Ecuador: From Cloud Forest to Rain Forest - June 20, 2018 - Atlas Obscura Trips


Ecuador: From Cloud Forest to Rain Forest

Ecuador is home to a dizzying variety of habitats. From the snow-capped Andean highlands to the lush rain forests of the Amazon, this small country has it all. Join us in this equatorial paradise for a five-day journey full of adventure and learning in some of the wildest corners of the Amazon basin. With the help of local tour guides and wildlife biologists, you'll enjoy a tropical expedition like no other. 

Our first destination is the stunning Sumaco Volcano. Thanks to its remoteness, this is one of the least understood corners of Ecuador. But it's just that remoteness that makes it a perfect destination for our small group of 12 travelers to get a taste of life as an Amazonian explorer. Whether you're interested in birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, or mammals, you'll see and hear critters you didn't even know existed!

After spending a couple days in the volcano's shadow, we continue deeper into the rain forest. The nearly 4,000 kinds of plants documented within the boundaries of Yasuni National Park provide habitat for one of out of every three Amazonian reptile and bird species, and nearly as many amphibians and mammals. Out of every 10 Amazonian fish, at least two swim in its streams and rivers. All of this biological diversity sits in an area that comprises less than one-fifth of one percent of the entire Amazon rain forest. It is nearly impossible for tourists to visit Yasuni National Park, so you're in for an exclusive treat as we sleep, dine, and explore alongside the biologists and ecologists who study the region's unique wildlife.


  • Yasuni National Park: Stay at a scientific research station within Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and rarely accessible to tourists.
  • Night hikes with local experts: Equipped with top-of-the-line Coast headlamps, head into the rain forest after dark to catch a glimpse of critters you've never before seen or imagined.
  • Birds, butterflies, and more: Among the incredible diversity of wildlife that call this region home are a spectacular array of butterflies and more than 500 species of birds, which we'll get to watch in the early morning, right from our lodge deck.


Dr. Jason G. Goldman is a science journalist and wildlife reporter who covers animal behavior, wildlife biology, conservation, and ecology around the world. He’s collared foxes on California’s Channel Islands, gotten sneezed on by iguanas in the Galápagos, tracked lions in South Africa, and traveled deep into the Peruvian Amazon in search of social spiders. He's written for Scientific American, The Washington Post, and the BBC. He also cofounded SciCommCamp, a science communication retreat and workshop series, and contributes to Scientific American’s “60 Second Science” podcast.

Phil Torres has been bitten by an anaconda, tackled a tiger shark, and gotten lost in a forest full of quicksand … all in the name of science. As a researcher and science communicator, he spent two years living in the Amazon and has worked in Mongolia, Venezuela, Sweden, the Bahamas, the Arctic, and the bottom of the ocean. Phil has made several significant discoveries as a field biologist in South America including the decoy spider, a thieving butterfly, and silkhenge. He is the creator and host of The Jungle Diaries and has hosted more than 70 episodes of TechKnow on Al Jazeera. His research and wildlife photography has been featured by National Geographic, Wired, and the BBC.


A $500 nonrefundable deposit is required to secure your spot, as we have a very limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill up extremely quickly. The trip will cost $2,970—the $500 deposit plus the $2,470 final payment—and will cover all fixed costs, including all accommodations, meals, and activities listed in the itinerary below. 


If you'd like to book this trip in combination with Expedition Galápagos (June 26–July 1), you'll receive a $300 discount on your final payment. We'd love to have you along for both!


Please email us at or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, or payment.

Day 1
Arrival & Welcome
  • Today, fly into Quito through the Andes Mountains. Make sure to look out the window as you approach to get a glimpse of the dramatic peaks! At around 10,000 feet above sea level, Quito is the highest capital city in the world, and the closest to the equator—as well as home to the "Middle of the World."
  • Upon arrival at the airport, transfer to our group's Quito hotel. After settling in at the hotel, you’ll meet up with your fellow travelers and trip leaders for a briefing and a group dinner. Then be sure to get a good night’s sleep, because starting tomorrow, we become explorers. This trip is awesome already—but it’s just getting started!
Day 2
Into the Forest
  • Prepare for one of the most beautiful road trips of your life. As we leave the city behind, we’ll climb snow-capped peaks before descending toward the Amazon rain forest. In a private bus, we’ll climb over 13,000 feet in elevation, into the high altitude páramo habitat of the Andes, a unique alpine tundra that’s above the tree line but below the permanent snow line. On the bus you’ll get to know trip leaders Jason and Phil, along with our local biologist-guides, a pair of species-discovering researchers from Tropical Herping.
  • Look out for the dozens of waterfalls and the spectacular views along the way. We’ll stop at one of the volcano-gazing overlooks on the road to learn about the wild plants and animals that live in this area (think Andean tapir and spectacled bear), and discuss the changes we’re about to see during the descent into the Amazon basin.
  • We’ll also make a pit stop in the town of Baeza for lunch to get some local food and one last dose of wi-fi. Then we’re off to our remote lodge at the base of the Sumaco Volcano, one of the only volcanoes in the Amazon basin.
  • Sumaco is home to more than 100 endemic species—species found nowhere else in the world—and our Tropical Herping guides themselves have even discovered several new endemic species there in the last couple of years! And who knows? If we’re lucky, we might even find a new species on this trip.
  • Once we get settled at WildSumaco Lodge, we’ll visit the hummingbird feeders to check the local bird activity (look out for the booted racket-tail) and go on a small hike to get some practice walking in the rain forest—it’s not as simple as it looks. After a tasty dinner on the deck, we’ll embark on our first night hike. Rain forests come alive in surprising ways at night. The birds may be settling in for the night, but night is when frogs, snakes, lizards, and so many other creatures finally become active. With all eyes on the lookout, we’re guaranteed to see some spectacular critters.
Day 3
Exploring Sumaco
  • WildSumaco Lodge, nestled alongside Sumaco Galeras National Park, is home to an incredible 534 species of birds. We’ll rise early, when the birds are most active, calling and feeding. After the birds have eaten, we’ll enjoy a fresh and healthy breakfast of our own.
  • We’ll spend the rest of the morning and afternoon hiking to waterfalls, spotting birds, photographing the monkeys that swing by the lodge, gazing at the stunning Sumaco Volcano, and so much more (with a break for lunch, of course). By the end of the day, without even realizing it, you’ll have participated in a rain forest biology bootcamp.
  • Before dinner, our Tropical Herping guides will give a short presentation on how they’ve used their photography skills for wildlife conservation by documenting almost every single reptile and amphibian in Ecuador. They’ve discovered new species right in WildSumaco’s volcano backyard.
  • At night, we’ll do another (optional) night hike to an area known for giant walking stick insects and spectacular frogs. Try to see the rain forest like a biologist sees it.
Day 4
Yasuni National Park
  • This morning, we’ll wake up early to enjoy breakfast as the sunrise lights up the Sumaco Volcano. We’ll say goodbye to this beautiful place as we head deeper into the Amazon. Today's destination is Yasuni National Park, often considered the most biodiverse place on Earth.
  • In an area the size of a soccer field, you can find as many as 655 different tree species. That’s more than there are in the entire continental United States and Canada! There are 500 fish species and 600 bird species swimming and flying through Yasuni’s streams and skies. The park is also the ancestral home of three indigenous tribes—the Huaorani, Tagaeri, and Taromenane, many of whom still rely almost exclusively on the rain forest for their food, medicine, and shelter.
  • On the drive, we’ll stop in the Amazon town of Coca for lunch and a visit to the indigenous market. Ever tried eating palm beetle grubs? Here’s your chance! We promise they taste better than they look.
  • Our drive will take us all the way to the Napo River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon River. After checking in with the park guards, we'll take a motorized boat across the river and hop in another van to head down a dirt road. At this point, we'll have officially crossed into Yasuni National Park. It is incredibly rare for tourists to be allowed access to this rain forest, so we are in for one of the most unique wildlife experiences possible.
  • Once we get settled in our rooms at Estación Científica Yasuní (a working scientific research station operated by PUCE, the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador), we’ll take our first jungle hike of the day.
  • Even without counting the species (don’t bother trying), we’ll know from just looking around that this forest is different than most. After 45 minutes on the trail, spotting local wildlife and plants, we’ll climb up the canopy tower to get eye-to-eye with the monkeys and birds. Look out for toucans and aracaris, some of the most vibrant (and loud!) kinds of birds in the Amazon.
  • After returning to our rooms, we’ll dine alongside the researchers stationed at Yasuni and learn from Phil about one of our biggest scientific missions of the trip: finding and documenting the elusive silkhenge! Two years ago, Phil and his colleagues first documented tiny spiders hatching from these structures in this very forest. What will we find this time?
  • After the sun goes down, it’s off to explore the night once again. Prepare yourself for some of the most unbelievable insects, reptiles, and amphibians you’ve ever seen. If we’re lucky, we’ll find caiman, and will get to see what birds and butterflies look like when they sleep. Keep your eyes peeled for sleeping poison dart frogs! To spot one, look for tiny, vibrant splashes of color perched quietly on leaves along the trail.
Day 5
The Most Biodiverse Place on the Planet
  • This morning, we’ll wake up with the sun once again, and we’ll check outside to see if the tapirs are visiting. That’s right! A family of South America’s largest (and strangest) land mammals visits the research station most mornings, where they are fed plantains by the indigenous people and the researchers. To us, this sounds a bit crazy, but to them, it's not so different from setting up a backyard bird feeder—the world’s coolest backyard bird feeder.
  • After breakfast, we'll head out with Yasuni scientists to see one of the most important chunks of one of the most important rain forests in the world. For 20 years, researchers have cataloged every single plant, tree, and sprouting seed in this 50-acre plot to understand how rain forest biodiversity forms, and how rain forests can save the planet by storing up greenhouse gases emitted by humans. Okay, we know this sounds nerdy, but this plot of forest is legendary in the forest ecology world. And we get to see it with the people who know it best!
  • For lunch, we take to the river. The Tiputini River is one of the most iconic deep Amazonian rivers out there: home to anacondas, freshwater stingrays, turtles, and birds. Taking a motorized canoe down these waters feels unforgettably wild. On the way, we’ll stop at one of the Tiputini Research Station’s field sites to say hi to the researchers there and enjoy a delicious lunch.
  • In the afternoon, we have the unique privilege of visiting a small Huaorani village called Guillero. These people have lived in these forests for generations upon generations. We’ll get to see their traditional leaf-hatched homes and learn how they hunt monkeys. (Hint: It involves giant blow dart guns.) Consider what’s at stake when this unique culture is confronted with the prospect of oil development in the region. Yasuni isn’t just biologically diverse—it’s culturally diverse as well. And all that diversity sits precariously atop a billion barrels of crude oil.
  • Before dinner, join Jason and the rest of your guides for a chat about what conservation really means in a place like this. How do the needs of wildlife and of indigenous people interact with Ecuador’s need to develop its economy, a third of which is dependent upon oil exports? What sort of role does ecotourism play? And what responsibility does the rest of the world have in helping to safeguard this biological and cultural treasure?
  • As night falls, we’ll work together to set up a specialized light used to attract all sorts of nocturnal insects, a practice that entomologists call “black lighting.” Think of all those insects attracted to your porch light at night, then think of what happens when you move that light into the Amazon.
  • Once it’s set up, we’ll leave the light alone to attract the insects, while we again take to the night to see what Yasuni has in store along its trails. Upon returning to the lodge, we’ll inspect our light trap and see some of the most incredible moths, praying mantises, and other six- and eight-legged jungle wonders. If you’re interested, your guides will help you get some of the most stunning bug photos you’ll ever take.
Day 6
Leaving Paradise
  • We’ll see if we can catch a glimpse of the tapirs again this morning before eating an early breakfast. Then we retrace our steps: into the truck, back over the Napo River, and once again onto our minibus for the drive back to the city. We’ll stop at a traditional lunch spot on the way, where we have one last treat in store. What better way to clean off the jungle smell than to wade into the natural volcanic hot springs of Papallacta, up high in the Andes Mountains?
  • The bus ride offers once last chance to absorb as much knowledge as you can from our guides. Once back in Quito, we’ll say goodbye and head to the airport to catch our flights home, extend your stay in Quito, or join us as we head to the Galápagos.
  • Until the next adventure!
The Fine Print


  • All meals and accommodation during your stay, not including alcoholic beverages.
  • Two expert guides in the field of biology, conservation, and science journalism, as well as local guides.
  • Admission to all proposed areas and activities.
  • Tips for the local guides.
  • A full briefing packet for each explorer, including country information, logistical and contact information, recommended reading list, and packing list.
  • A curious group of fellow Atlas Obscura explorers, excited to discover all that the rain forest has to offer!


  • Transportation and flights to and from Quito.
  • Airport transfers.
  • Individual travel insurance (required).
  • Baggage charges and personal expenses.
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.


We recommend you have a medium fitness level to fully participate in this trip. Be prepared to walk up to five miles per day through thick, muddy jungle terrain. Keep in mind this will be much more taxing than five miles of flat pavement. Please contact us directly if you have further questions about health and fitness level for this trip.


We can offer a single accommodation supplement for your hotel night in Quito, but otherwise you should be prepared to share a room in the rain forest lodges.


You will be charged a $500 deposit to hold your place. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. The final payment of $2,470 will be due by March 20, 2018. Note that you also have the option of paying for the trip in two installments, the first due by February 19, 2018. All reservations will be final after these dates, and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the trip's Terms & Conditions. For those wishing to have a single room and/or extra nights at the Quito hotel, optional supplementary fees will be included with the final payment. 


Will I be sharing a room?
Space at these remote lodges is limited, which means you will be sharing a room with one or two fellow travelers. For this trip, we cannot offer a single accommodation option aside from your night at the hotel in Quito.

Do I need a travel visa?
All you need to enter and depart Ecuador is a valid passport with evidence of return or onward travel. With a U.S. passport, you will automatically receive a free 90-day tourist visa. For more information, see the State Department’s Ecuador travel page.

What is ecotourism?
The International Ecotourism Society has formally defined ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” In other words, it is an effort to combine sustainable travel with ecosystem-level conservation and the explicit recognition of and respect for the rights of indigenous people. That’s why ecotourism is more than just “nature tourism." It has the explicit goal of benefiting local communities both environmentally and economically. By providing financial incentives through tourism, these communities can become empowered to fight against poverty, and by achieving more sustainable economic development, can better resist other, more exploitative industries such as mining, agriculture, ranching, or logging. Ecotourism has also motivated the traditional tourism industry in general to move toward more “green” or sustainable practices.


Please email us at or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment. 

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