Ecuador is home to Yasuní National Park, officially the most biodiverse area of land on Earth. So full of weird and wonderful species is this one small patch of jungle, that some naturalists claim to discover a brand new species every time they go into the forest.
Sadly, like much of the Amazon, Yasuní is under threat. A scheme by President Correa to raise enough money to save the region from oil prospectors failed miserably, and work will begin soon to exploit Yasuní’s massive underground oil fields. Ecuador’s natural wonders are second to none, but make sure you see them soon - they won’t be around forever.
Here’s where to see the very best of Ecuador’s dazzling wildlife.
The Oriente region of Ecuador is almost overpowering to the senses after the cold nights and thin air of Quito. Hot, sticky and filled with thousands of square miles of dense undergrowth (the region makes up more than half of Ecuador’s total area), you wouldn’t want to live here. But these forests are where the vast majority of Ecuador’s wildlife makes its home. As such, the Amazon region is an incredible place to see things you’ve never seen before in the wild including tapirs, sloths, tree frogs, macaws and if you’re really lucky, jaguars.
The Oriente is, as you’d expect, difficult to get to. Your best bet is to organise a tour from Quito where you’ll be flown to one of the small, ugly oil towns like Lago Agrio or Coca. You’ll then be transported by bus or canoe into one of the reserves (Yasuní and Cuyabeno are best) where ecolodges are run. These offer pretty much your only opportunity to stay within the rainforest. They all offer tours, with some guides better than others. It’s also possible to travel independently by bus, and later boat, into the Oriente, though it’s considerably more difficult.
The Pichincha cloud forests
Within an hour of central Quito it’s possible to see some of the world’s most beguiling species of bird. Being at lower altitude than Quito, higher temperatures and plenty of rain allows plants to thrive and, through this, some of the world’s most colourful avian species have evolved here - the region contains 20% of the world’s bird biodiversity. Don’t expect to see too many mammals, - you won’t - but you can count on seeing Toucans, Quetzals, Trogons, Barbets and up to fifteen types of hummingbird.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to watch the bright orange Andean Cock-of-the-rock performing at an early-morning ‘lek’ to attract females. This involves an elaborate ritual where males effectively dance and squark in the hope that a female will arrive. If she does, the lek goes beserk - a spectacle that needs to be seen to be believed. If you’re lucky, you’ll also see the Olinguito, a recently discovered relative of the Kinkajou, and the first new mammal to be discovered in the Americas for 35 years.
The area around Mindo is best for accommodation and there are various birding lodges in the surrounding area. It’s easy to reach from Quito by bus. If you’re staying at a more remote lodge, your hotel may provide transport. Failing this, it’s possible to hire a pick-up truck in Mindo.
The Galapagos Islands
Galapagos tours can be expensive (most cost around $3,000 for 8-10 days), but due to the strict and necessary conservation status of the islands, there’s no other way to visit. If it’s within your budget, make sure you go at least once - the experience is truly unforgettable.
It’s not so much the beauty and colour of wildlife on display here that amazes visitors, but rather the incredible tameness of the animals, many of whom will let you walk right up to them. Most Galapagos species have no natural predators and so are completely fearless. It’s also through learning about the Galapagos Islands, so important to Darwin’s theoretical development, that you really get the most out of a trip here. That means paying a little extra can bring dividends. The higher the tour price, the better your guide’s knowledge will be. Most tours will be designed to give you a full sense of the islands’ diversity and will allow you to see a range of flora and fauna not found anywhere else on the planet.
Most people fly into the islands, landing at the small airstrip on Baltra Island from where the majority of tours start.