Selecting a private guide (for birding in Ecuador)

By Edna R.S. Alvarez
This item appears on page 26 of the January 2019 issue.

Edna R.S. Alvarez and guide Charlie Vogt birding in Refugio Paz de Las Aves, Ecuador.

I have had the wonderful life opportunity to go on many international bird-watching trips, beginning in the 1980s. These have consistently taken me to beautiful, backroad areas in South and Central America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Europe.

I am now 79. Until a few years ago, I traveled exclusively with commercial birding-tour companies that were headquartered in the US or UK. Recently, as my energy has waned, I've turned to two other options.

1. My first approach is to use these same tour operators but take trips that are designated as "easy" or "slow" or something similar. On these, you usually stay at one site for the tour's duration (a week to 10 days) and take day trips that are shorter in duration and at a lesser level of intensity than those on the normal-paced tour.

I have taken "easy" birding trips to Sicily, Morocco and Bosnia & Herzegovina, all with UK companies.

2. When I have felt that the commercial birding tours offered in a country were too demanding for me in terms of the lengths of the days' outings, the number of different overnight stops being made, the lengths of the drives between places, the roughness of the roads, the steepness and slipperiness of the trails and/or the heat and humidity, the other option has been to use a private guide.

I have used private guides in Poland, twice in China (Sichuan and Yunnan) and, most recently, in Ecuador.

With each of these trips, I did not know the guide in advance but, after searching on Google for, for example, "bird guide Poland," made contact with the potential guide via email.

Such is not for the weak-hearted. I know that a solo traveler runs a risk when choosing a guide, but I believe that if you use your intelligence, you can identify who will be a good private birding guide for you and who won't.

Inter-Andean hillsides of the Yanacocha Reserve in Ecuador. Photo by Edna R.S. Alvarez

My belief is that you can judge the personality, competency and character of someone through email exchanges and select someone who will work out well. It has worked wonderfully for me for all three guides.

In no particular order, here's what I look for in making this determination:

• How does he (or she; on two of the trips, my guide was a woman) respond to my endless detailed inquiries about itinerary, accommodations, pricing, weather, clothes, etc.? Does he seem knowledgeable, patient and willing to be flexible?

• How does he respond when I explain that I do not want a trip that goes from pre-dawn to post-dusk daily or that I don't want steep and slippery trails or that I'm old and slow? Does he seem like a young buck who will get irritated by being slowed down day after day?

• How does he deal with the issue of price and payment? Is he comfortable discussing this and is he flexible or does he seem too aggressive?

Let me use my Ecuador trip as an example. I had wanted to visit Ecuador for a number of years. It's one of the "birdiest" countries in the world.

As I read descriptions of group tours, they seemed too physically demanding for me, so I decided to curate my own trip.

Millipede by the river at the Rio Palenque Science Center, Ecuador.

I read about different birding tours and areas and decided to focus on northwestern Ecuador. I then identified ecolodges and contacted them about birding guides, the ground transportation between lodges and pricing. It became clear that this was too complicated, so I looked into getting a private guide.

Several of the local guides with whom I communicated were too vague or unbusinesslike or too uncommunicative for my comfort level. On TripAdvisor.com, however, among the reviews of one ecolodge, the name of one birding guide was mentioned with great enthusiasm. I Googled his name, Charlie Vogt, and up it came along with his birding company, Andean Birding (Salazar Gomez E14-82, Quito, Ecuador; phone 593 994184592 or, in the US, 401/369-8623, www.andeanbirding.com).

He had a tour to northwestern Ecuador that seemed perfect, and we started corresponding in November 2017. All the cylinders fired properly. Interestingly, the ecolodges he recommended were the same ones I had selected when I was planning to do the trip on my own.

The birding trip we came up with was scheduled for Jan. 12-19, 2018. The cost of $3,500 included all lodging, meals and guide services.

Rio Pilar restaurant in Patricia Pilar, a town on Route 25 in Ecuador.

The price was higher than what I had hoped to pay, but the trip was exactly what I wanted. When Charlie and I were doing the planning by email, I mentioned to him that if I paid as much as $3,500, I would not be able to tip him. He wrote right back saying that, being the owner as well as the guide, he didn't expect a tip.* (I did buy him a beer at dinner a number of times and some speciality hot chocolate and a sweet, but I didn't consider those tips.)

Charlie could have found lodging for me, but I arranged my own for two pre-tour days (for acclimation) and one night at the end of the tour. This was at Puembo Birding Garden (Calle 2 s/n y Luis Burbano, Sector Las Huertas, 94801 Puembo, Quito, Ecuador; phone +593 99 759 1313, puembobirdinggarden.com), located in a suburb of Quito and about 20 minutes from the airport. It was a small, quiet, idyllic spot with many bird feeders and a wonderful flowering garden. I got a special single rate of $65 per night, including breakfast.

Puembo owner Mercedes Rivade neira was the consummate host, with the goal of making her guests comfortable and happy. She also is a gourmet cook. Having lunch and dinner there as well, Puembo is where I had the best food during my trip.

Charlie offered to meet me, on his own time, the day before our tour to take me to the Quito Botanical Gardens for an introduction to the birds of Ecuador. (Botanical gardens are good spots for bird-watching.)

For the tour, itself, we spent a terrific seven days in rainforests, cloud forests, riparian areas and dry lowlands, on occasion joining other local tour companies. I saw over 230 species of birds, stayed at lovely ecolodges (one a very basic research station) and ate varied food. I saw interesting architecture and met several local families, whom I made happy with photos I took and later sent to them.

Being as I was on a solo trip with a private guide, I was able to start days later, if I chose, end days earlier, if I chose, and linger at spots that held greater appeal.

I avoided most steep and slippery trails, though I did need to go down one in order to see a particular bird before dawn (the Andean cock-of-the-rock), but with the kind help of a local guide from a company we had joined that morning, I made it safely. I avoided most climbs except for one bird tower of about 100-plus steps, which I took slowly. It was worth the effort.

Habitat at Rio Palenque Science Center — Ecuador.

I felt proud that I had implemented my desire to go birding in Ecuador in a way that made sense to me.

Feel free to contact me with any questions; email ednarsalvarez.t@gmail.com.

EDNA R.S. ALVAREZ
Los Angeles, CA

*ITN contacted the guide Mr. Vogt and asked if he would accept gratuities and, if so, what amount would be in line. He replied, "While I don't expect a tip, I will gladly accept one," proffering "$20 to $40 per day is typical."