The Galapagos Islands are only one of many beautiful national parks in Ecuador. Some parks are so large that they have multiple entrances and require four-wheel drive vehicles and plenty of time to travel. Others have few or no roads at all, and tourists will only experience a tiny fraction of the whole. But most have at least a couple of accessible hiking trails, visitors centers, and viewpoints from which to admire the distinct beauty of this small but incredibly diverse country. In fact, it is possible to explore each of the three main geographic regions—the Sierra, the Coast, and the Amazon Basin—just from national park visits.
Cayambe Coca National Park
Cayambe Coca National Park is unique because it protects lands in two very different regions of Ecuador—the cold, rocky highlands and the hot, humid Amazon basin as well as the miles of cloud forest in between. The park is so large that it has three separate entrances, and it is impossible to visit all 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. The second entrance is near the spa town of Papallacta and leads to pocket lakes full of trout and forests full of tanagers. The third entry point sits near the community of Santa Rosa de Quijos and is a great location to see the tallest waterfall in Ecuador, La Cascada San Rafael.
Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi National Park lies an hour outside of Quito, making it a perfect day trip. Alternatively, several lodges offer traditional accommodations in working haciendas for your overnight stay. A day in Cotopaxi National Park includes a chance to photograph wild horses and the hard-to-see Ecuadorian hillstar hummingbird; to test your hiking skills on the trail to the Jose Ribas Refuge at 14,764 feet (4,500 meters); to ride a mountain bike down the slopes of volcanic scree; or to visit ancient Incan ruins in the backcountry. The best time of year for clear views of the Cotopaxi Volcano is during the dry, windy season, which can last from mid-July until early October.
Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador, +593 2-398-7600
Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park lies an hour outside of Cuenca and has become an escape for residents of the city. These highlands are dotted with pocket lakes crowned by craggy peaks. The weather in this park can be extreme. A popular destination is the Hill of the Three Crosses, which is 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. Most visitors to Cajas National Park hike the trails, fish the lakes, and a few brave the cold to camp.
Cajas National Park, Azuay, Ecuador, +52 1 222 660 7111
Yasuni National Park
Yasuni National Park is reachable only by plane and boat. It lies in the extreme east of Ecuador along the border with Peru. This jungle is mainly undisturbed, though the Ecuadorian government recently allowed for oil exploration within its boundaries. In order to visit, travelers must make reservations with one of a handful of lodges in the area. Most lodges offer trips to observe wildlife, especially birds, and to interact with local tribes. Jungle tours include lots of river travel and some hiking in primary forests. Remember that local tribes are the only ones who have explored the vast majority of this territory.
Machalilla National Park
Machalilla National Park lies on the coast of Ecuador, near the town of Puerto Lopez, and features three main attractions. The first is the beautiful beach of Los Frailes, a popular destination for locals, especially on weekends and holidays. The second is an island called Isla de la Plata, often called the Poor Man’s Galapagos as it is possible to see many species in common with the Archipelago, such as blue-footed boobies. The third, the small community of Agua Blanca, is lesser known but well worth the visit. The native people who live here offer tours to see the ancient ruins, the small archeology museum, and to hike the trail which passes local homes tucked into native, dry forest, which is an endangered habitat and home to several species of endemic birds. The highlight of Agua Blanca is a lagoon of cool, sulfury water where visitors can plaster themselves with mud before diving in.
Sangay National Park
Sangay National Park runs north to south in central Ecuador with one side facing the high Sierra and the other the Amazon Basin. The most popular entrance is near the spa town of Baños de Agua Santa, with access to hiking trails near the active Tungurahua Volcano. Lesser known parts of the park are popular with Ecuadorians but receive only light tourism from international visitors; these include trips to see the El Altar Crater and nearby lakes or to visit native communities near the town of Macas. The peak for which the park is named is extremely difficult to get to and even harder to climb.
Podocarpus National Park
Podocarpus National Park lies in the extreme south of the country. It is home to the only native species of conifers in Ecuador, 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 to allow a brief introduction to the native flora and fauna. This part of the park is high altitude Sierra. The second entrance is near the town of Zamora, much further east, with a warmer climate and completely different plant and animal life.
Podocarpus National Park, Ecuador, +593 99 980 7757
The Galapagos Islands
Many visitors to Ecuador forget that the Galapagos Islands are a national park. In fact, this area is the only national park in Ecuador that collects an entrance fee. This world-famous destination requires days to explore, and most sightseers only tour a small part of the islands on a single trip. The vast majority of travelers take cruises to see out of the way and isolated islands, but island-hopping the populated islands with day trips to a few isolated locations is increasingly popular with the budget-conscious adventurer. While it is possible to arrive in the Galapagos Islands without a plan, tourists with bucket lists should have an idea of which islands they would like to visit before their arrival.