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Mid-October - Mid-November 2002

by Robert Higbee

From mid October to mid November 2002 my wife and I took a birding trip throughout Ecuador in a rented 2WD car.  We didn’t see  much over 400 species, perhaps because of  very frequent rain (it’s evidently an El Nino year), perhaps because we don’t use tapes, and probably also because we’re not as good as the best birders.  However, we do have some information which I think is worth passing on; much of the information in Wheatley’s Where To Watch Birds in South America needs to be updated, and in particular we can provide advice to anyone interested in doing Ecuador by rented car.  Every site mentioned here, unless otherwise noted, was reached by 2WD car (a Suzuki Forza for the first half, a VW Golf for the second) without serious problems.


Gas for the Suzuki (Extra) was about $1.10 per gallon (not liter). The VW required unleaded Super, which was about $1.60.  In the north we spent about $30 for 20 days; distances were longer in the south, so we spent more.  Hotels averaged #14 for two people (habitacion con cama matrimonial), ranging from $4 to $25, not counting lodges which are much higher.  Since hotels always had loud roosters, dogs and people even in the middle of the night, we sometimes slept in the car.  It was uncomfortable and too cold at higher elevations (we should’ve had sleeping bags), but  then we didn’t sleep well in hotels either and had to pay for them.  We had one restaurant meal a day, usually almuerzo just after noon, and that cost from $1 to $4 per person, averaging $2.50.  Very little variety in restaurant food, and few vegetables.  In addition we spent about $1 per person per day on fruit, bottled water, bread and liquid yogurt, which were all readily available and which we supplemented with nuts and dried fruit brought from home.  We thus averaged  about $25 or less per day for the two of us, not counting the entrances fees for national parks ($10 per person) and other reserves.  The car rental from Budget cost a bit under $50 per day, including high tax and obligatory insurance.

Roads were usually potholed and sometimes unpaved but bearable.

The following  information is based on Wheatley, starting  at p. 210.

MINDO and Mindo Rd

I wouldn’t take the road through Nono except for Yanacocha (see below), since there’s now a good paved highway.  From the airport (where the Budget office is) turn R (N) on Ave la Prensa, from which the easiest route is to take a L at the first light on Ave la Florida, take it up to its end at Ave Occidental, a big divided road, turn R (N) & follow Occidental to a big traffic circle, go three quarters of the way around and turn N on the road (small toll) to Mitad del Mundo.  Go straight through  Mitad; at a traffic circle  continue straight then soon  curve L toward Calacali, then just stay on this highway.  Just E of  kilometer marker (KM) 43 is El Pahuma Orchid Preserve, $2 p.p., with trails and Cock of the Rock.  Just past KM 52 and a bridge a dirt road goes L (S) up the TANDAYAPA VALLEY—the best area, we thought.  The cheapest place to stay would be nearby in Nanegalito, on the highway,  not a very good place. 

We stayed at El Paraiso del Pescador for $20 (though they wanted to charge $30).  Farther up the valley is a tiny store and here the old road to Quito via Nono (unpaved) goes off to the L; the first part of this road (but not the rest, we thought) goes through some country that looked birdy. If you go straight  at the store rather than turning you come  in less than 1 K to the unmarked entrance drive on the R to Tandayapa  Lodge.  You can hike their extensive trails for $5 pp and watch at their hummer feeders for another $5.  About 15 species at the feeders including the only Booted Racket-tail we saw.  Didn’t see much on the trails; in general we didn’t do very well birding inside forest.  If you continue on up the valley past the lodge driveway  you come after 3 K or so to unspoilt forest and soon after it starts the first(?) big curve to the L; we saw Cock of the Rock and heard Toucan Barbet near here.  If you drive on up you come to Bellavista Lodge.  Our best birding was the area above the lodge, including  just over the ridgetop and on the side road to the R signed to a scientific station.  Birds seen only here included  Ocellated Tapaculo and (on the science station road) Tanager Finch, both seen only because we were with someone who played tapes, and Plate-billed Mtn-toucan, Rufous-headed Pygmy-tyrant, Yellow-bellied Chat-tyrant, etc.

To reach MINDO it’s quickest to go back down to the highway and continue W  Just past KM 78 the road to Mindo goes off to the L (S)   After you go down about 1 K there’s a level area with a pulloff on the L; we saw a good flock here once and heard Toucan Barbet here and about 1 K farther  Continue straight when you come to Mindo and you come to a plaza.  At its NW corner (first  on the R) is a helpful information office.  Take the street  E from this office to its end and there’s an office on your R where you can  arrange to stay in a cabin on the river belonging to the Centro de Educacion Ambiental which gives access to good trails.  At the SE corner of the plaza take the street S then E to the Casa Amarilla where you can pay to hike trails through extensive forest; we didn’t see much there, though if we’d hiked farther, up the mountain past the area covered by their map we would’ve reached a better area. 

Their map is confusing because you have to hike 1 K or so before you come to where the map begins.  Also from the plaza you can continue S from the SW corner, curving R soon, and follow the poor but drivable road till you come to a bridge over a fair-sized river (not the one you ford).  Just before this bridge turn L and in about 4 K you come to a cablecar which takes you across the river (there1s a bridge beside it which is locked but can be climbed onto) to the CEA c cabins and trails.. We paid $16 for one night at the cabins.  Didn’t see much on the lower trails and were rained out here, but got a good look at Sunbittern on the river near the cabins.  The best trail is evidently the one on the ridgetop, to the Cascadas.  You can reach it by hiking up from the CEA cabins, or you can go back to the bridge mentioned above and instead of turning L continue (probably on foot; it didn’t look drivable by 2WD)across the bridge, up the hill, then R, and follow this track.  It’s at least 2 – 3 K to good bird forest, but it was worth it.  This was the only place we saw Toucan Barbets (fairly far up; continue straight where the first path goes R to Cascada) and Club-winged Manakin (farther on up).

Also near Mindo we visited hummingbird feeders at a restaurant W of the town center about 2 K and at Mindo Lindo, on the R (N) side of them main highway a short distance W of the Mindo turnoff; this latter was the only place we saw Velvet-purple Coronet.  PS: We recommend against staying at the Flor del Valle hostal.  We met a local guide named Julia (J pronounced like H) who seemed good, though she didn’t speak English.

Highway WEST OF MINDO:  Pipeline construction parallel to the highway and just N of it has destroyed some bird places. The place where we saw the most is reached by going 10 K W of the western entrance to Pedro Vicente Maldonado, a bit past KM l25; turn R (N) on an unpaved road.  The best area was at the bottom of the first slope, at the first stream, before the pipeline; this was the only place where we saw Scarlet-breasted Dacnis and Scarlet-browed Tanager.  There are some wooded patches several km farther up this road; the river it crosses was fordable by our car.; keep L after fording.  There was also a little woods left on a road N from the highway about 2 K E of San Miguel de los Bancos.  We also tried Finca  106.5, which is a bit farther W than 106.5, on the S side of the highway, marked only by a small sign.  There’s a tiny, dangerous pulloff.  No house is visible, but there’s a trail to it. Felipe Quiroz, the owner, charged us $5 pp and accompanied us through his woods, which was good though we didn’t see much.

YANACOCHA—We didn’t go here; the road didn’t look passable by 2WD, and it was raining.  To get to this place go to the traffic circle mentioned above N of Quito airport where the Mitad del Mundo highway starts and go S on Ave Occidental (you have to be on the southbound side of the road for about 2 K till you find a road R with a small sign to Nono (you may have to ask to find it) and follow that steep cobblestone road up quite a distance till you come to the dirt road  on the L signed to Yanacocha.

SAN LORENZO RD—There is a new paved highway through the NW area Wheatley describes under El Placer, but as usual highways mean deforestation; we found the accessible areas disappointing.   The highway begins near Salinas N of Ibarra; the junction is well-marked.  It’s 92 K to Lita and  l56 to San Lorenzo.  We found some woods 11 and 16 K W of Lita and starting at 35 K W of Lita.  They say you can walk the railroad from Alto Tambo to El Placer, but it was very muddy walking and deforested as far as we tried.  15 K E of San Lorenzo a new paved highway goes S 150 K to Esmeraldas.  Soon after this, about 10 K E of San L, 1 K E of the road to Mataje, just E of an INEFAN station on the R (N) a dirt track goes N through some pretty good woods.  Among the birds seen only here were Rufous-winged Tanager, Pied Puffbird, Western White-tailed Trogon, and a glimpse of a probable Black-tipped Cotinga.

Other places N of Quito: We didn’t get to El ANGEL, but met someone who saw Condor there.  Near IBARRA we found Laguna Yaguarcocha degraded and saw no grebes, but the driveway in to Hosteria Chorlavi just S of Ibarra was very birdy.  S of here we drove W up to Laguna Cuicocha via Cotacachi and found the Silvery Grebe here.

PASOCHOA—Reached from Sangolqui, which is SE of Quito  on the road  from Pifo S to the Panamericana S of Quito.  S from Sangolqui  on this road after you pass the turn W to Amaguana, just  S of a sports field on the W, turn E  up a cobbled road and pass just to the R of a blue-trimmed white church (visible from the main road  you turned from).  Stick with this rough cobbled road, generally going as straight ahead as you can; it ends at Pasochoa Reserve, $7 pp.  This was the only place we saw Sword-billed Hummer.  They said they had nesting condors up at the top of a 5-hr trail , but we didn’t have the 10 hrs necessary for the round trip.

COTOPAXI—To go S from Quito airport follow the directions above to Ave Occidental but U-turn and take it S; it leads into the Panamericana eventually.  The road into Cotopaxi from the Panamericana was adequately signed but very bumpy.  Fee $10 pp.  They said there’d been no condors in the area recently, and the upper slopes of the mountain (40 K or so from the highway) were badly overpastured and not worth the drive.  The last few K of the road up were too bad for a low-bottomed car, and it was too windy to hold binoculars steady and damned cold and we were feeling the altitude too much to try hiking up for birds, so we saw almost nothing.  The view of the mountaintop was beautiful, though.

LAGO DE COLTA—Right beside the Panamericana just S of Santiago de Quito, S of Cajabamba; there’s a road along the S side that gets bearer to reeds, though we didn’t see Doradito.  Some degradation, but birds still there; the only place we saw Yellow-billed pintail and Andean Lapwing.

PAPALLACTA—To go E from Quito airport turn L (S) on Ave la Prensa  coming out past the Budget office and then soon  fork L onto Ave Amazonas.  After ten blocks or less, turn L on Ave Rio Coca and follow it to its end at Ave Eloy Alfaro, where you turn R, go half a block and turn L onto Ave Bolivar, signed to Cumbaya, Tumbaco, and/or Pifo.  Follow the signs through these 3 suburbs.  (Just W of Pifo there’s a highway going N to the Panamericana N of Quito and a bit E  of Pifo the highway  going S past the Pasochoa turn and eventually to the Panamericana.) From Pifo it’s  up all the way to Papallacta Pass.  At the pass the new paved highway crossed the old unpaved one, which is drivable and worth birding in both directions.  If you turn L (N) onto it you come immediately to another unpaved road to the R; this goes all the way up to some radio towers where others have seen seedsnipe (we tried and failed); we saw quite a few alpine birds along this road, which was drivable.  A recent eruption nearby coated this area in ashes and it may no longer be so good. 

About 1 K E of the pass on the new road, before the park building, there’s a trail on the L (N) marked by a small sign.  Both times we tried this we saw Giant Conebill and Tawny Ant-pitta, etc.  Several K on E the pavement ends and there’s a reservoir.  The unpaved road along its N side and the main road just E of it were good for birds, especially hummers; this was the only place we saw Shining Sunbeam and Buff-breasted and Black-chested Mtn-Tanagers.  Just before you come into the village of Papallacta (few facilities) a road goes N up to a valley where the Termas (hot springs ) are.  The first hotel on the R as you enter the valley ($20) had a pasture behind it where you could walk up and look at the hillside bushes, which had birds including Tufted Tit-tyrant.  We didn't try the area above the springs but hear they have good birds.  Most of the bird locations in Wheatley we couldn’t find.

SAN RAFAEL FALLS—This area is close to the volcano that erupted and may not be much good now; it was good for tanager flocks and Cock of the Rock when we visited.  Just before the bridge and a billboard there’s a drivable track down to a military post where you get permission (and may have to pay) and from where the trail starts. There are no hotels near but just N of the bridge past the Falls turnoff on the L (W) there’s a swimming place which rented us a room for the night.

S OF BAEZA—The road is pretty bad till Huacamayo Ridge and there are no hotels between Baeza and Archidona, so we had to stay at San Isidro Lodge, which is good for birds but beyond our budget.  Going S from Baeza we saw our only Torrent Ducks on the river.  The San Isidro road  (unpaved) goes R (W) off the main road (unpaved) 1 K N of Cosanga (few facilities; restaurants); there’s a sign at the turn for SierrAzul, which you can only get to by reserving horses.  The road in to SI had tanager flocks, etc, and SI had hummer feeders and trails (muddy) in forest.   S of Cosanga we were told there’s a trout farm, I think with a sign and a gate, where you can see birds on their trails.  7 K S of Cosanga you come to the top of Huacamayo Ridge.  There are stairs up to a house by the radio tower on the W side of the road here and a trail into the woods from the house.  Every time we saw this area it was either in clouds or rain, so we didn’t bird it.  S from the ridgetop there’s good forest along the road, which is more or less paved from here on.

LORETO RD—We checked out the first l8 K and found it almost wholly deforested. 3 K from the Baeza-Archidona road there’s a small pulloff just before the pulloff to a house at a curve—both of these on the R (S) and from the pulloff a very steep rocky path goes down into forested stream valley.  We saw our only Fiery-throated Fruit-eater here, soon after reaching the trees.   I wouldn’t recommend going very far on the Loreto road; when we took a bus along it we were stuck in the mud both times for many hours.

The ORIENTE—The only place we went here was YUTURI LODGE, with stops en route at Yarina Lodge.  Rain prevented us from doing much birding, but in the short time we had at Yuturi we did see some good birds, especially Black-necked Red-cotinga, thanks to the guide Jaime Grefa, who also enabled us to see Blue and yellow Macaw, etc.  Yuturi has no tower, but it’s somewhat cheaper and the cotinga was one we especially wanted to see.  Yarina is too close to Coca to have as many of the best birds, but it does have a tower and a good birder could no doubt see some good birds there.  We didn’t see much during the long ride down the Rio Napo, but there were a few birds.  It’d be desirable to sit in the front of the boat.

RIO  PALENQUE—Old-growth wood good, but we didn’t see much, perhaps because it was late in the day.  Another place you could try for old –growth , one which doesn’t cost $5 pp per day, is LA PERLA, which is just S of La Concordia on the W side of the highway from Santo Domingo to Esmeraldas ( and thus not too far if you bird W from Mindo).  Follow the main  path through the banana plantation to a gate, cross the grass to a gate in the fence around the forest, and there’s a trail into good forest  (where it’s hard not to get lost).  The best bird we saw here was Rufous-fronted Wood quail; not too much more.

EL CAJAS—Not  Las Cajas.  From downtown Cuenca go W on Ave Mariscal Lamar (parallel to Gran Colombia, which is one-way E- bound; it’s the one you return on) till it ends at the avenue which circles around the city.  Turn L, go a couple of blocks and take the first important road to the R; this is the highway (paved) up to El Cajas; a sign says it goes to Jardin de Cajas. After about 10 K there’s a small dirt road (with a small sign ) going down on the L to Lago Llaviuco, 2 ½  bumpy K to a gate where you must pay the park fee ($10 pp) or show your receipt if you paid  at L. Toreadora.  There was some good woods here.  From the turnoff for this road it’s 19 K up to the ranger station on the R above Laguna Toreadora, where they also want you to pay a fee if you walk their trails.   No sign here, but the buildings and lake are visible.  From the ranger station you can take stairs down to a polylepis grove on the L; we saw quite a few birds in and around this early in the morning, including Giant Conebill and Violet-throated Metaltail.  Titlike Dacnis we saw nearby in lone polylepis trees.  Other people said they saw condor at Cajas; we didn’t.

GUALACEO RD—Not connected to the new highway S of Azogues; after you’ve crossed the river S of Azogues take the first R (W), go a short distance and you reach the old Panamericana.  Turn  R and follow this till you go under the new highway, then turn R onto the road to Gualaceo.  Go straight through Gualaceo and on the E edge of town fork R onto an overpass which goes L.  In a short distance fork L and you’re on the road over the mountains.  Pavement stops here and the road is slow.  It was at least 23 K to the top and the good forest was on the E side.  There were a few tiny stores and one place which claimed it sometimes served trout, but almost no facilities.  We wanted to be there early, so we spent the night in our car; it was quite cold.  Despite rain we saw some birds here that we didn’t see elsewhere, including Gold-crowned Tanager and Sepia-brown Wren.

S OF CUENCA—There was  some bushy scrub left along the highway, where we saw our only Giant Hummer and Green-tailed Trainbearer.

LOJA-ZAMORA RD—This road is paved and goes along Podocarpus NP as it crosses the mountain, though you can’t see much  (especially since rain and cloud seemed likely) till you come to the San Francisco ranger station on the R,23 or 24 K from Loja.  They have some trails and said White-capped Tanager was fairly regular there.  The only bit of old road  with forest we saw was 29 K from Loja on the R; the old road on the L didn’t look good.  The San Francisco Biology Station is 31 K from Loja and the power station at 33 ½, both on the R.  Sabanilla village is  34 K from Loja.  There’s plenty of forest on down the valley; not much access to it, but we did see an Umbrellabird fly over.

PODOCARPUS NP; BOMBUSCARO—Zamora is 59 K from Loja.  When you enter it stay on the same road, which circles around  L of the city, until just past the bus terminal you come to a traffic circle where you turn R then fork R again and you’re on the (unpaved) road to the park.  3.3 K along this road you come to a finca belonging to a Belgian who welcomes birders.  He has a trail (a gate on the R just past his driveway) where he’ll let birders hike up into woods, and the main road past his farm is lined with Inga trees which attract birds. We saw our only Wire-crested Thorntails here, among other birds.  In the park itself we hiked straight ahead parallel to the river; we saw Umbrellabird  early on this trail, Cock  of the Rock later and White-breasted Parakeet farther up.  More rain.  Hotel Chonta Dorada in Zamora was OK.

PODOCARPUS: CAJANUMA—To go S from Loja start at the traffic circle where the roads to Zamora and Cuenca begin and go S (or W first?) on Ave Occidental which bypasses the center on the W side.  Take it till a traffic circle at the university, where you jog L (E) a block to get onto the highway, on which you turn R (S).  At the top of the pass turn L through the gate into the park; you either pay here or if you paid at Bombuscaro within 5 days show your receipt.  The first part of the (unpaved) road up is bad, but once you reach the park there’s good woods.  Rain and weekend crowds prevented us from trying the trails, but along the road early we saw our only Turquoise Jays and  Hooded Mtn-tanagers, etc.

QUEBRADA HONDA—Continuing S from the above, S of Vilcabamba the pavement stops and the road gradually becomes worse.  Woods starts about 38 K S of Vilcabamba, and Tapichalaca Rese5rve starts at a ford 48 K S.  The reserve HQ where trails are is on the L (E) 53 K S of Vilcabamba. 1 K N of this there’s an undrivable track also on the L which might be worth hiking.  Foul weather prevented us from doing more than bird the road, and the best thing we saw was Blue-browed Tanager.  The HQ has hummer feeders; it’s $5 pp for the trails or just for looking at the feeders, which had some good hummers but not too many.  Room and board possible at HQ but expensive.  Valladolid is 11 K S of HQ and has little to recommend it but  does offer meals and lodging.

W OF LOJA—Coming down the mountainside E of Catamayo there are valleys with acacia trees on your R.  We walked into one of these that had a path.  This was the only place we saw Elegant Crescent-chest; several were calling.  W of Catamayo  try along the river just before a recreation park and along a road on the R (N) just before the highway to Machala starts up the mountain.

BUENAVENTURA—Id stick on the main paved road to Machala, not take the unpaved one to Pinas.  The main road is very winding and  was foggy in the evening, but it was probably still faster and had some birds.   Eventually you come to a road  (paved but no sign ) E to Pinas, a sharp R with buildings around.   Buenaventura was good, though some problems with fog as the sun raised the clouds; after awhile it became clear again. Saw White-tipped Sicklebill only here.

MANGLARES CHURUTE—Take the highway to Naranjal S from the highway E from Guayaquil to El Triunfo for 22 K and  there’s a dirt road R (W) by a sign for an organic co-op.  If you drive in here and turn   R on another unpaved road (bad for low-bottomed vehicles, but drivable, at least in the dry season)  you eventually come to the entrance on the R to a trailhead  where you can hike up a hill with good forest and howler monkeys.  If you continue past the turn for the trailhead the road ends at mangroves, but a canoe is necessary to see much here.  Back on the highway, a bit farther S on the right is a marsh where Horned Screamers were visible from the highway, and 1 K S of the dirt road is the reserve HQ on the L.  They charged $10 pp and wanted you to be accompanied by a guide for $5 more.

CELICA and the Southwest—Just S of  Catacocha on the road to Macara about halfway down the mountainside at a level stretch there’s a road (the first few feet paved) to the R (W); for northbound traffic there’s a sign saying to San Antonio.  This road  has a good forested valley along its first part.  Lots of birds.  Farther S on the road to Macara (which is paved), the road to Celica turns R (W) just past an army checkpoint.  Although the wooded hillsides here were mostly bare in Nov., they had plenty of birds, especially after a few K  soon before the road work camp (where the pavement ended).  This was the only place we saw Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, White-headed Brush-finch and Tumbes Sparrow.

Just N of Macara a road (paved and signed) goes E to Sozoranga, Cariamanga and eventually Catamayo (the section W of Gonzanama isn’t paved yet).   After a few K this road goes through forest; at 4.8 K is the entrance to Bosque Protector Jatunpamba Jorupe.  Among the birds we saw from the highway were White-tailed Jay and  Crimson-breasted Finch.  1 K  W of SOZORANGA at the hilltop turn L (N) on a rough but drivable track which after 3 K or so comes to some woods.  Silver-backed Tanager was in the bushier areas.  After this the highway winds down into Sozoranga, where you turn R a block to the plaza (which has a rudimentary hotel, unsigned) and continue  straight from the far R corner of the plaza (the street by the hotel, not the one going uphill); this is the road to UTUANA.  In about 17 K you reach Utuana, where the paved road curves L 90%; at this curve turn R on an unpaved track which in less than 1 K comes to the trail into a reserve on the R.  Walk this, keeping right; after awhile there’s a stile  on the L where you can  cross the barbed wire fence and hike up through woods, but we saw birds mostly on the lower path.  We didn’t see the specialties here, only Silver-backed Tanager, but it was pretty birdy. From Utuana it’s just over 100 K to Catamayo.

I hope this information will be of use to some other birders—including some with the skill and luck to see the birds we missed.

Robert Higbie

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