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Ecuador - Guango and San Isidro Lodges

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

8/26/2023 - 9/4/2023

Carmen and I were looking forward to a return to Ecuador. Last November, we had visited the Galapagos (posts here and here); bookending it with a day-trip up Antisana and several days in the Mindo area, including a visit to Angel Paz's place. We had scratched the surface of what Ecuador had to offer, and we wanted to see more. We did not have a lot of time, and, as always, money was a concern. We would not be going everywhere we wanted. Specifically, we cut a return visit to Angel's place and a visit to one of the Amazon lodges. This was going to be a relatively short trip that covered a couple days near Quito and then a somewhat traditional route out to visit the Guango, San Isidro, and Wild Sumaco lodges on the eastern slope of the mountains.

I covered a lot of things about our trip in the previous post and do not plan to rehash them here. Like most trips, this trip was planned about a year in advance. Even with that amount of time, we ran into issues with availability at some lodges. This did lead to a bit of confusion during this segment of the trip. As was the theme for this trip, it worked out, and we laughed about it, in the end.

Guango -

Guango and San Isidro are both ran by the same family. They were former farms that were converted to lodges. Irena manages Guango and is super nice and great to talk to. The lodge is a bit rustic but nice and clean. The food here is top notch, and we both enjoyed our meals. Carmen's favorite meals where here. Being located high in the mountains, the area gets a bit of rain; so, the trails get a bit muddy. They do have rubber boots available, and it is best to grab a pair.

Birding, unfortunately, was a bit slow here. By the time we finished our time at Guango, we would have around 80 species for the trip. This includes the time in Zuroloma, Quito, and a trip up to Papallacta (more on that shortly). Which is a shame, because this lodge has so much to offer. The weather and time of year really hurt us here. There are two sets of hummingbird feeders on the grounds. There is a bug light that can be visited in the morning. There are a number of trails and a river to explore. There is also a banana feeder up on the mountain to visit. So, there is a lot to explore; things were just slow. No bugs were coming into the bug light. Long stretches of the trails were quiet. There was little to nothing moving along the river.... You get the idea. We got in about midday and had a guide lined up for the following day. We would head to San Isidro on the third day.

We actually drove past the place initially on our drive out. I say "we", but it is on me. Carmen pointed at the turnoff. I looked at it and decided that it did not look right and drove on; only to have to turn around and drive back to it. The place could use a little bigger sign. The turnoff ends immediately is a steep, narrow, gated drive. It looks like there should be another entrance. We pulled in and rang the buzzer and were let in. It was a bit of a dash through the rain to get to the lodge. We were quickly shown to our room, and I was immediately back out the door with the camera in tow. I had spotted some hummingbird feeders on the dash in and wanted to check them out. It took a few minutes (and a later correction) to get comfortable with my IDs. There were at least 8 species of hummingbirds showing up at the feeders. Buff-tailed and Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Tourmaline Sunagel, Collared Inca, White-bellied Woodstar, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Long-tailed Sylph, and Sword-billed Hummingbird were easily seen here. Flitting about in the trees were Masked Flowerpiercer, Mountain Wren, and what turned out to be a Gray-headed Bush Tanager.

Eager to see what else the place had to offer, we went back and (somewhat naively) asked about fruit feeders. So, here is the thing. Most places on the eastern side of the mountains do not have fruit feeders. For whatever reasons, the birds do not come to them. We were told there were some here and were pointed to a map. We snapped a quick picture of the map and hit the trail. The wrong one. We quickly backtracked, looked for and failed to find a trail, and then found one and headed down it a ways. I was, stupidly, wearing jeans but at least had a rain jacket. That would become important. The trail got muddy quickly, and we eventually stumbled out into a clearing. No feeder in sight. We were sure the feeders were just behind the lodge. Taking some actual time to look at the map and study it, it became apparent we had to cross the road, soooo.... Up a steep and muddy hill. To the right. Around a corner. There! A small shelter. Is that a banana feeder? Kinda. It was just a bunch of bananas atop a pole with a small horizontal branch. We sat down and waited. Almost immediate "the" bird showed up and perched just out of sight in a tree. Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan. The bird sat and called, but we could not see it. I eventually got up and cautiously walked to where I could see it. It continued to call in the lightly falling rain. I signaled Carmen to come look, but it got nervous at the sight of a second person and flew off.

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan

While calling, the bird will raise up high on its perch and then quickly drop its head into a deep bow. It is quite the thing to witness, and the tree made for a dramatic background. I could not feel more lucky than what I did at this time.

We hung out for a little while longer and had a small flock with Montane Woodcreeper and Cinnamon Flycatcher move through. A Great Thrush was the only other species we observed here.

We walked the rest of the mountain trail, down to the pipeline trail, and along portions of the river. We heard very little and saw even less. It periodically rained lightly on us. We were muddy and pretty wet at this point. Jeans were not a good idea. We got back, changed out of wet clothes and called it a day after a warm and inviting dinner.

A bit earlier that day, we were introduced to our guide. There is a bit of a backstory to this. Shortly before heading to Ecuador, I gave a presentation for the Blatchley Nature Study Club at the invitation of Becky Heck. Afterwards, Becky had inquired about our next travel plans, and we talked about our upcoming trip to Ecuador and the various lodges. Becky had visited the lodges back in 2019. While at San Isidro, she befriended a guide named Pablo. She said to tell him "hi" if we saw him. Longshot, right? Our guide's name was Pablo. I asked, and it took a minute for it to register, but he said he knew Becky. He even had a picture of the two of them together. Longshot, huh?

Pablo was our local guide and would be showing us around Guango and then accompanying us up to Papallacta in the afternoon. I was not a huge fan of the plan, but, again, it all worked out. Papallacta is the name of the mountain pass, nearby. There is a national park there, and a bit higher up (at 14,000 ft) is a set of radio towers. Everything I know about mountains (which is a little) says that you go up in the morning. The mountain makes its weather. Your best shot at clear weather is in the morning. The later in the day, the better the odds are that the mountain has churned up some bad weather. If this was literature, this would be called foreshadowing.

We started early the following morning and headed over to the bug light. I was pretty excited. I was remembering how much fun the bug light at Satchatamia was and was looking forward to a similar experience. The only issue is that there were no bugs. Weather, temperature, full moon, ???? Something just kept them from coming in. There were a few Turqoise Jay there. Some Russet-crowned Warblers, Mountain Wrens, and Pale-naped Brushfinch rounded out our time here. We bailed and hit the pipeline trail to do some birding. There was a huge flock of Andean Guan at the start of the trail. We birded our way down a bit and checked the river. We had a few birds calling, but nothing much responsive. A small mixed flock with Rufous-breasted Flycatcher and Lachrimose Mountain-Tanager was the highlight. Nothing on the river. We got back and the guans where still hanging out.

We had breakfast and then grabbed some rubber boots to hit the trails. We walked down to the river to start our search for Torrent Duck. No joy this day. We finally squeaked out a single Torrent Tyrannulet. That was it for the river. There was just not much moving. We headed across the road and walked the mountain trail in reverse of what we did the day before. As with most the morning, Pablo just kept commenting on how quiet it was. We finally found a couple of Smoky Bush-Tyrants. Not from from there, we saw the mountain-toucan fly. As we rounded a corner, Pablo spotted the bird sitting high in a tree; silently watching us. We scared up a Rufous Wren along the trail but not much more. We came back down onto the pipeline trail and had a couple of small flocks; including one of Green Jays.

We piled back into the lodge with very few birds to show for our efforts. We had lunch and then made plans to visit Papallacta.

As I mentioned, Papllacta was nearby. The area is all polylepsis paramo. In other words, it is prime for high altitude species like the ones I had seen during my visit to Antisana. So, I was looking forward to visiting. I had some small hopes of photographing Ecuadorian Hillstar. And very faint hopes that Carmen would get to see a Spectacled Bear. However, the main reason for visiting here is the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. What makes a bird choose to live in the conditions atop a mountain is beyond me. That is exactly where you find them, though. As we drove up higher and higher, the weather kept getting a bit uglier. High up on this mountain there are a set of radio towers. This is where you park. You are at 14,000 feet, and walking is a chore. That it is foggy, the wind is gusting at 20-30 mph, and that it is spitting rain only make it tougher. As a general rule, for every 1,000 feet you ascend, the temperature drops 3 degrees Fahrenheit. So, it is also very cold. Funnily, there are little seedsnipe footprints painted on the walkway up here. We slowly walked down the walkway a little ways and then cut up onto the hillside. I was not enjoying it, and one look at Carmen told me she was miserable. By this time, we are trudging around on uneven footing peering through the fog. I finally called it off. Pablo asked for two more minutes and walked about 50 yards from where we were standing. He turned and waved us over. He had found a pair. From there, it was a game of hide-and-seek. They kept disappearing over a small ridge. We would relocate them, and I would try to get some shots. We finally got within about 20 foot of them, and I slipped and fell in the mud. I was hauled back up and was still able to snap a few shots. That was going to have to do. It was just getting a bit more treacherous as we went. Thanks to Pablo's determination, we had found the bird.

We drove back down from the towers, and the weather immediately improved - as in it was sunny. Amazing what difference a 1,000 feet or so can make. We birded the road down and had distant Ecuadorian Hillstar. A nice male that was flying around the Chuquiraga bushes up high. My dream of photographing this bird would have to wait even longer. We did have Andean Tit-Spinetail and White-chinned Thistletail; both of which were lifers. A pair of Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant perched up briefly. Both cinclodes species and sierra-finch were plentiful, as well. We drove down the old Quito road a bit but did not have much. Things had gone quiet again. We finished with a couple of Red-crested Cotinga and called it a day.

I was up early the next morning to do some birding. Still no bugs at the bug light, though. I met up with Carmen and we grabbed some rubber boots to do a little hiking. We were walking the paths near the river, again. I was hoping to find some Torrent Ducks. The birding was a bit better and we got eye-level views of Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant. We were still not seeing anything along the river though. Just as I was turning to head back to the trail, I caught a silhouette of a duck along the bank. A lone, female Torrent Duck was eyeing us. As soon as she knew she had been seen, she ducked (no pun intended) into the water. From there, it was a constant game of trying to find a trail to get ahead of her, and her outsmarting us. We also happened across a White-capped Dipper, which is always an amazing bird to see. And a Spotted Sandpiper flew by while there, too. We eventually hit a compromise with the duck. She let us shoot from a distance, and that was going to have to be good enough.

We headed back for breakfast, and then I spent some time checking out the hummingbird feeders. We would leave after lunch for San Isidro.

San Isidro -

This is where we got lost. The irony is that we were maybe one minute from where we needed to be when we stopped to try and figure out where we were. Again, getting mile markers (or even major town names) would have made a lot more sense when planning our drives. In the end, we ended up all the way down where we needed to turn to head to Wild Sumaco before deciding to double-back. We drove back into Cosanga (the town we had stopped the first time) and figured out we were a minute away from our turn off. We spotted the small San Isidro sign this time and started the mile or so drive down the road to reach the lodge.

We were quickly shown to our room upon arrival. The room was amazing! It was room number 9, and you should ask for it when you make reservations. It sits atop another room and has a balcony off the back. Two whole walls of this room are glass. They look into the trees on one side, and the balcony side overlooks a valley. The room is immense with a huge bed and seating. It is simply one of the nicest lodges I have stayed in. We settled in, and I grabbed the camera to head down to the deck. Here, we met Gonzalo. Gonzalo helps manage San Isidro, and he was going to be our bird guide for the following morning. He questioned me about what my interests were, and we came up with a plan. I have to say, I did not ask enough questions. Because when he said it was an hour hike to go see Peruvian Antpitta, I was like, "I can do anything for an hour." More on this later. We settled in around the feeders for a little bit. At 6:30, we met Gonzalo, and he took us to look for Night Monkey before dinner. Dinner was incredible. I had my favorite meal of the trip here. I cannot even tell you what all was in it. Shrimp in some sort of coconut curry, and I do not like coconut. It was amazing. While eating, the famous "San Isidro" Owl showed up at the deck. It is basically a Black-banded Owl with a slightly different call. The owl would make nightly appearances, but I only brought the camera down once.

We headed back after dinner and quickly headed to bed. We had to be up early and out the door by 5:30 AM. This should have triggered some alarms, but it did not.

We were going to hike the Jumandy trail. This trail is located about 20 minutes from the lodge at a mirador that overlooks the valley. Here, again, my current physical condition failed me. We started hiking down in the dark. Stupidly, I did not bring a headlamp. This is something I should have thought of when we left. A walking stick would have gone a long way, too. So, I am blindly stumbling down an unknown trail, in the dark. Stumbling is the keyword here. It is a rocky trail, and they rocks are all wet/muddy. The rubber boots I have on did not have any tread on the bottom. So, I am floundering - a lot. I do not know the trail, and I am wondering how I am going to get back up. The walk down is exhausting me due to the poor footing. I was caught up in a terrible mind game with myself. Gonzalo, for his part, reassured me several times that we would be heading back up at a much slower pace. To his credit, we did. But I had already lost the mind game and suggested we start to bird our way back. In retrospect, I could have easily covered the rest of the distance down. We were a half hour away from where he wanted to look for the antpitta. It was just a bit of the fear of the unknown. This should be my wake up call.

The birding was good on the trail was good. Gonzalo's eyesight and knowledge of the various calls was amazing. The only real issue was the one that had plagued us for most of this trip. The birds were a bit scarce and not very responsive. One of the highlights was a calling White-throated Screech-Owl at the beginning of the trail. We even saw it fly out of the tree to perch in another. Gonzalo showed us a nesting Dusky Piha along the trail. When we came back, the bird flew in and sat on the nest for a while. We had a super-close encounter with a Barred Antthrush. The bird walked to within 15 or so feet of us and disappeared. We never got eyes on it. Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant eventually gave us some decent looks. Same with the Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher and Green-and-black Fruiteater. Other birds like the Sharpe's Wren and Grass-green Tanager remained mostly hidden. The Slate-crowned Antpitta just taunted us from somewhere nearby. I just was not quick enough to spot the Black-chested Fruiteater. The forest there is so incredibly thick. As remarkable as the birding was, Gonzalo said we had missed many common species but heard a lot more uncommon species. The walk out, as promised by Gonzalo, was much easier. We stopped for breakfast along the way and enjoyed some conversation.

One last thing about the trail here. It was the most remarkable experience of the trail. As were were standing on the trail, there was a sudden loud rush of air that moved over us. I could hear it coming down the hillside above us and then it swooped over us and moved off downhill. It was incredibly disorienting to me. It was like the sound of a loud wind without any actual wind. I kept waiting for it to hit me. Gonzalo said it was a flight of White-collared Swifts moving over us. It was crazy.

We eventually arrived back at the car. We had covered almost 5 miles on the trail. We birded the parking area a little bit and then called it a morning.

We had lunch at the lodge, and I took the opportunity to do some shooting. The bug light just below the deck had pulled in a good number of moths, and some birds were still stopping by to feed. The hummingbird feeders, of course, we still very active, too. I took way too many Cinnamon Flycatcher photos, but they are really cute birds. The Pale-edged Flycatcher allowed me to tick another Myiarchus (the coolest flycatchers) family species off my list!

Lunch here included a small surprise. A very small surprise. We were being offered a sample of the Amazon menu with lunch. There was some cheese with the course, but I did not catch what it was. It was good. I probably missed the explanation because I was focused on the leaf sitting on my plate. On top of it was the queen of a Leaf-cutter Ant colony. She had been roasted and placed on the leaf, which was meant to be eaten, as well. That I could eat it with the leaf made my next decision a bit easier. I folded it like a tiny taco and shoved it in my mouth. When in Rome.... Honestly, I could taste nothing but the leaf. It was not bad, but I would probably not do it again. There were consequences, later.

After lunch, we talked with Gonzalo and laid out a plan for the rest of the day. We were going to do a little grassland birding while we headed toward Rio Quijos. Another guide had shown me a pic of a Red-breasted Meadowlark, and I asked Gonzalo where would could find one. We took a country road to cut through some farmland area and had a good number of birds. Not only did we find the Red-breasted Meadowlark, but we had Yellow-browed Sparrow, Chestnut-breasted Seedeater, Tropical Kingbirds, Roadside Hawk, and the ever-cute Rufous-collared Sparrow. Unfortunately, most of the birds were not cooperative for photos. The one seedeater shot I got was a bird going through some heavy molting of his head feathers. He looks like he got a bad haircut.

Rio Quijos had a lot to offer, and I am glad we chose to visit there. We got to meet the owner, and she was originally from North Carolina. We also got to meet Gonzalo's sister. Carmen chatted with her while Gonzalo and I birded. There was quite a bit of birding to do here. The place has an active Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. The birds here are the orange subspecies; as opposed to the more reddish ones found elsewhere. The nearby river hosts Torrent Ducks. There is a nice garden area with hummingbird feeders and even some banana feeders.

We started by visiting the nearby lek, and there were several birds actively feeding in the trees; including a stunning immature male. The ducks along the river were not very cooperative, but we got good looks at both male and female Torrent Duck. Green Jays were a constant around the parking lot. For whatever reason, the feeders were almost dead when we got to them. Gonzalo got some fresh bananas out, and a small rain shower picked up the hummingbird activity. We had a couple new species of birds here. Green-backed Hillstar, Gorgeted Woodstar, and Tawny-bellied Hermit were new hummingbirds for the trip. Coming into the bananas were a couple new euphonias; including a lifer Bronze-green Euphonia. Hiding under the rows of verbena were a pair of immature White-throated Quail-Dove.

It was right after this than things went a little off the charts. As Gonzalo put it at one point, "we were on fire." As we walked out of the hummingbird garden, I spotted an Andean Motmot as it flew into a tree. Gonzalo spotted a second one on a nearby, open perch. We finished shooting those, and he asked if I wanted to see Wattled Guan. Of course! We were checking those out when a Crested Quetzal flew in and perched high up in a tree. The shots were not good, but how cares? That was my lifer. The, an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock came out into the sun and posed for some photos. On the way back out to the parking lot, the quail-dove were walking about, while a motmot was taking a dustbath on the ground. I had a hard time choosing which to shoot. I went for the closer bird.

It was getting late, and it was time to head back. As we were driving out, we got one last lifer for the day. I looked out the car window and spotted (no pun intended) a Spot-breasted Woodpecker flying across the road. I hopped out and scored a few pictures.

We made one last stop on the way back to photograph a Southern Lapwing and a small mixed flock of birds. Golden-olive Woodpecker and Montane Woodcreeper were flitting around in some trees near a farmhouse while Tropical Kingbirds kept an eye on us.

This wrapped up what turned out to be the most fun I had on this trip. Gonzalo was a great guide, and he was a lot of fun to talk to and joke around with; even if he does like mushrooms on his pizza. His enthusiasm and passion for birding is refreshing. I look forward to birding with him again, someday. Aside from being a great birder, he had one more surprise for us, but we would not see that until the next day.

The next morning, I was a bit wore out, still. I ambled down to the deck to check out the feeders. The bug light had worked some magic overnight, again, and the Mountain Wrens, Cinnamon Flycatchers, and Pale-edged Flycatchers had shown up. There were also a good number of Green Jays. The Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Russet-backed Oropendola did not see enough to interest them into sticking around.

The highlight of this morning was the antpitta. San Isidro has a location where White-bellied Antpitta is fed. The bird is reportedly reliable, but it was not seen the day before. So, it was with some trepidation that I headed down to where the bird is fed at 7:30. The area is fairly dark, and the early morning hour did not make it any brighter. I was not sure I was going to get any usable shots. The nice thing about antipittas is that they are posers. They move with quick bursts of speed and then stand perfectly still. No head movement. No jostling around. They stand stark still. This just leaves me. I am really not that steady, but the camera's image stabilization does a decent job of compensating for me. I can shoot down to 1/30th of a second and get a decent image. I mean, it is like one in every ten shots, but who is counting? I just need one. Or, well... three.

White-bellied Antpitta

After the antpitta, we ran into Gonzalo and he offered to show us his artwork. This was the surprise. While talking to him over breakfast the day before, he had mentioned that he did watercolor paintings of birds. In fact, he was working on a fieldguilde for the birds of Quito. We said we would love to see his work. He showed us a picture on his phone of a painting of a Crescent-faced Antpitta, and it was remarkable. Well, today, we got to see his work, and it was incredible. You can check him out on Instagram. I instantly fell in love with the studies he does. This consists of a painting of the bird along with several sketches in different poses, some notes, and a small color swatch. I think they look amazing. In fact, you can see the one I commissioned from him on his Instagram page, but you will have to read the next post to see it here. After some discussion, we said we would swing back by on our way to Quito from Wild Sumaco to pick it up. I had him do a study of one of the birds we saw on the Jumandy trail.

After that, the rest of the day broke down into some relaxed birding. I wandered the grounds a bit. Carmen went on a hike.

That afternoon, we headed to La Brisa to photograph hummingbirds. I will cover that in the next post. We returned to San Isidro and ran into Gonzalo on our way to dinner. He was quite surprised. His agenda showed that we were supposed to check-out that morning. It turns out that in the shifting of dates during our original planning, the planner showed we were set to check-out that morning, which was the original date I had asked for. A quick phone call showed that we had actually reserved the room for one additional night, which is why the room was still available for us. Like everything else, it all worked out. We had a big laugh about it and joked with Gonzalo about it the next morning.

You might be wondering where the additional pictures of Night Monkey and Black-banded Owl are. You might not have had a second thought about it. Both show fairly regularly every night. It is just a matter of being in the right place and having the means to photograph them. A camera and a fairly strong flashlight will do. I did not try again after the first night. The second night, we went to look for the monkeys on our own, but we failed to find them. I had only taken my flashlight, as I was hoping to focus on helping Carmen get a shot. The owl, showed, but I did not have my camera. The third night, I, again, had only brought my flashlight, but I had some small regrets. Gonzalo had pointed out the correct tree again, and we looked up and shined our light on some movement. There, in the wide open, two monkeys were perched on a fairly low branch. They were there a few seconds that felt like minutes, and then thunder rumbled across the valley and scooted them into cover. I do not know if I would have been quick enough to get a shot. Carmen, unfortunately, was not. But, that moment is etched into my brain, and it would have made a pretty good (not great but good) photo. Like the other night, the owl showed again, but it had plenty of attention without adding mine. I am happy with what I got.

The final morning was much like the day before. There was a large group of Americans there, and the deck was quite crowded. The caciques came in for some food this morning, though, and a few other birds (like Montane Woodcreeper) did, too. The highlight was the Geoffrey's Daggerbill. Concealed in a nearby bush, the small daggerbill was patiently hanging out while everyone came by for a quick look.