Ecuador offers wonderful botanising amidst magnificent scenery in one of the smallest yet most diverse countries in South America. This small country possesses an extraordinary range of environments. Here in a comparatively limited area one can travel from towering snow-capped volcanoes to oxbow lakes deep in the Amazonian rainforests and from windswept grasslands to temperate cloud forests. Thus it is not surprising that Ecuador has the highest biodiversity for an area of its size in South America. In fact, its orchid diversity is the highest of any country in the world regardless of size, with over 3,700 species. During our travels we shall visit all of the main montane habitats found in the central spine of the country. We will tiptoe around fragile alpine cushion plants near the snow line, search for orchids and tree-sized flowering mistletoes in cold moss-covered temperate forests, marvel at the lushness of the rich subtropical forests on the lower slopes of the mountains, and explore the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest followed by a visit to the extremely diverse transition zone between rain forest and cloud forest.
Arrive in Quito and transfer to San Jorge eco lodge just 20 minutes away from the airport.
Today we explore the San Jorge botanical reserve which is located in the immense backyard our lodge has. San Jorge Eco-Lodge & Botanical Reserve is an 18th century Ecuadorian farm, situated on 200 acres of untouched, protected land, preserving the wild & natural habitat of the many endemic plants, animals and over 250 different species of exotic birds, native only to the Andes region. Over 250 native species of medicinal plants can be found at San Jorge, and tours are given to explain their uses, for both ancient shamanic and modern medical applications. There are two large canyons located at San Jorge, Poroyumi and Singuna, containing two small rivers, fed by Andes Mountain springs which in turn, feed various smaller streams as well as 15 natural and sacred waterfalls. 3 internal roads and numerous smaller trails have been constructed for eco-education and eco-adventure tours, as well as maintenance of the reserve. On-site explanations of medicinal plants, botany and ecology of the region and scientific tours for biologists are available.
Experience fantastic climate changes and biodiversity along the trail leading through the High Barren Plains, the Highland Rainforest, the Cloud Forest and into the Subtropical Rainforest.
The Reserve is also a hotspot for non-commercial and academic research by biologists, botanists, ornithologists, cultural anthropologists and archaeologists.
• Altitude: 3,000-3,500 mts o.s.l. (over sea level) 9,850-11,450 ft o.s.l.
• Bio-diversity: Cloud Forest, Highland Rainforest, Subtropical Rainforest and High Barren Plain
Various parts of the reserve grow different flora. The highland tropical rain forest has hardly been touched by mankind. Our natural pastures have been planted with Cypress, eucalyptus and pine trees.
After a full day exploring you can relax at the inhouse spa, there is a swimming pool, turkish bath and Jacuzzi for you to enjoy.
We will spend the night at San Jorge Ecolodge.
Today we enjoy a unique city tour, we start out first visiting the Quito botanical gardens and its orchid collection, located by Carolina park. From here we continue on to the downtown are and visit the colonial district, Unesco heritage site, we will learn the cultural background and observe the religious art in many churches as we walk amongst Spanish influenced plazas and historic buildings.
After visiting the historic district, we will go north to the middle of the world and visit the monument at the Equator line. After enjoying lunch (optional) by the line that divides the earth into 2 hemispheres, we will visit the Pululahua GeoBotanical reserve. This area is a beautiful cloud forest region with a diverse sub-tropical vegetation. Orchids, bromeliads and many other flowers grow in there and we explore them on nature trails.
We return to San Jorge ecolodge and overnight.
After an early breakfast we head south this morning down the "Avenue of the Volcanos", the arid central plateau of the country. If the weather is clear we will have fantastic views of the highest active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi. After about three hours we will begin our descent to Baños in east-central Ecuador, where we will have views of an active volcano, Tungurahua, and perhaps we will witness one of its frequent small eruptions. The most conspicuous element of this semi-arid flora is the Puya, an imposing terrestrial bromeliad. Two rare amaryllis relatives (Phaedranassa schizantha var. ignea and P. viridiflora) can be found here. The lava flows host many orchids, mostly with inconspicuous flowers. If we are lucky, though, we may find a flowering plant of the strange “slipperless” ladyslipper orchid, Phragmipedium lindenii, with stringy petals up to a foot long.
We have two nights at a lovely hotel overlooking Baños called Luna Runtun (Fortress of the Moon), with wonderful views of Volcano Tungurahua.
Today we visit Mount Chimborazo, a few hours drive from Baños, is the highest point on earth, as measured from the earth’s centre. The broad flat plains below Chimborazo’s snowcap host an amazing variety of alpine plants, including the endemic rosette plant Viola polycephala and many species of Asteraceae such as Loricaria and chuquiragua. We shall botanize this plain at our leisure, moving slowly so as not to feel the effects of the high altitude. We will be accompanied by herds of vicuña, a wild relative of the llama, feeding and playing between us and the glaciers. The vastness of the landscape and richness of the flora will make this an unforgettable day.
Return to Baños and overnight at Luna Runtun.
In contrast to the arid vegetation to the west of Baños, the Andean foothills east of the town are covered with extremely wet cloud forest. Today we will travel down the Andean slope to the lowland tropical rain forest on the edge of the Amazon basin. This forest is extremely species-rich in aroids, bromeliads and orchids, and the tree diversity is exceptionally high. This ecological zone is fabulous habitat where over 40 new orchid species have been discovered to science! The forests here are heavily clad with orchids and bromeliads, and the scenery is spectacular, with waterfalls on all sides. One of the special species we will hope to see is a colony of hundreds of a rare green and white ladyslipper orchid that only grows on rocks along certain rivers, Phragmipedium pearcei. Along the road we shall also see an amaryllis relative endemic to Baños, Phaedranassa tungurahuae.
We will continue on to Puyo one of the gateway cities into the Ecuadorian Amazon basin. Here we will visit the Omaere Ethno-Botanicical Park which offers opportunities to see the flora and fauna of the region, as well as to experience the customs of the indigenous the area’s communities. We will learn the use of many medicinal plants such as Ayahuasca (halucinogen), Guayusa and others with our native shuar guide.
Departing Puyo we head to the Amazon rainforest basin in the Upper Napo region, here we will stay at Cotococha Amazon jungle lodge for 2 nights.
After breakfast, we depart by canoe upstream for ten minutes, arriving to a small shore where we begin a fun and thrilling one hour walk, marveling ourselves with the jungle’s secondary forest diverse flora and fauna. After our short hike, we’ll find ourselves in a breathtaking cascade “La Cascada de Latas” where we will take a refreshing bath in its clear crystal waters and enjoy the surrounding views, which, mixed with the jungle sounds, makes it an unforgettable experience. We return along the same way to have lunch at the lodge.
After lunch we put on our rubber boots to start an exciting walk in the jungle’s primary forest ready to find the secret wonders of the mysterious hidden jungle, finding amazing plant species with medicinal properties, which will be explained in detail by our expert native guide: their characteristics and how the jungle inhabitants used them in ancient times. We’ll also observe a great variety of insects, small groups of monkeys weaving around the giant trees; though we will need some luck to observe them, that’s why we must stay very quiet to admire these beautiful creatures. Dozens of curious colourful birds tag along with us during our walk whistling enchanted notes delighting our senses. After about three hours of walking we will arrive at the Lodge again. At night, dinner and gathering around the fireplace. It’s time for a good and peacefull rest delighted by the nightly sounds of the jungle.
We enjoy an early morning outing and breakfast before we depart the Amazon. On our way back up into the Andes we explore the exceptionally wet cloud forest called the Guacamayos Ridge, perched above the Amazon basin and catches the westward-flowing Amazonian clouds. The forest is a classic super-humid cloud forest, with lots of epiphytes and bryophytes, and the plants exhibit many adaptations to handle heavy rain and high humidity. The trail we will take follows an old Spanish trade route from the jungle to the highlands.
We will then continue on to lovely San Isidro lodge where we will spend the night.
We head west (and uphill!) today to a well-preserved mid-elevation forest called San Isidro, where we will have the unusual experience of walking in relatively flat undisturbed cloud forest. Many different species of hummingbirds can be seen and photographed coming to feed on the sugar water at the lodge feeders. The isolated trees in the old pastures near the lodge are exceptionally rich in orchids and other epiphytic vegetation.
Overnight at San Isidro lodge
Day 11 - San Isidro - Papallacta
Today we will visit the chilly but relatively benign high alpine grasslands above Papallacta. If we are lucky we will see an incredible variety of alpine wildflowers, many belonging to familiar European genera but with strange neotropical plants like Puya (Bromeliaceae) mixed in. We will then check in at the Termas de Papallacta spa. The accommodation really is delightful with rooms surrounding carefully sculpted pools containing mineral-rich hot water welling up from beneath the Andes.
After a delicious dinner we will lie back and relax in the hot water, such a pleasing contrast to the chill mountain air!
After an early breakfast we explore the surroundings one more time and head back to Quito on an amazingly scenic road. En-route we will explore some moss-covered high elevation cloud forests full of yellow Odontoglossum orchids and other colorful flowers. Further up if weather permits (it can snow here!) we will drive up to some communication antenna at 4,500 m and visit the zone of “cushion plants”, curious clumps of moss-like dwarf gentians and other plants with strange growth forms, highly specialized for this extreme environment. We will also visit the enchanting Polylepis forests with their twisted branches and papery-red bark, growing at the upper elevational limit of woody plants. The road affords splendid views of several snow-capped peaks as it winds its way back to Quito.
Overnight at San Jorge Ecolodge.
We fly in the early morning to Loja in southern Ecuador, where we will stay for 2 nights. The city is located at 2,100 meters above sea level in the Cuxibamba valley and enjoys a temperate spring-like climate all year long. Well off the beaten tourist trail of Quito/Galapagos, the province of Loja offers a unique combination of breathtaking vistas, indigenous markets, an amazing ecological diversity, colonial architecture, and unparalleled hospitality. After quickly checking in to our pleasant hotel, we will drive to a high-elevation cloud forest in Podocarpus National Park. From the bus it is an easy walk to stunning alpine grassland rich in ericads, bromeliads, and orchids. This is a very picturesque environment, where we can be absolutely sure that we will be the only botanists on the mountainside!
We will make a full day excursion today to some of the special forests near Loja, famous for their high orchid and bird diversity. We will visit a private reserve, Tapichalaca, purchased by the Jocotoco Foundation to protect a newly discovered bird (the Jocotoco Antpitta). The reserve coincidentally protects many endangered plants in its unique forests.
Ecuador owes its biodiversity to its densely woven patchwork of distinct and often contrasting environments. The dry vegetation we will visit today will be shockingly different from the wet forests we visited yesterday. Instead of broad-leaved, epiphyte-laden mossy forests we will be visiting cactus and desert scrub. After two hours of driving we will come to the highlight of the day, the strange baobab-like “ceibo” trees with their fat green trunks and symmetric crowns. With luck they may be in flower, an unforgettable sight. A great day to close up our fascinating botany trip.
Late afternoon flight back to Quito, overnight.
Transfer out for your international flight. You also have the option to extend your trip and take a Galapagos cruise trip or a botanical tour of the Choco rainforest.
The above is a sample itinerary prepared for a birding society. It can be customized to fit the needs and special interests of your travellers.