Ecuador is home to a dizzying variety of habitats. From the snow-capped Andean highlands to the lush rainforests of the Amazon, this small country has it all. Join us in this equatorial paradise for a seven-day journey full of adventure, photography, and learning in some of the wildest corners of the planet. With the help of expert wildlife biologists and award-winning wildlife photographers, you'll enjoy a tropical expedition like no other.
Our first destination is the stunning Yasuni National Park. The nearly 4,000 kinds of plants documented within its boundaries provide habitat for one 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 rainforest.
Then, we’ll head for the mountains to explore the cloud forests of Mindo. Here is where two of the most biologically diverse regions of the world meet: the Chocoan lowlands and the Tropical Andes. An area only slightly larger than 100 square miles, with elevations ranging from 300 to 12,000 feet above sea level, Mindo is home to three rivers and hundreds of streams. As a result of this unique confluence of habitats, the area is home to a dizzying array of wild creatures found here and nowhere else. It’s a frog paradise!
Whether you're interested in birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, or mammals, you'll see and hear critters you didn't even know existed! You’ll learn what life is like as a tropical biologist, experience a living lesson on the realities of conservation, visit with a local indigenous community, and enjoy guidance on capturing the best that Ecuador has to offer from behind your camera’s viewfinder.
This trip is limited to a small group of 14 explorers.
Note: If you're interested, we also offer a Galapagos photo expedition from October 20–26, 2019. Click here for more information: Photography in the Field: Expedition Galápagos.
- Yasuni National Park: Stay at one of the country’s most luxurious ecolodges within Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
- Night hikes with local experts: Head into the cloud forest after dark to catch a glimpse of lizards, snakes, and frogs you've never before seen or imagined.
- Birds, butterflies, monkeys, and more: Among the incredible diversity of wildlife that call this region home are a spectacular array of butterflies and more than 600 species of birds, which you’ll get to watch in the early morning, right from your own private balcony.
- Evening photography workshops: Learn from your guides as they share their creative approaches to wildlife photography, editing, and storytelling.
NOTE ON PHOTOGRAPHY
This trip is designed for those with a serious interest in wildlife photography, no matter your level of experience. Those who are not interested in photography will have an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience as well, but please note that our pace and our itinerary will be dictated by photographic opportunities.
We encourage you to use whatever gear you are most comfortable with, even if that’s just your smartphone camera! However, to get the most out of this workshop, we recommend a DSLR or mirrorless camera with at least one telephoto lens (such as 70-200mm, 100-400mm, or 75-300mm). A macro lens with a flash and a softbox will be helpful for nighttime photography. You may also bring a small tripod or monopod. Your guides will have a variety of lenses and flashes you may take for a spin as well, all suitable for Canon mounts. A rain-shell for your camera may be useful, especially for evening treks in Mindo, which may have us wading through fast-flowing streams in the rain. Don’t forget extra batteries, chargers, memory cards, and lens wipes.
If you purchase, rent, or borrow new camera gear just for this trip, we encourage you to spend time using it before leaving for Ecuador, so you can become familiar with its basic operation. You don't want to miss precious and spectacular moments busy messing with your camera settings!
YOUR EXPERT TOUR ORGANIZERS & GUIDES
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, been sneezed on by iguanas in the Galápagos, tracked lions in South Africa, rode a yak across Tajikistan's Pamir Mountains, and searched for rare lizards in the cloud forests of Ecuador. He's written for Scientific American, National Geographic, The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, and elsewhere. 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. He is the creator and host of The Jungle Diaries and has hosted more than 70 episodes of TechKnow on Al Jazeera. He also hosts Ready, Set, Pet on The CW network. Phil has made several significant discoveries as a field biologist in South America, including the decoy spider, a thieving butterfly, and silkhenge; this research and wildlife photography has been featured by National Geographic, Wired, and the BBC.
Lucas Bustamante is a biologist and an award-winning wildlife conservation photojournalist from Ecuador. He is the photographic director of Tropical Herping, an institution he co-founded in 2009 to preserve tropical reptiles and amphibians through tourism, photography, education, and research. He also co-founded two different NGOs focused on the conservation of threatened tropical ecosystems and on youth education: Save The Chocó and Kids Conservation Photography Workshops. His photographic work has been published in National Geographic, BBC Wildlife Magazine, BioGraphic, Ranger Rick, and many other magazines, books, photo exhibitions, and articles. His imagery is represented by Nature Picture Library. Lucas is a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). He’s been bitten by a venomous snake (once) and been charged at by elephants (twice).
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 $4,350—the $500 deposit plus the $3,850 final payment—and will cover all fixed costs, including all accommodations, meals, and activities listed in the itinerary below.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, or payment.
Quito: 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 on earth, and the closest to the equator—as well as home to the "Middle of the World."
- Upon arrival at the airport, take a quick shuttle to the Wyndham Quito Airport hotel to check in and rest up before an intense week of learning and exploration.
- We'll gather in the hotel restaurant for a brief welcome and our first dinner together. Then, head to bed for a full night's rest before tomorrow morning's domestic flight.
Into the Heart of Yasuni National Park
- After a quick breakfast, we'll transfer to the airport terminal for our one-hour flight to Coca.
- Once we’ve collected our belongings, it’s just a five-minute drive to the Napo River, where we’ll board a motorized canoe for our journey into the heart of Yasuni National Park.
- During our trip down the Napo, one of the main tributaries of the mighty Amazon River, we’ll enjoy a box lunch while keeping our eyes open for kingfishers, herons, and other local birds.
- After two hours, we’ll reach the entrance to Napo Wildlife Center, where those who need can take a quick bathroom break and stretch their legs. Then we’ll continue another hour and a half down Añangu Creek, using paddle canoes. (Motorized canoes are not allowed within the territory of NWC.)
- As our local guides silently paddle down this blackwater river, we’ll be looking for monkeys in the tree tops and turtles basking on the banks of the creek.
- Late in the afternoon we’ll finally reach our home base for the next few nights.
- We’ll meet as a group before dinner for a presentation from Lucas. He will share his approach to conservation photography and explain how he combines scientific research, photography, and ecotourism to conserve Ecuador’s unique biodiversity.
- After dinner, if you still have energy, join us for an evening jungle walk. We’ll be looking for spiders, frogs, snakes, and other nocturnal critters.
The Most Biodiverse Place on the Planet
- Our first full day in the jungle begins with an early morning wake-up and breakfast, followed by an excursion to see one of nature’s most incredible shows: a parrot clay lick. As the sun warms the sky, almost a dozen kinds of parrots, macaws, and parakeets from miles around show up to eat the clay.
- Once we’ve filled up our cameras’ memory cards with this explosion of color, we’ll hike along a forest trail to visit the Kichwa Añangu community. These indigenous people have lived in these forests for generations upon generations. We’ll get to see their traditional leaf-hatched homes and schools, learn how they hunt, and maybe even try some traditional food and drink. 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. (Read Jason’s BioGraphic story, with photos by Phil.)
- Our hike through the forest continues towards the second clay lick, where we'll once again wait quietly, cameras at the ready, to see who might show up to eat the salty clay. We’ll also take time here for a picnic lunch.
- As day gives way to twilight, we’ll return to the lodge for some much-needed rest and relaxation.
- We’ll meet once again before dinner, when Phil will share what it’s like to be a tropical biologist and how he approaches his photography from a scientific perspective.
- After another dinner in this beautiful place, it’s time for our second optional night hike.
Terra Firme Forest
- After another early breakfast in the lodge restaurant, we’ll hike around 30 minutes to the canopy tower, rising some 40 meters into the air in Terra Firme forest. Terra Firme literally means "firm earth" and refers to rainforest that is not inundated by routine flooding. These forests are taller and more diverse than ones that become flooded from time to time, also known as igapò forests.
- By climbing the tower, which is built next to a massive kapok (or ceiba) tree, we’ll observe many of the birds and monkeys that are simply impossible to see from the forest floor. Watch for flocks of brightly colored tanagers, macaws, and large toucans.
- After spending the morning in this part of the forest, we’ll return to the lodge for lunch and some rest time. In the afternoon, we’ll head back out into the forest by foot and by paddle-canoe.
- We have two goals for this afternoon’s trek: to catch a glimpse of the rare golden-mantled tamarin monkey, and to observe the playful antics of the most adorable of the jungle’s apex predators, giant river otters.
- After dinner, tonight is your chance to get an insight into the photo-editing process. Watch how Lucas takes a photo from his camera and tweaks it into perfection. Bring your own laptop, if you have it, for some one-on-one pointers as well. As always, your guides will be happy to lead anybody who wants on another night hike.
Septimo Paraiso Cloud Forest Reserve
- Following our last, delicious breakfast in this beautiful place, we’ll retrace our steps. A one-hour journey by paddle canoe to the docking area, and then two hours by motorized canoe back to Coca. A five-minute drive takes us back to the airport, and we’ll return by plane to Quito.
- From the Quito airport, it’s around 90 minutes by van to reach the Mindo cloud forest.
- While driving through the town of Mindo, watch for a large painted mural of the local, endemic “Pinnochio lizard.” Amazingly, the mural was reproduced from a photo taken by Lucas! (Read Jason’s BBC story on the re-discovery of this strange and unique reptile.)
- Our lodge for the next two evenings is called Septimo Paraiso, which can be roughly translated to “Seventh Heaven.” The lodge sits within the Septimo Paraiso Cloud Forest Reserve, a privately-owned protected area created in 2001. The reserve boasts one of the largest bird lists in Ecuador’s Pichincha province, with 328 species observed to date.
- After lunch, we’ll take a short drive to the Mariposario, a butterfly-rearing facility in the town of Mindo. Here we’ll learn about the life cycle of local butterflies and take advantage of butterfly feeders to get some close-up portraits of these magnificent insects.
- We’ll return to the lodge to rest up after a long day. Is there anything better than sitting outside watching hummingbirds fly around you?
- After dinner, our mission for this evening’s night hike, which takes us carefully wading through a stream, is to find and photograph the Pinnochio lizard and some local, endemic glass frogs.
Hummingbirds & Herpetology
- At Septimo Paraiso, breakfast comes with a show. Hummingbird feeders are strategically placed surrounding the dining room, so you can enjoy your morning coffee while gazing upon these fast flyers.
- Before Mindo became known for its herpetological biodiversity—that’s reptiles and amphibians—it was a haven for birdwatchers. In fact, Mindo has “won” the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Count six times, counting the most species in a 24-hour period at year's end.
- Our daytime activities here are all about finding and photographing the region’s avian biodiversity. We’ll visit two prime birdwatching sites, and if we’re very lucky we might see an Andean cock-of-the-rock, one of the most emblematic and colorful birds in the Andes, and indeed in all of the Americas.
- We’ll also spend some time in the town of Mindo, getting a taste of local life. This is an opportunity for you to pick up a few gifts or souvenirs, such as some locally produced, sustainable coffee or chocolate. By supporting local businesses, we can help to ensure that the community of Mindo is incentivized to protect the precious little natural habitat that remains.
- In the late afternoon we’ll return to the lodge to rest up, and before dinner, Jason will lead a discussion about what conservation and ecotourism really mean in a place as delicate and precious as this one, and how you can leverage your photography to help inspire conservation behaviors back at home.
- After dinner, those who still have some energy are welcome to join the guides for one final short night walk.
- The day begins with our last group breakfast, followed by a final bird photography expedition.
- We’ll set out for an area close to the lodge known for hummingbirds—different species than the ones that use the feeders around the dining area—as well as some strikingly colored tanagers.
- Then we'll load into our van and return to the Quito airport for evening flights home, or, perhaps, stay and explore on your own for a few extra days.
- Until the next adventure!
YOUR ATLAS OBSCURA EXPEDITION TO ECUADOR INCLUDES
- All meals and accommodation during your stay, not including alcoholic beverages.
- Internal flights between Quito and Coca.
- River and ground transportation.
- Two trip leaders who are experts in the field of biology, conservation, and science journalism, as well as a local guide who is an award-winning wildlife photographer.
- Admission to all proposed areas and activities.
- 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 islands have to offer!
TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR
- Transportation and flights to and from Quito.
- Airport transfers.
- Individual travel insurance (strongly recommended).
- Baggage charges and personal expenses.
- Additional meals, snacks, and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.
- Additional tips for trip leaders, guides, lodge staff, and drivers, as appropriate.
We recommend you have a medium fitness level to fully participate in this trip. Be prepared to walk three 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.
A single accommodation supplement for your Quito hotel night is available for $70, but otherwise you should be prepared to share a room.
You will be charged a $500 deposit to hold your place. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. The final payment of $3,850 will be due by July 15, 2019. 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 costs will be included with the final payment.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
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 trips@or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.