The Most Incredible Wildlife Destinations in Ecuador and the Galapagos

Galapagos Penguins | ©zpics /Flickr
Galapagos Penguins | ©zpics /Flickr
Photo of Angela Drake
Founder, Not Your Average American26 August 2017

Ecuador is one of the most geographically diverse nations in the world which lends to its incredible biodiversity. In all four geographic regions, the Pacific Coast, the Sierran Andes, the Amazon Basin, and the Galapagos, there are incredible wildlife destinations that deserve to be on everyone’s bucket list.

The Tandayapa Valley

The Paseo del Quinde, a tourism route connecting the capital city of Quito to the birding paradise of Mindo, directly passes the enchanting Tandayapa Valley. This region is home to more than 40 species of hummingbirds, which live at different altitudes. Many lodges allow day visitors so that tourists can maximize their opportunities to see as many of these colorful, mesmerizing birds as possible. Though rarely seen, the Andean Spectacled Bear loves to eat the bromeliads that flourish in the damp cloud forest. Furthermore, night time visitors to many lodges include the Olinguito and the Kinkajou.

Buff-tailed Coronet hummingbird, Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador | © Minden Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Puerto Lopez

While the fishing town of Puerto Lopez does not scream beach resort at first sight, it is the best location along the Ecuadorian Pacific Coast for wildlife viewing. On the mainland, endangered dry coastal forests of the Machalilla National Park are home to 270 species birds, two species of monkeys, and many armadillos. Nesting grounds of both Blue and Red-footed Boobies, as well as Magnificent Frigate Birds, are found on the Isla de la Plata. This island, also called the Poor Man’s Galapagos is popular for scuba diving and snorkeling to see giant sea turtles and mysterious manta rays. The channel between the island and the mainland is a migratory route for the majestic Humpback Whale, which can be seen from late June through early October.

Blue-footed boobies, Isla de la Plata, Ecuador | © KIKE CALVO / Alamy Stock Photo

The Antisanilla Reserve

Run by the Jocotoco Foundation, an organization protecting endangered wildlife habitat throughout Ecuador, the Antisanilla Reserve lies two hours outside of Quito. The land protects an important nesting site of the endangered Andean Condor. These glorious birds regularly ride thermals at the viewing point located just before the Antisana Conservation Area, where raptors like the Carunculated Caracara and wetland species like the Andean Ibis are regularly observed. The Antisanilla Reserve is also home to the migratory Andean Spectacled Bear, and several species of hummingbirds, including the spectacular purple-headed Ecuadorian Hillstar.

Andean condor | © All Canada Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal

Located on the far side of the San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos Archipelago, Punta Pitt is an excellent location for seeing the nesting grounds of all three species of Ecuadorian Boobies. Many other sea birds make this area home, including both species of Frigate Birds and the stunning Red-billed Tropic Bird with its striking long tail. Most trips to the northeast corner of San Cristobal include snorkeling the small rocky islands where many colorful fish swim among the lava formations. And, during the right season, keep your eyes open for Humpback Whales.

Galapagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki), Punta Pitt, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos Islands | © Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Leon Dormido, San Cristóbal

Leon Dormido, an outcropping of volcanic rock, juts out from the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in the Galapagos. This formation, also called Kicker Rock, attracts an unbelievable diversity of wildlife. Underwater, starfish and sea urchins cling to the rocky surface, sea lions swim the channel in between the towering walls, and regular visitors like the Spotted-Eagle Ray and Hammerhead Shark swim in the deep blue waters. Above the waterline, fur seals sun on rocky outcroppings and sea birds like the Blue Footed and Nazca Boobies, Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds, and the Red-billed Tropic Bird perch high overhead.

Roca Leon Dormido, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos | © Michel & Gabrielle Therin-Weise / Alamy Stock Photo

Las Tintoreras, Isla Isabela

Penguins. That reason alone should be enough to visit Las Tintoreras, a collection of small islands accessible by panga boat from Puerto Villamil on the Isla Isabela in the Galapagos. The ride over passes rocky outcrops covered with comical Blue-footed Boobies and stunning Galapagos Penguins. The water is so clear that is is possible to see the penguins, along with sea lions and sea turtles, swimming alongside the boat. Las Tintoreras is home to the Marine Iguana, a gargoyle of a reptile that loves to swim in the bright blue waters and sunbathe on the pebbled beach. In a protected cove off one of the islands, visitors snorkel with sea turtles and hunt for small creatures in the crevices of underwater lava formations.

Galapagos Penguins | © Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

South Plaza Island, Santa Cruz

South Plaza Island is an isolated island off the coast of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos archipelago. A loop trail on the island allows for minimal exploration of this colorful but stark destination. Most visitors come to see the Golden Iguana, a bright yellow reptile with eyes that look like cracked glass marbles. The cactus finch makes its home in the paddles of the prickly pear cactus dotting the landscape. South Plaza Island is a favorite with sea lions who own the small dock where passengers disembark. The nearby shallow water is a favorite destination for mating rays while sea birds nest in the rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean, swooping and diving in a rapid frenzy.

Galapagos Terrestrial Iguana, South Plaza Island, Santa Cruz Island | © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve

The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is the second largest protected area on mainland Ecuador. It is more waterway than land, with small tributaries eventually leading to the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean and two large lakes. These waterways provide the best opportunities to observe pink Amazon river dolphins, manatees, and capybaras, the largest rodents in the world. Other hard to see mammal species are more easily seen at the water’s edge, including jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, giant and neotropical otters.

Pygmy Marmoset, the smallest true monkey in the world in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve | © WILDLIFE GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Yasuni National Park

The Yasuni National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is home not only to an uncounted number of animal species but the native Huaorani tribe and two other uncontacted indigenous tribes. The only way to visit this isolated location is by plane or boat. With almost 600 bird species, the Yasuni is a treasure trove for bird watchers but other nature lovers have plenty of reasons to visit. The flora of this rainforest is rich with colorful bromeliads, flowering orchids, huge ferns, and towering trees. Night time is great for spotting an amazing variety of insects, frogs, and spiders. While mammals in the region can be particularly hard to see, it’s not impossible to spot pumas, jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, anteaters, armadillos, and monkeys.

A juvenile South American tapir | © Ben Queenborough / Alamy Stock Photo

Chimborazo Wildlife Refuge

While the diversity of wildlife at the Chimborazo Wildlife Refuge is much less than any of the protected lands in the Amazon Basin, there are few other places in Ecuador to see the wild vicuña, an odd-looking camelid related to the llama and alpaca. Its large eyes and sweeping eye lashes look almost comical. Herds of vicuña roam the area around the highest mountain in Ecuador, making excellent opportunities for panoramic shots with local wildlife. Another rare species that can only be seen on these Andean slopes is a sub-species of the Ecuadorian Hillstar Hummingbird. On Chimborazo, the Star of Chimborazo Hummingbird has an iridescent turquoise collar that shines against its deep purple head and brilliant white chest.

Vicuna in Ecuador | © Steve Allen Travel Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

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