The Most Beautiful National Parks in Ecuador

With 11 beautiful national parks countrywide, Ecuador has so much to offer
With 11 beautiful national parks countrywide, Ecuador has so much to offer | © Sébastien Lecocq / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Angela Drake
Founder, Not Your Average American15 October 2021

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.

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 (nearly a million acres) 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 (superb for hiking), 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, while the third entry point sits near the community of Santa Rosa de Quijos.

Parque Nacional Cayambe Coca | © AmaLaVida TV/WikiCommons

Cotopaxi National Park

Park, Ruins
Map View
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 (5,897m), and the views from the top are spectacular – but be sure to acclimatise 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

Memorial, Park
Map View
Parque Nacional Cajas | © Delphine Ménard / WikiCommons
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 changes very quickly. 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. Hiking and fishing opportunities are aplenty, and if you’re willing to brave the cold, it’s a beautiful place to camp out in the wild.

Yasuni National Park

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Yasuni National Park
Yasuni National Park | © Dan / Flickr
Yasuni National Park covers 2.4 million acres of Ecuador’s Amazon region, and is accessible only by plane or boat, with Coca the nearest major city. It lies in the far east of Ecuador along the border with Peru. 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

Forest, Museum, Park, Ruins
Map View
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.

Machalilla National Park, 224km (139 miles) Noroccidente de Guayaquil., Julcuy, Ecuador, +593 99 984 8585

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.

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Volcán El Altar and the Laguna Amarilla | ©Juan Garcia | Flickr

Podocarpus National Park

Park
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Podocarpus Tree
Podocarpus Tree | © Meraj Chhaya / Flickr
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.

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.

The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

These recommendations were updated on October 15, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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