lodges. Both places offer great birding and have plenty to please any birder. But, for all seven in our group it was no choice- Sacha was an easy winner. The following points explain this preference:
Both places have a tower but the tower at Sacha is far better. It is placed in the tallest Kepok tree around and offers almost 360 degree viewing. There is enough of the tree above to offer a little shade. It is an awesome place to watch birds, monkeys, etc. We went there three different times and had a different set of characters each time and felt it was always productive. The tower at la Selva is decent and worth time but does not compare. It has a larger platform but it is less stable with a bit of movement causing a wobble that will certainly impact scope viewing and even bother some use of binocs. More importantly, the view is about half of Sacha's as there are a number of high trees near the tower which block out views to much of the horizon. -
The food at La Selva was decent (good by jungle lodge standards) but notably better at Sacha. The lodging at la Selva is very marginal and although there is mosquito netting, the critter ratio is high indeed. There are lots of cockroaches and plenty of other goodies that might annoy some people. We had some roaches at Sacha and some rather sizeable tarantulas (the latter not in rooms), but the construction of the rooms is much tighter and one feels less likely to be bothered there. Hammocks on the porch at Sacha make for an excellent midday siesta whereas La Sleva does not have much in this regard. The fact La Selva does not have electricity in the rooms (and subsequently hot water) is another minor difference. At la Selva you go to the room to sleep-period. Rest or do notes elsewhere.
More important than bugs and food, we all felt a significant difference in the staff between these lodges. The people at Sacha were helpful, polite, flexible and seemingly interested in how we were doing. We had a number of problems with the La Selva people. They welcome you with a speech that says make yourself at home but if you vary from their plan, they do not do well. As an example, we wanted to do some jungle birding one afternoon (any trail would do!) and the guide wanted to take us in a boat. My Spanish, while mediocre, is good enough to communicate and I could not get any reaction that showed they would help us vary from the plan. (The boat trip was fine!) A similar problem developed on a different trail the next day. Do what they tell you or they get unhappy. The local management was very poor. Two young guys, Efrain and Pablo, seemed to be in control. They messed up our departure and tried to keep us an extra day. We knew we were scheduled out of Coca and they tried hard to force us to stay an extra day. Without belaboring, it was amazing how hard they tried to force us to change our plans and how unwilling they were to help. They finally said they would take us to Coca but we would be stranded there. Only when they understood our resolve to leave did they start to say we could probably get back to Quito. We asked them to communicate with Neblina and had they done that, we might have held some hope for their abilities, but they did not bother. This more than anything proved to us that once they got our money, we were not important to them.
I am sending their management a copy of this summary in hopes of spurring a better response to future birders. The rumor in Ecuador is that a) La Selva has an attitude that says they are doing people a favor by letting them visit (as opposed to hoping to satisfy their customers), and b) they are under financial constraints and may go out of business. I have no idea how likely the latter is but the place is in need of some work. We went to Sacha first as they would take us to la Selva whereas La Selva would not take us to Sacha. Obviously, there is a lot of animosity toward Sacha and it was clear to us that they were not thrilled that we had been to Sacha. - So, why go to La Selva? There are two key reasons: Zigzag Heron and Cocha Antshrike are either difficult or impossible at Sacha. If those ticks are a driving force, La Selva is the better place. In addition, the lagoon at La Selva is excellent. It is quite long and I took canoes out three times in the afternoon with good bird flocks, Agami Herons, good raptors (including adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle), monkeys, etc. The lagoon at Sacha is much smaller and although it has Donacobius, is not that great for birds. - Both places offer great forest birding and I must say I did not leave there with a feel that one was better than the other was. We had more birds at Sacha but we spent an extra day there.
In general, I do not think there is a big mistake to be made here. Either place is great for birds and either is tolerable. You don't get away from bugs and critters in the jungle, but for those more nervous about this, the large gaps in the bamboo walls at La Selva may cause more worry. But, if I were to go back next week I would only go to Sacha.
We were all quite pleased with the trip, the work by Neblina, the guides they supplied, the local people and culture and, of course, the birds. I highly recommend it to those considering a tropical destination. The major groups all offer tours that look good. And, if you are considering doing something independent, I am happy to recommend Neblina as an alternative. Buenos suerte!
by Nancy Newfield
I, too, just returned from a 17-day trip to Ecuador and would like to add a few additional comments of my own for the benefit of anyone planning such a trip.
Mercedes and Xavier Rivadeneira of Neblina Forest attended to all the details, except for the guide, which I contracted privately. Except for a few unforseeable [and unavoidable] glitches, plans worked very smoothly. Mercedes and Xavier personally attended to many matters, including meeting me at the airport and delivering me back there many, many birds later.
Birding around the thermal baths at Papallacta proved to be excellent. We had arms-length views of the Swordbilled Hummingbird several times - close enough to see his little pink feet! The lodge here was quite nice, though next time I'll want to bring my red-flannel long-johns for sleeping. We Southern flatlanders [who left 100º F. temperatures in Louisiana and Texas] were not mentally prepared for the bone-chilling cold. Oh, yes, I had thermal underwear and a fleece jacket under a rain jacket, but in the future, I'll bring my new alpaca sweater as well.
One reference that will soon be indispensible for trip planning is "An Annotated List of the Birds of Mainland Ecuador / Una Lista Anotada de las Aves del Ecuador Continental" by Robert S. Ridgely, Paul J. Greenfield, and Mauricio Guerrero G. Hot off the press in Quito, this distributional work in Spanish and English is intended to be a precursor to the long-awaited "Birds of Ecuador" by Robert S. Ridgely and Paul J. Greenfield, which is still many months from fruition. Surely, this will soon be available in the United States and elsewhere. A copy was delivered to me as I left for the airport. It was not ready before.
The birds of Ecuador were truly awesome! I will return!
Nancy L. Newfield