ECUADOR & THE GALAPAGOS
Ecuador: Wildlife Destinations
Wildlife Highlights of Ecuador
1. Galapagos Islands – wildlife-watcher’s paradise, a 90-minute flight from the mainland.
2. Cloud forest reserves like Bellavista buzz with hummingbirds and other star species like tanager finch and plate-billed mountain toucan.
3. Cotopaxi National Park’s paramo grassland and high-altitude lake attracts Andean lapwings, Andean gulls and several species of waterfowl.
4. The Ecuadorian Amazon has several superb ecolodges.
For nature lovers, Ecuador’s terrific trio (Galápagos, cloud forest and Amazon) can be easily combined on a two- or three-week itinerary. Spend a day or two in Quito visiting the old colonial centre before striking northwest to the cloudforest where valleys like the Tandayapa support over 340 species of birds. Hummingbirds and tanagers are the most conspicuous (you’ll see plenty around bird feeders at various lodges), while a walk in the woods will immerse you in a misty, mesmerising world, where earthworms grow to a metre long and tiny frogs dwell in water-filled bromeliads. You can fly or travel overland to the Amazon. Most visitors spend around three nights at a lodge, exploring the rainforest by canoe and using walkways and canopy towers to spy on wildlife. Five- or seven-day cruises are the most popular option for experiencing the Galápagos, although land-based trips are also available, staying on Santa Cruz and taking day trips to nearby islands.
Galapagos' star species: Giant tortoise • Darwin's finches • Marine iguana • Flightless cormorant • Waved albatross
Galapagos Islands Landing sites (see map above)
1. North Seymour A good introduction to Galapagos wildlife, this small, flat island has sea lions, marine and land iguanas, blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds. Dry landing on black basalt lava.
2. South Plaza The jetty on South Plaza is often taken over by sea lions. Land iguanas are common. A trail leads across the island to seabird cliffs.
3. Santa Fe From a sea lion-strewn bay on the northeast of Santa Fe, a trail winds through cactus forest – home to land iguanas. Spot rays and turtles in the bay.
4. Punta Pitt Cliff trail provides encounters with all three species of booby: blue-footed, red-footed and Nazca.
5. Gardner Bay Wade ashore on a dazzling 2km-long coral-sand beach smothered in sea lions. Snorkelling around the offshore islet is excellent.
6. Punta Suarez Spectacular rocky headland, often pounded by surf and the site of a blowhole on the southern coast. Wildlife is outstanding: marine iguana, lava lizard, Nazca and blue-footed booby, swallow-tailed gull, red-billed tropicbird, three species of Darwin’s finch, Galapagos hawk and (from April to December) a colony of waved albatross.
7. Punta Cormorant Wet landing on olivine beach (you may see Galapagos penguin in the bay), followed by a trail that heads inland past a brackish lagoon (flamingos, stilts and other waders) to a sandy beach that’s used as a nesting ground by green turtles. Look for stingrays in the shallows and lava lizards on the rocky headlands.
8. Genovesa Remote and spectacular, the flooded caldera of Genovesa has over a million nesting seabirds. Great frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, lava and swallow-tailed gulls and yellow-crowned night herons are best seen around the sandy beach at Darwin Bay. At Prince Philip Steps a short climb leads onto basalt cliffs where daytime-hunting short-eared owls can be observed snatching white-vented storm petrels as they return to their nesting burrows. The trail also leads through dry woodland with nesting Nazca and red-footed boobies. Mockingbirds are common. Snorkel along the base of the cliffs near Prince Philip Steps to see large numbers of king angelfish, Moorish idol, yellow-tail surgeonfish and, possibly, a few Galápagos sharks and fur seals.
9. Bartolome A small island off the east coast of Santiago, Bartolome has a boardwalk that climbs through a volcanic landscape of ash fields, lava tubes and cinder cones to a viewpoint overlooking Pinnacle Rock. You can snorkel at the Pinnacle, often with penguins and reef sharks.
10. Puerto Egas (James Bay) Snorkelling from the beach is good, while a trail follows the coast to a series of tide pools teeming with iguanas and sally lightfoot crabs. Don’t miss the fur seal grottoes.
11. Punta Espinosa The shield volcano of La Cumbre looms over black lava fields where a large concentration of marine iguanas can be found. Pioneer cactus, lava lizards and sally lightfoot crabs have also claimed the ropy coils of lava, while sea lions lounge on coves of crushed shell and pencil urchin spines. Look out for whales and dolphins in Bolivar Channel.
12.Targus Cove This sheltered, steep-sided bay is excellent for snorkelling – green turtles are abundant and you should also see flightless cormorants, penguins, sea lions, marine iguanas, large shoals of fish and even manta rays, sharks and dolphins. A panga ride along the shore will get you close to penguins and flightless cormorants, while a short hike above the bay has wonderful views across a flooded crater known as Darwin’s Lake. Look for finches, flycatchers and yellow warblers in the surrounding woodland.
13. Urvina Bay Wet landing on a steep beach. Giant tortoise, land and marine iguanas, plus flightless cormorants.
14. Punta Moreno After navigating a maze of mangrove channels, you make a dry landing on pahoehoe lava before following a scant trail to a series of brackish lagoons – home to flamingos, pintail ducks and brown pelicans.
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WHEN TO GO
Visit year round. It’s warmer in the Galápagos between December and March (and good for snorkelling), while June to September can be cooler and drier on the mainland.
GMT-5 (mainland), GMT-6 (Galapagos)
WHERE TO STAY
Galápagos boats range from yachts to motor cruisers. You spend less time embarking and disembarking on a small boat, but they are less stable than larger ones and may not reach as many islands. Usually, the better quality (and more expensive) boats have the best guides. Amazonian ecolodges include Huaorani, Napo Wildlife Centre, Sacha Lodge and Secoya Lodge.