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A Wildlife Photo Safari in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park

Amazon–the word conjures up adventurous thoughts of jaguars at the water’s edge, anacondas slinking through the forest, colorful macaws against the sky, and monkeys jumping through the trees.  

Traveling to the Napo Wildlife Center in Ecuador’s Amazon basin is just that adventure. A trip downriver by motorboat on the Napo River, a major tributary of the legendary Amazon River, takes us to the entrance of Yasuni National Park. After a brief rest stop, we board dugout canoes, called
cayucos, for a two-hour paddle through the rainforest to the Napo Ecolodge. The adventure begins. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up


Light, Composition, Moment: The photographer’s mantra. Approaching the Napo ecolodge on the shores of Lake Añangucocha in the warm light at sundown. The position of the paddle defines the moment, as a photographer snaps a picture in the foreground.

This is the inaugural Photo Expedition to the Upper Amazon, a pre-voyage adventure before heading to the
National Geographic Endeavour II to continue the expedition in the Galápagos Islands. And being a Photo Expedition, our expedition leader Lucas Bustamante, informs us it’s time now to prepare, and get our cameras out.  

Cameras and binoculars at the ready, we set off into the mysterious blackwater tributary with overhanging tree limbs and blind corners. We hear only the sounds of the forest and the splash of the synchronous paddles through the water–it is surreal and meditative. 

Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Yasuni National Park is a conservation success story. The wildlife-rich expanse of primary rainforest is the largest protected area on mainland Ecuador, and second only to the Galápagos. Founded and managed by the indigenous Añangu Kichwa Community, the Napo Wildlife Center boasts access to the highest biodiversity in the Amazon Basin. The variety and abundance of wildlife is a photographer’s dream.  

The lodge itself is an artistic open-air masterpiece and a model for ecotourism. Every piece was transported to the site by dugout. No motors, only paddles. Construction included a six-story viewing platform complete with elevator. Staff and guides are all local and express a true passion for working to protect the unique resources of Yasuni National Park.

For any fitness level, climbing the six stories to the top of the canopy tower at sunrise is both a workout and an abrupt wake-up call. If you prefer, take the elevator to greet the sun with coffee in hand.  

The forest is waking up, mist rising from the trees at dawn. Haunting calls of howler monkeys echo in the distance, while parakeets and macaws squawk in the treetops. There were photos to be made in every direction. Zooming in on the forest emphasizes the morning mist in the trees, while using wide-angle shows the expansive lake with thatch-roof  bungalows in the foreground. 

Monkeys in the Trees

As advertised, it is a wildlife safari with birds overhead and monkeys around every bend. Kingfishers lead the way, as squirrel, capuchin, howler, and the golden-mantled tamarin monkeys leap from branch to branch overhead. Scarlet macaws fly above the canopy, a challenge to nail focus through the branches.


Scarlet macaws fly through the canopy against a rare Amazon blue-bird sky. This situation presented a challenge for nailing the focus. A single focus point is essential, along with tracking. 

The Napo guides and paddlers have sharp eyes for spotting hidden birds and animals in the trees. It’s frustrating not to see what everyone else is looking at, so they make sure everyone locates the sighting. So impressive to us mere mortals. 

The grand prize was a well-groomed two-toed sloth resting high in the canopy. No need for a fast shutter speed, these slow-moving vegetarians survive on leaves from their favorite trees, not venturing very far during the day.  

There’s no substitute for a long lens, sharp optics, and a high-resolution camera for capturing distant rainforest animals. Rather than going for the longest lens possible, make sharp images with a zoom you can handle, then crop in post-processing. Cropping is not illegal, and with today’s high-resolution cameras, aggressive crops yield great results. 


A well-groomed two-toed sloth (defined by the back feet) resting comfortably, as if hanging from a hammock. A long telephoto with image stabilization was essential to nail the shot.

Rainforest photography offers some of the most challenging conditions anywhere in the world. Animals are small, move constantly, are often hidden behind branches, and all this happens in dim light or against bright backgrounds. High ISO settings and image stabilization are key for making sharp images in the rainforest. It certainly is a learning experience for everyone, as digital cameras now make it possible to literally shoot in the dark.

Monkeys in the trees. You hear them first, leaves rustling, branches breaking. We stop to watch a troop of red howler monkeys climbing trees and leaping between branches. Then out of nowhere, a red howler leaps overhead with a baby clinging to her back.  

It helps your chances for success if you can recognize the pattern of movement, as they often follow nearly the same route, one by one leaping from the same branch. You can increase your chances by pre-focusing on the branch and waiting for the monkey to leap through the frame. 

Patiently we waited in the blind at the clay lick, one of the marquis locations within Yasuni National Park. A well-constructed trail leads to a covered blind with an unobstructed view of the clay lick. For three hours we could hear the parakeets high in the canopy. First a few at a time, then in waves, they arrive. Cobalt-winged parakeets, no bird is more beautiful in flight. 

 Then, all out once they took off in a blizzard of birds. 


In waves, cobalt-winged parakeets arrive at the clay lick. Certain species of birds, typically parakeets and macaws, need to eat clay to neutralize the toxins in the things they eat. 

We got the call just after lunch–the otters are out and are fishing along the shore. We quickly launch the cayucos and follow. It’s a waiting game, with many brief, curious, close encounters. Then the feast begins.  

One by one they surface with fish in their most impressive teeth. For a good 30 minutes they consumed fish alongside our boats. Yes, we could hear bones crunching.  

Unlike the cute fuzzy sea otters up north, it’s hard to make the giant otters of the Amazon look cute. I tried. One of the marquis species, there are five giant otters that are resident in the lake and live near the Napo Ecolodge. We were lucky they put on a show for us today. 

If you had treehouse as a kid, or like to climb trees, this excursion is for you. A forest trail leads to a metal staircase that rises 125 feet up to the top of a towering ceba or kapok tree. One step at a time takes you up the tree and above the canopy, looking out above the treetops.  

Toucans call in the distance. Parakeets and macaws squawk as they seek out their nightly roost. Legend has it that a jaguar once fell asleep at the bottom of the steps as a group descended the tower. Always follow your guides.


Imagine looking over the trees tops while listening to the sounds of the forest below. It’s an otherworldly experience.

It’s the quiet moments that magic happens, reminding us how special and healing nature is. Paddling through a narrow canal a blue morpho butterfly started following our cayuco. While typically a short-lived encounter, this butterfly did not dart off or disappear into darkness. Instead, in slow motion, the butterfly matched our speed then landed on a green leaf ahead of us.


A blue morpho butterfly sits motionless on a leaf. 

We drifted in expecting the butterfly to quickly fly off. It didn’t. The butterfly sat motionless, wings spread, as if waiting. Indeed a suitor arrived and interacted, a butterfly moment for sure. A rare opportunity to observe and photograph a blue morpho in the wild. 

Darkness descends quickly at the equator. On the forest floor, venturing out at night challenges the comfort zone for many. We follow our guides with headlamps and torches engaged. Sharp eyes find stick bugs and frogs clinging to branches and leaves. It may be dark but the forest is alive.  


A group portrait of rainforest explorers braving the darkness.

We return to our bungalows at the edge of the lake and fall asleep to the sounds of the forest. Special moments and, hopefully, beautiful images to keep the memories alive for a lifetime. 

Explore Yasuni National Park on a Photo Expedition