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I first visited Ecuador in August 2012 for a week, drawn by the prospect of seeing Spectacled Bears and Mountain Tapirs in the Andes, topped of with a range of nice primates in the Napo Valley.
Richard Webb, who first told me that Cayembe Coca National Park was a reliable spot for bears gave me useful advice, and I organised the trip through Xavier Muņoz at Neblina Forest. He was well organised and quick to respond, though his expertise is birds more than mammals. My driver, Jose Gallardo was a great guy, hard working and a keen naturalist, which is always useful if you try to persuade someone to go out spotlighting after 12 hours in the field. He’s available to hire privately and I highly recommend him. The brothers Patrizio and Mario Pillajo, guides at Papallacta, were both great, adept at finding the animals and willing to put in as much effort as it took. Gabriel Vado, my guide at Sacha, was also good company and worked hard to look for mammals.
A fabulous resource is the website http://www.mamiferosdelecuador.com/ This has a full list of all Ecuador's mammals and - if you search (Buscar) by species - you can get detailed photos of each. Brilliant. If only every country had one of these. Diego Tirira - who I suspect is behind the website - has also written a book Los Mamiferos Del Ecuador which would probably be available in Ecuador. I saw a copy in WildSumaco Lodge but I am now buying a copy direct from Diego.
A thunderstorm in Miami delayed my flight to Quito by 3 hours so I didn’t see much of the city when I got in at 10pm. But it looked lovely through the window of the cab. I spent the night at the Hostal Fuente de Piedra, which was fine.
Jose and his Mitsubishi Pajero met me at 6am on Sunday morning and after a scenic 2 hours we arrived at the small spa town of Papallacta in the Andes, our base for the next three nights.
Cayembe – Coca National Park
Papallacta means “land of the potato”. Perhaps this explains why they feature so often on the menu of the really very nice Termas de Papallacta Hotel, (the nicest and most expensive hotel in town, complete with wifi, hot springs and some killer food). Its also the closest hotel to Cayembe-Coca National Park, the centre of the mammal watching action. There are other hotels a few minutes further away and probably less than half the cost.
After a quick coffee, we met Patrizio, a local guide and biologist at Fundación Terra (an NGO set up to protect the park and sponsored by the hotel). Both Richard Webb and Xavier Muñoz recommended Patrizio. Not only is he a good guide, but you also need to arrange access to the park beforehand, which Patrizio can organise: only 36 people a day are allowed into the park if the sign at the gate is to be believed.
A gated road behind the hotel takes you straight into good habitat. Indeed, Richard Webb saw a Mountain Tapir less than a kilometre from the hotel along this road. The park gate proper is 3kms further up the mountain.
Cayembe – Coca National Park is big, but the area around Papallacta appears to be the best for seeing both Spectacled Bears and Mountain Tapirs (I say appears because a lot of the information in this report relies on conversations I had in Spanish, of which I generally understand 20% and guess the rest).
The park is high – 3500 to 4000 metres - so its cool, and the altitude is noticeable if like me you are arriving from sea level. It took me a couple of days to adjust. My symptoms were shallow dream-saturated sleep, a headache and a ridiculous amount of puffing and panting after 5 minutes walking up a slope… though I am not sure if the latter was really the altitude.
El Paramo, the park’s ecosystem, is open boggy moorland (known as Pajonal ) with patches of forest clinging to some of the mountain slopes. It is these patches that are the focus of bear and tapir searching. Mammal watching inside the forest would be difficult, but while the larger mammals use it for shelter they leave it to feed. And so are most often viewed near its edge.
The next four days were spent driving and trekking around the park. The weather was dreary. The sun was shining when I arrived but 2 hours later the weather deteriorated and continued to do so the whole time I was there. That meant increasing amounts of cloud, and heavier rain showers. Not enough to put the animals off from moving around I imagine, but enough to put me off from looking when the cloud reduced visibility to below 50m. Its also miserable wading through the waste deep soaking wet grass. I wished I'd packed waterproof trousers and rubber boots, though Patrizio lent me a pair of the latter.
Patrizio stayed with me for the first day and a half. On the second day he was joined by his younger brother, Mario, who took over for the rest of the trip. I wasn’t sure if either had a plan about the best way to see animals other than through relying on their instinct. But I had faith in their instinct and they knew where to look for sure judging by the amount of sign we came across. We used the following strategies for searching: from the car; during short hikes off the road; or during extended hikes of between 1 and 4 hours. Our plan of action depended on the weather, which changed frequently.
However we moved around we paid most attention to the moorland surrounding patches of forest. And an equal amount of attention was given to making rasping raptor-like whistles – sssssseeeuwwww – that imitate the call of the Mountain Tapir. We didn’t hear any respond.
The animals are mainly diurnal it appears. Radio collared tapirs (and I think the bears … my Spanish lets me down again) were most active between 6am and 10am and 3pm and 6pm, with almost no activity at night. An excuse to enjoy the food of the Termas de Papallacta and not go spotlighting.
Day 1: we were inside the park by 9am and took a three hour walk around the Lagunas los Banos (we started along the trail by the Park entrance gate then went off-piste to the left of the trail after 1km). This is meant to be one of the best areas for both bears and tapirs and we heard later that a bear had been seen at about 6am that day. There was evidence of bears and tapirs everywhere: both are messy eaters and leave a lot of evidence, like this bromeliad recently ripped to pieces by a bear.
Or like this bear scratching post.
After the walk we drove around the park, occasionally leaving the car to walk for a few minutes and look for “something black” moving across the pajonal. The only mammal we saw all day was a lone White-tailed Deer.
Day 2: poor weather put paid to the planned long walk so we drove around the park, scanning from various locations. We entered at 5am which was probably a bit over eager (clouds meant there was no light until gone 6) The only mammals were several groups of White-tailed Deer and some Brazilian Forest Rabbits plus cattle illegally grazing in the park. At 11.30 Patrizio decided we might as well walk for an hour or two across the pajonal, in an area about 20 minutes from the park gate. Within 10 minutes Mario spotted a Spectacled Bear feeding abut 50 metres away. I watched it for 10 minutes, spellbound.
So far as I know Cayembe Coca National Park is the best place in the world to see this fabulous mammal.
After lunch at the hotel, we returned to the park, Patrizio returned to his real job and Mario took over the guiding. Tapirs it seemed were going to be harder to see than the bears. And we didn’t see much that afternoon.
Day 3: we drove into the park at 6am, hiked for a couple of hours and drove some more, all the time focussed on Tapirs. The morning’s highlight was an Andean Fox.
After lunch, Mario decided we should try another mountain closer to the hotel. Two teams of biologists - with dogs - had been searching the interior of the park for tapirs for the past 2 days and not seen an animal. Perhaps, Mario speculated, because a couple of JCBs working on the park roads had spooked the animals. So we decided to spend most of the afternoon near the hotel - hiking up a largely overgrown trail to a mountain ridge and then down through the pajonal. The trail leads off of the first road on the left as you are driving into the park from the hotel - though you’d almost certainly need a guide to find and follow it. Once again there was plenty of signs of tapirs and bears but we didn’t see any animals.
Day 4: my last day – or half-day - and the weather was worse than ever. It wasn’t looking good. At 6am - in an act of Tapir desperation - we drove back towards Quito for 30 minutes then walked for an hour through some pajonal in an area reputedly inhabited by Tapirs. When the visibility dropped below 50 metres we gave up and went back towards the park, to again hike around the Lagunas los Banos area, where I’d walked during my first morning. After an hour there, in terrible visibility, I gave up and decided to go back to the hotel and pack.
Back at the car we met Armando Castellanos, an Ecuadorean biologist, and the head (I think) of the group looking for a Tapir with a defective radio collar (the same group that had been looking for several days and not seen an animal). He’d found fresh tracks late yesterday and when the weather cleared was going back there, this time with two dogs and a local assistant, Melchor Ascanta (who it turned out had amazing skill in Tapir tracking). Melchor, a former park ranger, has also seen Andean Mountain Cats twice in his life – so they do exist... Armando was generous enough to invite me along for the ride. What a star! I doubt whether many biologists would bother with the hassles of taking a tourist along when they were trying to tranquilize an animal that they had spent days looking for.
My optimism refreshed, half an hour later I was hiking up another mountain and then down a very steep creek line. Lots of Tapir signs but no fresh scent. After an hour, in the rain, my optimism began to wain again. The trail had gone cold and Armando decided to continue to walk down and around the mountain. I decided to leave, resolving to return here, or maybe take a trip to Sangay Volcano NP where Armando said the Tapirs were much easier to see. This trip would involve hiring three horses for the 2 day ride into the park: fun, but time consuming.
After 15 minutes steep climb back toward the car I heard a whistle. The tracker had spotted a Tapir. I was back down the creek line faster than a Parisienne into a seat on the metro. And 20 minutes later I was looking at my first Mountain Tapir. Or at least the head of one. Later Armando crossed over the small valley between us and the Tapir and flushed it into the open.
A beautiful animal – my favourite of the 4 species (all of which I’d now seen) - with its glossy black pelt and white lips. And this, coupled with all the effort involved, and last minute brinkmanship, makes it one of my favourite ever mammal encounters. If I’d left the park 5 minutes earlier I would not have met the biologist… if I’d left the biologist 5 minutes earlier I would not have heard the “I’ve seen a Tapir” whistle. Yay!
Elated with Tapir I hoofed it back to the hotel for a shower and lunch and then Jose drove the 3 hours to WildSumaco Lodge, a half way point en route to the Napo Valley.
WildSumaco Lodge is a nice place to break the journey between Quito/Papallacta and Coca, the jumping off point for the Napo Valley. Primarily a birding lodge, the owners were interested in mammals and had recorded some nice species mainly through camera traps (Margays are not uncommon it seems). Visit their website for more details.
We arrived after dark and other than a squashed Striped Hog-nosed Skunk on the highway about 10 kms before Sumaco, and some more Tapitis on the rough drive into the lodge, we saw no mammals. An hour’s spotlighting after dinner produced what seems likely to have been a Bicoloured Arboreal Rice Rat (Oecomys bicolor) though it would need to be in the hand to be certain.
In the morning I was flicking through the lodge’s Mamiferos del Ecuador book (by Diego Tirira and worth getting if you can find it – probably most likely in Quito though the author can also sell you a copy): it seems the Black-mantled Tamarins in this area had been split into the Napo Tamarin (Sanguinus graellsi). The IUCN jury still seems to be out on whether they are a subspecies or full species, but I have listed them as S. graellsi for the moment. They were reasonably common around the lodge but unpredictable. I figured the best way to find one would be to drive slowly along the road out of the lodge on the way to Coca.
After breakfast we had prolonged views of a Red-tailed Squirrel in the garden before setting off at 8am. About 3km down the road I spotted a couple of Tamarins.
2 hours later I was in the town of Coca, waiting for the boat to Sacha Lodge – a wait that ended up being over 2 hours after some confusion about what time the boat left. But by 1pm I was on a motor-canoe, buzzing along the Napo River for the 50 mile and 1.5 hour ride. After tieing up the canoe, we had to walk 20 minutes along a trail then take a 10 minute paddle across a blackwater lake to the lodge itself.
The Napo Valley
My first reaction when organising this trip had been to say at the Napo Wildlife Centre. But they were full. Other – more expensive – lodges had space including Sacha and Sani. Xavier at Nebulina did not shed much light on the differences, and I opted for Sacha mainly because of Rich Lindie’s excellent notes on the mammal watching there. Rich’s notes remain quite accurate, though the Green Agouchis seem much less common than they were in his time.
We arrived at 3.30 and I was introduced to Gabriel, my guide. I paid extra to have a private guide which I think you’d have to do if you wanted to focus on mammal watching. Most of the other guests seemed only moderately interested in nature, other than some serious birders, but any mammals they saw would be by-catch.
At 3.45 it started pouring down so the rest of the afternoon was a write off. After dinner, Gabriel and I did some half –hearted spotlighting - the rain had stopped – and heard what were probably a Night Monkey and a Nine-banded Armadillo, though I didn’t see either. We did see the infamous Bullet Ants and a Blunt-headed Snake.
At 6.45 – in between breakfast and heading out on a canoe – I saw my first Pygmy Marmoset, in their regular spot outside of cabin no. 5. One of my priorities for the Napo – a species I had heard in Palmari Lodge but not seen.
The two targets for the morning were White-fronted Capuchins and Spix’s Night Monkey. The former are best found in flooded forest, the latter in one of their regular roosting holes. During a 30 minute paddle down a creek the only mammals were a Red Howler Monkey, which Jaime, the local guide, spotted but which dissolved into the canopy before I could see them, and some Graell's Tamarins (not found on the southern side of the Napo River). We left the canoe at the end of the creek and walked a trail back to the lodge. We must have visited 10 roosting sites for Night Monkeys before we finally saw an animal.
We also found a couple of Greater White-lined Bats around the roots of a giant Kapok tree. A usual haunt for this species at Sacha.
The paddle back to the lodge was very quiet but as we entered the lake, and were discussing whether to try another creek for the Capuchins, Jaime spotted a lone Capuchin in a tree at the water’s edge.
I photographed a large troop of Common Squirrel Monkeys at the lodge and then had 90 minutes to kill before lunch. Rain meant I spent it in my hammock, rather than looking for Green Agouchis.
In a year at the lodge, Gabriel had seen Red Titi Monkeys twice. He thought they were rare. But following Rich Lindie’s notes we headed into the secondary forest nearer to the main river and found a group after an hour. They were too shy to pose for photos but I got some (bad) pictures the next day. We also saw Red Howlers, and more Squirrel Monkeys and Capuchins. There were fresh Tapir tracks here too.
I didn’t spotlight that night.
I’d seen all the Sacha Lodge primates during my first day, so on my second (and last day) I needed to cross the river to look for Golden-mantled Tamarins. Equatorial Sakis, Silvery Woolly Monkeys and White-bellied Spider Monkeys. There were decent chances for the first two species I’d been told, and a not too distant chance for the Woolly Monkeys as well. Spider Monkeys were much harder.
We had breakfast at 5am and walked back to the Sacha staging post on the Napo and took a launch across to the other side, to an area of Yasuni National Park called “Nuevo Provencia”. Gabriel reckoned it could be good for the Tamarins and Woolly Monkeys (both species had been seen here before). The guides know much less about the south side of the river though: this was Gabriel’s first visit, and I don’t think Jaime had been more than once or twice either. We walked for 3 hours and Gabriel thought he head the Tamarins several times, but we couldn’t get a look at them. We did however see several groups of Titis, so on reflection it would have been a better plan to have spent yesterday afternoon here looking for both Titis and Tamarins, rather than in the secondary forest on the north - Golden Tamarin free - side of the river.
When we got back to the boat at 10am, two massive canoes had arrived from Coca carrying about 80 tourists. We left, and headed for another part of Yasuni National Park half an hour down river. Gabriel had never been here either and neither it seems had Jaime. We walked for 90 minutes along a steadily deteriorating trail - I slipped down a couple of steep muddy slopes – and then lost the path altogether, so had to retrace our steps. We had heard a couple of groups of Monkeys on the way but couldn’t get onto them. On the way back I got the briefest of glimpses of my first Equatorial Saki Monkey, flying across my binocular field of view. I heard several others.
After lunch and a siesta we took a smaller motorised canoe up a side river into the Provencia section of the Yasuni National Park. It was a beautiful creek but we couldn’t turn the engine off more than a minute at a time which detracted from the peace. We spotted one group of Red Titi Monkeys but no Sakis or Tamarins. We got back to the lodge by 5.30 after 12 unproductive hours.
On my last morning I didn’t have to leave for Coca until 10.30, so at dawn Gabriel, Jaime and I were going back across the river to Nuevo Provencia, to try again for the Golden-mantled Tamarins. We took a motor canoe further up the creek into Provencia that we'd taken yesterday. We heard more Titis and got very close to Tamarins but again couldn’t see them.
At 8am we walked the trail again in Provencia and this time saw 2 or 3 groups of the glorious Golden-mantled Tamarins. They were too skittish to photograph but I got good – but brief- views. Mission successful: this is a key species for the Napo, as it has a rather restricted distribution.
From there to Coca and Quito, and a flight back to New York the next day.
August probably isn’t the best time to visit Ecuador: the weather in the mountains will be better during December through March, and the Napo would be drier too then. That said, the Napo would also be hotter: it was pleasantly cool in August.
Ecuador is a lovely country. And I will go back. Next time I might try Cuyavena National Park, where it seems Amazonian Manatees are a possibility (Gabriel saw one here), and head deeper into the Napo Valley to try Shiripuno Lodge, where this is a good chance for both Silvery Woolly Monkeys, White-bellied Spider Monkeys and perhaps some of the cats or even a Giant Armadillo. I see they are planning to offer a "mammal tracker" tour soon :-)
Stuff I Missed
2. Red Tailed Squirrel Sciurus granatensis
3. Bicoloured Arboreal Rice Rat Oecomys bicolor
4. Greater White-lined Bat Saccopteryx bilineata
5. Culpeo Pseudalopex culpaeus
6. Spectacled Bear (Andean Bear) Tremarctos ornatus
<Striped Hog-nosed Skunk Conepatus semistriatus - dead>
7. Graells' Black-mantled Tamarin Saguinus graellsi
8. Golden-mantled Tamarin Saguinus tripartitus
9. Pygmy Marmoset Callithrix pygmaea
10. Common Squirrel Monkey Saimiri sciureus
11. White-fronted Capuchin Cebus albifrons
12. Noisy (Spix's) Night Monkey Aotus vociferans
13. Red (Double-browed) Titi Callicebus discolor
14. Equatorial Saki Pithecia aequatorialis
15. Venezuelan Red Howler Monkey Alouatta seniculus
16. White-tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus
17. Mountain Tapir Tapirus pinchaque
Other People's trip reports
Ecuador, 2012: Dominique Brugiere, 5 weeks & some good mammals including Spectacled Bears, Mountain Tapir, Galapagos Fur Seal, Tayra, Woolly Monkeys and a Giant Armadillo.
Ecuador, 2012: Alan Dahl, 1 week & 17 species including Pygmy Marmosets, Golden-mantled Tamarins and Monk Sakis.
Ecuador, 2011: Richard Webb (Wildwings), 2 weeks & 23 species including Spectacled Bear, Long-tailed Weasel, Golden-mantled Tamarin and a probable Dwarf Brocket Deer.
South America, 2011 (Bolivia, Chile, Peru & Ecuador): Matthew and Maureen Hart, 2 months & 32 species including Southern River Otter, Northern Viscacha and Anderson's Four-eyed Opposum.
Ecuador, 2010: Richard Webb (Wildwings), 2 weeks & 21 species on this recce trip for the 2011 tour. Including Mountain Tapir and Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth.
Northern Ecudador, 2009: Steve Davis and Karen Becker, 2 weeks & 24 species including some great primates and a Tayra.
South America, 1996 (Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador). Steve Anyon-Smith, 6 weeks & a few mammals.