Ecuador is home to 11 national parks encompassing a diverse array of landscapes – from glacier-capped volcanoes to thick tropical rainforest and vast stretches of pristine golden sand beaches. Whether you want to hike, swim, cycle or spot wildlife, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Ecuador’s national parks. Here’s our guide to the best ones to visit.
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Contemplating a trip to Ecuador? On Culture Trip’s exclusive eight-day Ecuador adventure, you can visit Quito, Cotopaxi National Park and the Amazon rainforest – among several other fantastic destinations – in the company of our Local Insider and a small group of culturally curious travellers.
Cayambe Coca National Park
Cayambe Coca National Park is full of contrasts, comprised of cold, rocky highlands and the hot, humid Amazon basin as well as miles of cloud forest in between. There are three separate entrance points to the park – and it’s so vast at nearly 1 million acres (404,685ha) that it would be impossible to explore all of it in a single day. The first entrance is near the town of Cayambe and provides access to the snow-covered volcano of the same name – which is superb for hiking – while the second entrance is near the spa town of Papallacta, known for its geothermal hot springs and leads to lakes full of trout and forests full of tanagers. And the third entry point sits near the community of Santa Rosa de Quijos.
Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi National Park lies just a two-hour drive from Quito, making it a perfect day trip. Alternatively, several lodges offer traditional accommodation in working haciendas if you’re considering an overnight stay. Hike around Limpiopungo Lake, photograph wild horses, ride a mountain bike down the slopes of volcanic scree, or visit ancient Incan ruins at Pucará Del Salitre. Up for a challenge? It’s possible to hike to the summit of the Cotopaxi volcano at 5,897m (19,347ft) and the views from the top are spectacular – but be sure to acclimatize to the high altitude first and go with an experienced guide. The best time of year for clear views is during the dry, windy season, which can last from mid-July until early October.
Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park lies less than an hour outside of Cuenca and is a popular escape for residents of the city. These highlands are dotted with lakes crowned by craggy peaks. Be aware: the weather in this park can be extreme and can change very quickly. A popular destination is the Hill of the Three Crosses – a memorial to travelers on the Camino del Garcia Moreno who died when attempting to camp in Cajas on their way down to the coast. This same spot also marks the continental divide for Ecuador, with rivers on one side feeding the great Amazon River and the other heading directly to the Pacific Ocean. Hiking and fishing opportunities are aplenty here – and if you’re willing to brave the cold, it’s a beautiful place to camp out in the wild.
Yasuni National Park
Yasuni National Park covers 2.4 million acres (9,712,455ha) of Ecuador’s Amazon region and is accessible only by plane or boat, with Coca being the nearest major city. It lies in the far east of Ecuador along the border with Peru – and the jungle here is home to over 1,400 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. In order to visit, it’s important to make a reservation with one of a handful of lodges in the area. Most lodges offer trips to observe the park’s wildlife, which usually takes the form of some river travel and some hiking in through the rainforest.
Machalilla National Park
Machalilla National Park lies on the Pacific coast of Ecuador – near the town of Puerto Lopez – and features three main attractions. First, the beach of Los Frailes, a popular destination for locals, especially on weekends and holidays, secondly, an island called Isla de la Plata – where it’s possible to see many species also found in the Galápagos Islands, such as Blue-Footed Boobies – and third, the small indigenous community of Agua Blanca. The people who live here offer tours to see the ancient ruins, the small archeology museum and to hike the trail which passes local homes in the forest. The highlight of Agua Blanca is a lagoon of cool, sulfur-rich water where you can plaster yourself with mud before diving in – an activity that is said to be richly beneficial for your skin.
Sangay National Park
Sangay National Park runs through central Ecuador with one side facing the high Andes mountains and the other the Amazon basin, ranging from 900m-5,319m (2,952ft-17,450ft) altitude. Its diverse ecosystems include volcanoes, lakes, wetlands, rainforest and páramo – a high altitude moorland, typical of South America – and are home to an abundance of species including Mountain Tapirs and Spectacled Bears. The most popular entrance is near the spa town of Baños de Agua Santa, with access to plenty of hiking trails near the active Tungurahua Volcano.
Podocarpus National Park
Podocarpus National Park – in the far south of Ecuador – is home to the only native species of conifers in the country, all part of the Podocarpus family. The trees – once heavily harvested – are difficult to see without hiring a guide or renting a car that can handle backcountry roads. There are two main locations from which to access the park. The first is near the city of Loja, which includes a few short hiking trails allowing for a brief introduction to the native flora and fauna. The second entrance is near the town of Zamora – much further east – with a warmer climate and completely different plant and animal life.
The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago consisting of 13 main islands around 620mi (997km) off the coast of mainland Ecuador, famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The islands are home to an abundance of endemic species – including Galápagos Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Penguins and Marine Iguanas – and landscapes varying from lava fields to mangroves and cactus forests. You can fly to the Galápagos from either Quito or Guayaquil – and you’ll want to spend several days exploring to make the most of what the islands have to offer. For the best choice of accommodation and restaurants, either Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal are your best bet.
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