Natural Beauty – National Parks in Ecuador

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In one of our previous blog posts I talked about the destruction of Ecuador’s landscape (read about it here). Meanwhile we’ve driven farther north to the Central Highlands while taking loops through the southern Oriente. Unfortunately, the scenery hasn’t changed much; most hours were spent driving through areas where forest has been destroyed for farming and/or cattle ranching.

Reserves and National Parks in Ecuador

However, we also found beauty, and that’s what I’d like to show here. I thank the Ecuadorian governments, as well as individuals who had the sense to create national parks and reserves. I hope more will follow, as destruction continues to go on with, among other things, the concessions for more oil digging and mining (among which an open-pit copper mine in the heart of the Shuar community which will become one of the largest in the world). We have become convinced that without these protected areas, all natural landscapes will be destroyed – a dispiriting thought.

So here we go.

1. Podocarpus National Park

First on the list was Podocarpus National Park, an extensive park in south Ecuador with altitudes ranging from 900 meters to over 3600 meters. It has a diversity of flora and fauna, and I’m told it has a high degree of endemism. Scientists have counted up to 90 different tree species in just one single hectare. In fact, the park is named after Ecuador’s only native conifer: the Podocarpus.

Our thoughts about destruction having no limits appear to be true here. I read that this particular park is threatened a lot by local colonists who don’t respect legal boundaries and who continue illegal logging.

We visited the lowland sector of the park, driving a couple of kilometers south of Zamora. We parked the Land Cruiser in the parking lot, where could camp there as well, and hiked uphill for some 20 minutes. We registered at the ranger station and could choose among a dozen or so trails. For once we were lucky with the weather and spent an afternoon enjoying the scenery.

2. Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park lies west of Cuenca and is particularly known for the páramo landscape that characterizes Ecuador’s still virgin highlands. The páramo exists in harsh climates and the high-altitude grasses often consist of wet, peaty soils, harboring cushion plants and small herbaceous plants. In this park we came across thickets of small trees called the polylepis species, which together with the Himalayan pines, are the highest-growing trees in the world.

We had to register at the ranger station. The ranger indicated a couple of trails on the sole map in the office. This is one of Ecuador’s most popular parks yet there were no maps or brochures, and the trails were badly – if at all – marked. Oh well, it gave the chance for some adventure. It was a fantastic four-hour hike that included treacherous stream crossings as we indeed lost the trail. Fortunately, we had brought our GPS. Coen was on his knees quite a bit to photograph the most delicate plants that grow close to the ground.

3. Sangay National Park

This is one of the most inaccessible parks which for the conservation of natural landscapes and wildlife is best, of course. We passed it along the south side and after we had passed the last village we crossed an incredible wild-looking landscape with jagged mountains and a lake. It reminded us of Patagonia.

There were no clear trails but since there was nobody on the brand-new asphalted road (4 cars in an hour) I just strolled the asphalt for an hour or two before sunset, taking in the mind-blowing views. We camped just beyond Atillo, along the side of the road with a view of the lake (check our Accommodation & Camping in Ecuador for exact GPS Waypoints).

4. Private initiative: Pailón Waterfalls

Near Puyo a local recommended us to stop at the Pailón Waterfalls, just before Baños. This is a private initiative well worth a mention. This waterfall is the most popular in Ecuador. Until twenty years ago, the forested hills were cut down for a citrus plantation. An Ecuadorian bought the terrain, let the forest return, constructed beautiful trails and made the waterfall accessible for visitors.

We met the owner at the entrance of the waterfall and had an inspiring discussion about environmental issues. His passion to conserve this area and not just to make a big buck is easily shown in the fact that this is one of the few places in Ecuador that charges no foreigner fee.

5. Chimborazo Volcano

Northwest of Riobamba lies the now extinct Chimborazo Volcano, in the middle of a reserve. Ecuador asked for vicuñas from Chile, Bolivia and Peru – some 200, I believe – to bring back this species to this area. The project has been successful and the vicuñas are multiplying.

Contrary to the other Andes countries, these vicuñas have nothing to fear from man, which immediately shows in their behavior: never have we been able to get so close to them as here. They are among the most elegant creatures in the world.

6. Quilotoa Crater Lake

Okay, the exception to the rule. No park, no particular protection of landscape – the views from the crater edge outward are of cultivated areas. I do mention it here because trailing around the lake is one of the best hikes we did in Ecuador.

It’s quite a strenuous walk with the trails going at a much steeper slant than we had expected but views of the lake, each time looking differently because of how the sun and clouds played with the color of the water surface,  gave all the energy we needed to move on.

By the way, we didn’t camp in the parking lot of the village Quilotoa, but right outside. You’ll find the GPS Waypoint in our Camping & Accommodation in Ecuador post.

7. Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

The last park we visited before hitting Quito. A favorite in terms of camping. It was just beautiful, a bit away from the parking lot, in the fields with shade from trees. We had the company of a deer and a fox, which made our days. The volcano is Ecuador’s second-highest peak (5897 meters), and it’s still an active volcano.

We could have hiked but in fact sort of were glued to our chairs with a book. It was utterly peaceful to sit here, take in the silence and the view of the snow-capped volcano and our new four-legged friends. And so we did for two or three days.

And so we have to conclude: yes, Ecuador is beautiful.

For more on Ecuador, check out these articles:

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Thank you for your support — Karin-Marijke & Coen

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