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National parks in Ecuador
Two of Ecuador's National Parks were declared "World Heritage Natural Sites" by the UNESCO. These are the Galapagos National Park (an Archipelago located 600 miles West off the Ecuadorian Coast) and the Sangay National Park, located in the Amazonian region.
Sangay National Park
It is located between three Provinces: Tungurahua, Chimborazo and Morona Santiago. Extension: 671,654 acres. Take the Pan-American Highway to Riobamba. When reaching Alao you can ask for tourist information at the park's administration center, such as the correct paths for mountain climbing, horse rental, etc. There are three main mountains in this park: Sangay (17,154 ft. high), Altar (17,446 ft. high), and Tungurahua (16,452 ft. high). These mountains offer excellent opportunities to hike, trek, and climb. However, the Sangay Volcano is off limits because it is in permanent eruption, but you can get close enough to take spectacular photographs. Native communities live in this park: Quichua- Canelos in the north and the Shuar in the south.
Yasuni National Park
It is located in the Napo Province. Extension: 2 426.281 acres. This is an important biogeographical area where endemic species of plants and animals have been preserved since the Pleistocene Period (20,000 BC). According to the "UNESCO", more than 700 species of vegetation have been identified, there are 500 bird species and 200 different animals. The exuberant flora and fauna of the jungle can be observed in this area. The Napo River is the main access to the park. Recently, the Huaorani Indians that live here, together with environmentalists, have raised international awareness regarding the controversial petroleum exploration of this area.
Llanganates National Park
This park is home to one of the most exotic and inaccessible regions in Ecuador. It includes rough moorlands, deep valleys, rivers, lagoons, and abundant waterfalls. Most of the park is covered by dense vegetation, and the weather is mostly cold and rainy. Cerro Hermoso (15.618 feet) is the highest mountain in the area. The most common animal species found are moorland rabbits, sacha (jungle) rabbit, and weasels. Another common species that are very difficult to spot are the spectacle bear, white-tailed deer, moorland deer, moorland fox, puma, deer, tapir, cock of-the-rock, and the condor. Throughout history, explorers and adventurers have been attracted to this area in search of the elusive gold of Atahualpa, which according to the legend is hidden in the Llanganates. Nobody has found the gold, however, all visitors bear witness to the region's mysteries, and keep the legend alive.
Sumaco - Napo - Galeras National Park
With a surface of 507.181 acres, this National Park holds a wide diversity of ecosystems, ranging from high mountains to cloud and lowland forests. It includes altitudes from 1,968 to 12,792 feet. The Napo-Galeras mountain range has various rivers and springs running through deep valleys. The Sumaco volcano (12.792 feet) stands isolated from the rest of the Andes and is surrounded by lowland forest. This National Park is rich in animal species, these include the spectacle bear, bats, marsupials, armadillos, eagles, guams, cock of the rock, and many species of reptiles and amphibians. The most common plants found are cedar, canelo, and rubber trees. Native Indian Quichua communities and the archaeological sites of the Cosanga culture are found close to this National Park.
The Cuyabeno Reserve is located in the Napo and Sucumbíos Provinces of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The protected area, founded in 1979, contains 603,380 hectares of tropical rainforest stretching north towards the Colombian border and east to the Peruvian border. A variety of canoe and hiking tours are offered in the Reserve providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Frequently seen fauna include several species of monkey, birds, caimans, piranhas, turtles, and conga ants. Freshwater dolphins, giant armadillos, anacondas, and manatees are also occasionally spotted. The main watershed of the Reserve consists of the Aguarico and the San Miguel Rivers, and the Cuyabeno River and its tributaries. Halfway down the Cuyabeno there is a system of 14 spectacular lagoons created by lowland rainforest floods, typical of the wet season.
Since its creation, the Reserve's boundaries have changed due to oil exploitation of the area that began shortly after the protected area was designated. Petroleum extraction and the activities derived from the oil industry such as road building, colonization, and agriculture have negatively impacted the environment. Responsible tourism, the involvement of local populations, and various NGO's have helped preservation efforts in the Reserve, but the battle continues to protect this incredible habitat.
A variety of indigenous groups, including the Cofan, the Siona, and the Secoya have traditionally inhabited the area. Recently, the Lowland Quichuas have immigrated to the area. Some of these indigenous communities are involved in "Indigenous Community Controlled Ecotourism," and offer jungle tours that support responsible tourism.
The Cuyabeno Reserve is best accessed via Lago Agrio, an oil town approximately seven hours east of Quito by bus or 30 minutes by plane. Once there, you can join a jungle tour, which generally passes through Puerto Chiritza, down the Aguarico River and into the Reserve as far as the Peruvian border.
Limoncocha Biological Reserve
The Limoncocha Reserve, located on the north shore of the Napo River between the Coca and Aguarico rivers, is on mostly level ground characterized by the presence of wetlands and swamps. The Limoncocha Reserve is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world, but its flora and fauna are continually threatened by increasing oil activity. Scientific studies have identified over 450 bird species in the area and unique trees such as the giant ceibo, cedars, laurel, the balsa, and the Pambil are common. The Reserve also contains the Laguna Limoncocha, which is famous for being an excellent bird watching site. Lowland Quichua families live nearby the lagoon and grow mainly subsistence products along with some cash crops. Petroleum activities during the 1980s and 1990s have negatively impacted this region and its people. Therefore, the community is open to ecotourism and other alternative uses of their fragile environment.
The best way to access the Reserve from Quito is by taking a plane to Coca or Lago Agrio. Buses travel to these two destinations as well as directly to the town of Limoncocha. There is also fluvial transportation from Coca to two small ports (Puerto de Palos and Puerto Pompeya).
Podocarpus National Park
It is located in both the Provinces of Loja and Zamora Chinchipe, and its extension is 351.436 acres. This park has two ecological zones, jungle and highland, both with great diversity of plant and bird life. Here you will find exotic orchids, bears, pumas, humming birds, toucans, reptiles and woodpeckers. It is the ideal place for botanical, ecological and zoological investigations. If you enjoy long walks, listening to the sounds of birds, running rivers, waterfalls and camping, then this is a place you shouldn't miss.
Cotopaxi National Park
The Cotopaxi National Park, named after the highest active snow capped volcano in the world (19.347 ft above sea level), is located 60km of Quito. It is an hour drive to this national site consisting of 83,829 acres. The park's altitudes range from 11.152 ft to 19.347 ft above sea level. The Cotopaxi Volcano is one of the most important monuments of this park. It is the highest active volcano in the world. Adventurous professional mountain climbers are attracted to this site along with many tourists who take pride in reach the top. The volcano offers climbing experiences for all skill levels.
The immense plain that surrounds the volcano offers a wonderful landscape with extraordinary geological conditions and numerous flora and fauna. This park is home to dears, pumas, condors, wild horses and llamas. The Limpiopungo lagoon, located close to the Rumiñahui volcano (15,492 feet above sea level), is the next place to stop for taking pictures or camping. The Pucará Ruins are an Incaic fortress that should be visited too. These three areas are close to each other and can easily be seen on a full day tour. At the foot of Cotopaxi you will also find the Inca Palace, built by Tupac Yupanqui in the XVth century, turned into a monastery by the Catholic Augustinian Order in the XVIIth century. At this site you will enjoy a beautiful view of the volcanoes. Currently it houses a beautiful small hotel called San Agustin de Callo.
Cajas National Park
This National Park is only 21 miles away from Cuenca. It ranges in altitude from 9,840 to 11,480 feet. Its 71,186-acre area includes mountains and 232 glacial lagoons, connected to each other by small rivers and streams. Two of the rivers surrounding Cuenca, Tomebamba and Yanuncay, begin in this area. The Park is home to mammals such as the white-tailed deer, spectacled bear, puma, paramo deer, paramo rabbit, and the Andean tapir. Some of the most important bird species are the caracara, condor, Andean toucan and spectacle duck. The most common vegetation includes: chuquiragua, paramo grasses, yagual (Polylepis), romerillo, chachacoma, genciana, romerillo and the sarar. The Park also has some archeological Inca sites in the area of Molleturo, which historians believe have been a 'tambo' (resting areas for the Inca couriers from Cuzco to Quito).
Machalilla National Park
Located in the province of Manabí, Machalilla takes its name from one of the pre-Columbian cultures that inhabited this area. The Valdivia, Chorrera and Manteña Cultures lived in this land of mild climate and extraordinary landscape. One can still visit archeological sites within the park. We recommend especially Agua Blanca and Salango. The park occupies 136.000 acres. Its yearly temperature averages at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The influence of the Humboldt Current in the Pacific conserves the amazing tropical humid and tropical dry forests. One of the main attractions of the park is "Isla de la Plata" (Silver Island). It was named at the end of the XIV century, when the pirate Francis Drake took treasures from Spanish ships and hid them on this site. "Plata" means silver, but it is also how Ecuadorians commonly refer to money. According to the legend, much of this treasure was never claimed and is still hidden here. "Isla de la Plata" is a favorite spot for scuba diving. The Island is surrounded by Coral Reefs, so the marine life is exciting and plentiful. Some excellent scuba-diving services are offered here. The Island has two guided hiking routes, both with awesome sights. You will find a rare colony of blue-footed boobies, masked boobies, frigate birds, albatrosses, as well as interesting plant life. Guides are well versed on the subject.
In the months of June-September Machalilla has an exceptional attraction. Humpback whales come to mate here and can be observed off the beaches of the park and its surroundings. To visit the park, one must purchase a 5-day pass for a fee of 25 dollars. With this ticket one can visit all the sites of the National Park.
Besides these protected areas, Ecuador includes more National Protected Areas, and other important private protected areas and natural sites.