Search
Close this search box.

Tiputini Biodiversity Station: An Alternative to Amazon Lodges in Ecuador for Serious Nature and Wildlife Travelers

Nature and wildlife enthusiasts (and especially birders) have been drawn to Ecuador for decades.

From the cloud forests of the Andean highlands to the tropical wet forests of the Amazon and the Chocó, the coastal lowlands, and, of course, the Galapagos islands, Ecuador is home to some 23,056 taxonomic species–6.1 percent of total global species–including one-sixth of the world’s bird species (1600). 

What’s more, Ecuador is also regionally unique with respect to its environmental history. Its exceptionally high biodiversity has long attracted attention and funding from international conservation and environmental organizations, including Conservation International, the WWF and the United States Agency for International Development, and international universities.

Homegrown conservation, including indigenous-led conservation, has also helped to protect a lot of land in Ecuador. There are over 200 environmental groups in the country, and Ecuador’s 2008 constitution grants Ecuadorian citizens constitutional rights to nature.

Most importantly for nature and wildlife travellers, thanks to excellent roads connecting the country’s coast, highlands, and the Amazonian and Chocoan ecoregions, many of Ecuador’s wild areas are very accessible.

Why Ecuador’s Amazon is so unique

The Ecuadorian Amazon is dominated by an ecoregion known as the Napo Moist Forests– a 251,750 km² area containing some of the richest species diversity anywhere in the Amazon basin, including the most herpetofauna species in the world. 

Source: https://ecoregions.appspot.com/

Heavy seasonal rainfall, diverse terrain and soil makeup, biogeographical barriers formed by various large rivers and their meanders, as well as large historical shifts in temperature and humidity combined to create a massive diversity of flora and fauna. 

Of particular significance are the upper Amazon-Napo lowlands, which constitute an important endemic bird area, where species like the Olive-Chested Flycatcher, Brown Nunlet, and Ecuadorian Cacique are found. 

This forest is centred around the Napo watershed in the westernmost part of Amazonia, bounded in the west by Andean foothills, in the south by the Marañon River in Peru, the Napo to the north and the Caguán in Colombia. 

Napo Moist Forests includes a broad mix of hilly terrain interspersed with swampy floodplains closer to the major river systems. 

Divided by the western Andes, this area receives the highest annual precipitation in all of Amazonia, making it extremely wet almost all of the time. Rainforest showers and multiple torrential downpours can be a daily occurrence here. 

It is an ecoregion I have spent considerable time in over the years, and the downpours are, indeed, frequent and intense. 

It can make photography, and especially drone photography, challenging, but the lushness is well worth it. 

Napo Moist Forest is also some of the most threatened in the Amazon basin, rated as “critical/endangered” by the World Wildlife Fund. 

There are a handful of large protected areas in the ecoregion, mostly in Ecuador, including iconic names like Cuyabeno, Limoncocha and Yasuni National Park. 

But the Ecuadorian Amazon has long been subject to heavy oil and gas exploration, and the entire Napo region is open for oil leasing.

Here’s an Ecopetrol pipeline on the Colombian side of the NMF ecoregion, very close to the Ecuadorian border. 

The result, of course, has been sustained deforestation, the displacement of indigenous people and the settlement of interior areas by peasant farmers. 

Jungle lodges in Ecuador 

Despite the threats, Ecuador’s wildlife and nature travel industry has done an admirable job, by and large, especially on the socioeconomic side, of sustainable wildlife tourism. 

It is very often an indigenous community running and benefiting from these places, and your local guide is almost certainly going to be an indigenous person from the local community. 

These jungle lodges provide local people with an economy that, to varying degrees, incentivizes conservation. 

At the end of the day, however, most of the Amazonian experiences in Ecuador, as they are throughout the Amazon, are for-profit tourist operations–usually on the outskirts of the biosphere reserve or national park that is the main attraction. 

These include places like La Selva Lodge, Sani Lodge, Sacha Lodge, Wildsumaco Lodge and others. 

If you are a serious nature and wildlife traveller, this has meaningful implications. 

The purpose of this article is to provide an alternative to the more common eco-lodge options that dominate nature and wildlife tourism in places like Ecuador and offer the more intrepid nature and wildlife purists something unique.

Enter Tiputini Biodiversity Station.

Tiputini Biodiversity Station

The Tipituni Biodiversity Station claims that it is home to “the widest variety of plants, animals and insects in South America – maybe even the world.” Whether that is 100 percent accurate or not, the station is an important regional base for botanists and zoologists conducting long-term research. 

Set in the most biodiverse region of South America, on the north bank of the Tiputini River, and inside the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve, Tiputini is a globally important site for species and ecological diversity.  

The station is a joint venture between Quito’s Universidad de San Francisco and Boston University. It was conceptualized as a place to receive BU field biology students, and today it belongs to Andes Petroleum Ecuador Ltd., a company controlled by two state-owned Chinese oil companies, part of a larger oil concession in the region.

It is often surprising how many of the best patches of protected rainforest around the world, from Ecuador to PNG, exist thanks to natural resource companies. 

To visit Tiputini is to visit another world. The station is a half-a-day jaunt from Puerto Francisco de Orellana (or 5-6 hours from Coca), involving a several-hour boat trip up the Yasuni River, an overland haul to the Tiputini River, followed by another 2-3 hours up the Tiputini into deep jungle. 

There is a very helpful Trip Advisor post from someone who has visited in the past that I would advise you to consult, as non-academic tourist information on Tiputini is somewhat hard to come by. 

A serious research station

The issue with a lot of Amazon rainforest lodges and Amazon jungle lodges is that they are geared more towards casual nature and wildlife tourists. 

Of course, these are places set close to spectacular nature, on the fringes of highly productive ecosystems like Yasuni, where the surrounding rainforest provides ample opportunity to spot wildlife.

But you are not really embedded in the majesty of Yasuni the same way you are when you stay at a place like Tiputini.

When you choose to stay at a research station over many of the Amazon jungle lodge options, you sacrifice amenities for raw nature. Jungle lodges that cater to the more casual nature tourists, located closer to civilization, tend to have more creature comforts, including constant electricity, more comfortable beds, rooms that might be described as “well-appointed” in Google reviews, cocktail menus, etc. 

Because of Tiputini’s isolation and the station’s scientific raison d’etre, accommodations for nature tourists, when compared to a place like Sacha Lodge or Napo Wildlife Center, are basic–simple cabins with private bathrooms and cold water showers.

Why choose a field station over somewhere like Napo Wildlife Center and Sacha Lodge?

In a word, the remoteness. 

Look at where Tiputini is located

Source: Google Maps

Now look at where the Napo Wildlife Center (the next best thing) is located (still inside the biosphere reserve, but much closer to civilization)

Source: Google Maps

Now look at where most of the major Amazon lodges Ecuador has in the Yasuni region are located

Source: Google Maps

They are all either to the west of Yasuni (between the town of Coca and the national park), or they are outside of the park on the northern bank of the Yasuni River, situated on land between the Cuyabeno and Yasuni protected areas. 

Look at Yarina Ecolodge

301 GBP per night, and you are pretty much staying in the town of Coca (Home to Haliburton Latin America!). 

Mmmmm, 300 GBP per night!

All of these places, to varying degrees, are on the outskirts of the biosphere reserve and national park, meaning they are not in the protected area (save for Napo Wildlife Center), and all cost more per night than Tiputini. 

Yes, of course, you will be taken into the national park, but you are staying in a simulacrum of the Amazon. 

Years of overhunting, human disturbance, and other environmental pressures in these areas abutting national parks almost always result in diminished biodiversity, species extirpation and, ultimately, a less spectacular nature and wildlife experience, I am sorry to say. 

The forest walks, the night tours, the canoe rides to look for birds, spotting caimans, scanning for primates, the fieldherping, etc., in these areas are going to be negatively affected by your proximity to so much civilization and so many other lodges–which also means many other people doing what you’re doing–perhaps even families with young children. 

Additionally, not only do you get a less impressive nature and wildlife experience at such places, but it is hard to become fully immersed, no matter where you are, when things begin to feel like an assembly line–it’s this boat’s turn to feed the dolphins, it’s this group’s turn to photograph the monkeys, etc. 

Not an authentic Amazon experience, in my book. 

Here’s Tiputini (red arrow) compared to the other eco lodge options.

Source: Google Maps

Here’s Liana lodge–another very popular eco lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon. You might as well walk to it from the airport. 

Source: Google Maps

Again, and to reiterate, none of this is to say that you wouldn’t have access to some wonderful wildlife opportunities while staying at these places. 

But these stays will pale in comparison to what you would get if you ventured into the much more isolated parts of the protected area. 

If you’re there to mix in a little wildlife-watching with some cocktails, a piranha photo op, a spa treatment and a “cultural” experience, then your average lodge is probably sufficient. 

If you have come to the Ecuadorian Amazon to see and photograph some serious wildlife while immersing yourself in the most pristine Napo Moist Forest in the region, then you will likely not be all that satisfied. 

What sets a place like Tiputini apart

Tiputini is, first a foremost, a research station with limited accommodations for more intrepid nature and wildlife travelers. 

Serious research is done here, just check out their Google Scholar profile.

Because of how remote and how well-preserved this area is, it has been a popular filming location for documentaries produced by the BBC, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, PBS Nature, National Geographic and others. 

Check out their production list

Features at Tiputini include a canopy observation tower, native guides, access to local people and local knowledge and, most importantly, a chance to explore and experience one of the most well-preserved sites in the Western Amazon, in the Amazon Basin’s most diverse ecoregion. 

Check out this Napo Moist Forest species list. 

A very thorough Trip Advisor comment that I reference and link to below mentions that his guide located Bush Dogs (Speothos venaticus) from the boat, which, if you know anything about this species, you know is an exceedingly rare thing to see in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

This is a good indicator of the health of the Yasuni ecosystem and not something you are likely to see while staying at the much more casual tourist-friendly ecolodges on the fringes of the park, closer to human settlement. 

This holds true for a wide range of species–from birds that only inhabit pristine primary rainforest (Yasuni is home to 500 species of birds) to reptiles and amphibians that are much more sensitive to human disturbance and water quality. 

The caveats when you leave the more casual eco lodge realm 

There are a few caveats worth considering when you visit somewhere like Tiputini. 

Logistical issues 

This is not an easy place to get to, which is why it is so special.

Tipuntini is incredibly remote. The same Trip Advisor post that I reference above does a very good job of breaking down the logistical difficulties. 

Trips are only made two days a week, which means you can have a 3-night stay or a 4-night stay (or 7, 10 etc.), so you will have to arrange your flights, hotels, and other transportation accordingly. 

Transportation costs

Tiputini itself is not prohibitively expensive when it comes to room and board. It is actually significantly more affordable than many of the other eco lodge options in the area that are located in far less impressive habitats.  

What does cost a lot is getting to a place like Tiputini. It’s around five-and-a-half hours from Coca to the station, involving two boats and and overland leg. 

While transportation costs in these remote locations always fluctuate, you can expect to spend hundreds of dollars (per boat, not per person) on the trek in and again on the way out. 

Spread that cost out over 4 people, and it’s not so bad. If you’re visiting a place like Tiputini on your own, however, it gets a lot more expensive. 

Organizing your stay

It can be difficult to arrange trips to places like Tiputini. 

Sometimes internet quality affects communications. Sometimes people’s schedules have them coming and going, so they are hard to get a hold of. 

Sometimes administrators at these places don’t speak English. Sometimes you need to bring large amounts of cash or do a more complicated bank transfer to pay for your stay.

The point is, organizing a trip to somewhere like Tiputini, as opposed to, say, La Selva Amazon Ecolodge, might involve more work than you are used to if you have never had these kinds of experiences. 

You’re a different kind of guest

A place like Tiputini exists to further ecological research and human understanding of the natural world. 

Yes, they accept non-academic tourists in a limited capacity, but you might be sharing the space while you are there with people doing serious work. 

This means they often have priority access to the station’s amenities and infrastructure, trails and field sites, etc. 

My experience at places like Tiputini has always been that you are surrounded by caring, patient, gracious, and impressive people. 

Health and safety requirements 

There would be a first aid kit at a place like Tiputini, but there is no healthcare facility close by. 

If you get bitten by a Fer de Lance, or need an emergency rabies shot or break your ankle, you’re a long way from medical treatment. 

Because of that, there are often additional requirements for anyone interested in visiting. 

From the Tiputini website: 

A yellow fever vaccine and special travel insurance covering remote location evacuation are required before Tiputini will receive you. 

A serious research station for serious nature and wildlife enthusiasts

The kind of people who want to and can visit a place like Tiputini tend to be self-selecting. 

You don’t accidentally choose to visit Tiputini over the other, more accessible lodge options in the area and, frankly, because of the way search engine optimization works and because travel bloggers cover and recover the same places over and over, places like Tiputini tend to remain hidden gems, even among people who would love to visit such a site.

If you are serious about nature travel and wildlife tourism, there is no better spot in the Ecuadorian Amazon than Tiputini.