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NATIONAL PARKS AND PROTECTED AREAS
Ecuadorial Team

Paragraphs extracted from the Traveler's Ecuador Companion © The Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission. Photos by Dominic Hamilton.

Ecuador is a gallery of stunning landscapes. From snow-capped, volcanic mountains and long stretches of unspoiled coastline to Amazon rainforests and the bleak splendor of the Galápagos Islands, the country offers the visitor a breathtaking spectrum of natural wonders. To give you an idea of its diversity, of the world's 32 denominated "Life zones", 26 are found here, in a country the size of Nevada, or slightly larger than the United Kingdom.

Including the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador consists of four contrasting regions, each one distinctly different from the others. The Galápagos are arid, volcanic outcrops patterned with moon-like lava flows and twisted rock formations. No soft Pacific palms fringe their rocky shores. Plants and creatures here that have adapted to these harsh conditions are tough and hardy - thick-skinned iguanas, giant armor-plated tortoises, blubber-bound sea lions, spiny acacia, spiky cactuses, saltbush and scalesia.

The coastline and the coastal plain, simply called La Costa, present a less fierce face - marshland, mangrove swamps (or what is left of them after the invasion of shrimp farms), creeks, estuaries and long stretches of empty beaches swathed with palm trees. The hot and humid coastal plains were thickly forested before man arrived with his machete to create banana, cacao, coffee, sugar cane and rice plantations. As these plantations encroached further upon the forest, Ecuador became a full-fledged banana republic and still ranks among the world's leading exporters.

Upwards and eastwards, the flanks of the Andes are clothed in mists and residual areas of thick cloud forests threaded with silvery waterfalls. In the highland valleys, the Sierra, the face of the landscape takes a more worn and hewn look. Tilled and re-tilled for centuries before the Incas and the Spanish came along, the ancient, geometric fields, terraced on the steeper slopes, transform the valleys into tapestries woven in pastel shades of brown and green. Splashes of deep red on the ponchos of Indian women herding sheep provide a vivid color contrast, while lamas grazing by high mountain lakes embellish the pastoral scenes. Above the valleys tower snow-white peaks, stern and dangerous, the world's tallest active volcanoes.

Over the other side of the mountains, the eastern slopes of the Andes stretch towards the great Amazon basin, the world's largest rainforest. The Ecuadorians call this vast area of their country El Oriente, The East. The discovery of oil in the Oriente in the 1970s has led to the building of new roads, destruction and contamination of huge tracts of virgin forest and increasing numbers of "colonists," as well as new diseases, cultural decimation and anger within the local indigenous populations. Rivers flowing down the Andes and through their tribal lands eventually link up with the mighty Amazon River on its 3,200-km (2,000-mile) journey across Brazil and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Some 17% of Ecuador's land area is officially designated as national parkland, nature reserve or special recreation area. All of the country's ecosystems are protected in some form or another. The first national park created was the Galápagos Islands in 1959 and the first mainland park was Cotopaxi in 1975. Since then, many more national parks have been created: Machalilla, Yasuni, Sangay, Podocarpus, to name just a few.

In addition there are huge areas of protected nature reserves, the largest being Cotacachi-Cayapas, Cayambe-Coca and Cuyabeno, all in the north of the country, as well as national recreation areas, natural monuments and private reserves. The largest of the last category are run by foundations, such as Ecuador's largest environmental NGO Fundación Natura Tel (022) 447341 to 4, Av. America 5653 and Voz Andes, Quito, natura@natura.ecx.ec www.latinsynergy.org/naturaecuador.htm

If you have the time it is well worth visiting four national parks representing the four major ecosystems of the country. The Galápagos Islands, with their extraordinary wildlife, are an experience of a lifetime. In the Andes, the most frequently visited national park is Cotopaxi, with its magnificent, cone-shaped volcano, the tallest active volcano in the world. The Machalilla National Park on the coast is stunningly beautiful, and the Yasuni National Park or Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno in Amazonia provide a unique insight into rainforest wildlife.

Some of the parks and reserves are remote and difficult to reach and facilities aren't well developed. Visitors planning to stay a few days are advised to bring their own camping gear, water and adequate supplies. The entrance fees for national parks are generally US$10 for a highland park and US$20 for a lowland park, but some also vary according to tourist season. One payment allows multiple entry to the park for a week. Ecuadorian nationals pay considerably less. The entry fee to the Galápagos National Park is currently US100 for foreigners.

Even though a portion of the comparatively high entrance fees goes towards administration and protection, sufficient manpower and equipment aren't available to prevent various kinds of destruction. Areas of some of the parks and reserves have been subject to illegal fishing, oil drilling, mining, ranching and colonization. The effects of the oil and logging industry on the Oriente have been particularly devastating.

For more information on parks and reserves contact Ministerio del Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment) (022) 548924 www.ambiente.gov.ec (in Spanish), in the monolithic eye-sore of a building at the corner of Eloy Alfaro and Amazonas.
Over the years, the parks system has come under various administrative agencies. However, contact details throughout the country should, hopefully, remain the same, even if the names change...

Below, you'll find information on the most visited and accessible parks and protected areas in different parts of the country. It is not exhaustive, but we trust it will be useful.

by clicking on the 'back' arrow you will return to this menu

For the Galápagos, go here

 

AROUND QUITO:

Pasochoa Forest Reserve
A subtropical forest area less than an hour's drive southeast from Quito. Popular for school outings, the reserve attracts some 20,000 visitors per year. Several mapped trails criss cross an extinct volcanic crater rich with plants and wildlife. There are camping and hostel facilities in the park, but no shops or restaurants. For maps and more information contact Fundación Natura, which runs the reserve.

Mindo and Maquipucuna Reserve
The small town of Mindo on the western slopes of the Andes, just 40 km (25 miles) northwest of Quito as the condor flies, is a mecca for cognoscenti bird-watchers. In the dense surrounding cloud forest some 450 species have been observed, including such trophies as the fabulous scarlet-crested Andean cock of the rock, the toucan barbet, the plate-billed mountain toucan and the velvet-purple coronet.
About 32 km (20 miles) north of Mindo, on the same western slopes of the Andes, is the Maquipucuna Biological Reserve, most of which is primary cloud forest. In this wildlife-rich area, species of close to 2,000 plants, of some 322 birds, more than 200 butterflies and 45 mammals have been recorded. It's no wonder that Maquipucuna attracts naturalists like moths to a flame. For information about lodgings, prices and transport to the area contact Fundación Maquipucuna tel (022) 507200 or 507202 fax (022) 507201 e-mail abi@maqui.ecx.ec..ecx.ec; in Quito at Baquerizo 238 and Tamayo, PO Box 17-12-167.

Antisana Ecological Reserve
Although little known and difficult to get to get to, the Antisana Ecological Reserve, 57 km (36 miles) southeast of Quito, offers breathtaking scenery of the páramo and views of the eponymous, snow-capped mountain where wild horses roam and condors cross the sky. This dramatic wilderness is a great place for riding, hiking, camping and living in the wild. Visitors must bring their own supplies, though there's a lodge owned by a water company where it's possible to stay. Access is by car only (4-wheel drive recommended) and a permit is required. For more information contact Fundación Antisana tel (022) 433851 in Quito, Mariana de Jesús and Carvajal. You can also get special permission to enter the territory of Hacienda Pinatura, owned by Carlos Delgado who can be contacted at Avenida de Diciembre 1024 in Quito. Or make inquiries on the way to the reserve at Píntag, where you can find a guide.

THE NORTH

Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve
The enormous park stretches down the western highlands to the tropical lowlands of Esmeraldas Province. As well as the highlands, it protects the rich and humid cloud forests, populated by a huge diversity of plants, birds and mammals, are disappearing even faster than the better-known rainforests. Deforestation on the western slopes of the Andes is threatening the survival of mammals such as mountain tapirs, spectacled bears, spider monkeys and pumas.
Laguna de Cuicocha is about 16 km (10 miles) west of Cotacachi (just northwest of Otavalo). This deep, blue crater lake with two islands in the middle is a popular recreation area on weekends. Motor boats can be rented to explore the lake, though the islands are off limits because of research projects. A walk around the lake takes about five hours. Be warned: those berries that look like blueberries are something else - and they are poisonous. A round-trip by taxi from Cotacachi costs about US$10, and there are two decent restaurants nearby, as well as a modest place to stay on the hill.
Just south of the reserve and about 40 km (25 miles) west of Laguna de Cuicocha is the remote village of Apuela, set in the deep Andean cloud forest. Nearby are the Nangulvi Thermal Baths. Basic accommodation is available. There are a few buses each day along the scenic but jolting road between Otavalo and Apuela.

Intag Cloud Forest Reserve
Begun by two ecoactivists, Carlos Zorilla and Sandy Statz, the reserve is in the vicinity of Apuela, and is a model of environmental friendliness. Rustic wooden cabins, solar-generated electricity and homegrown vegetables are indicators of their philosophy. Visitors can see their operation and explore the jungle for themselves at US$45 per person per day, including all meals and guides. For advance reservations fax (06) 923392 intagcz@uio.satnet.net , or write to Intag at Casilla 18, Otavalo, Imbabura, Ecuador, giving at least two months notice. Bosque Nublado de Santo Tomás is a similar operation in the same area.

Reserva Ecológica El Ángel
An area of mystical lakes, windswept grasslands and the curious, hairy-leafed, tree-like frailejón plant, said to be the biggest plant in the world. El Ángel is one of the best places to enjoy the páramo habitat.
Heading north on the Pana, at Mascarilla (about 33 km or 20 miles) out of Ibarra, the road forks. The Panamericana continues to the right, while to the left, the old road to Colombia bumps up to La Mira 15 km (nine miles) away, famous for its firework fiestas (particularly on February 2 for the Virgen de la Caridad). The route up from La Mira leads to the friendly highland village of El Ángel (a further 25 km or 15 miles) from La Mira, and the access point to the Páramo del Ángel.
If you want to explore this little-visited ecological reserve, ask for the offices of the Fundación El Ángel, or take a tour with the best hotel in town, the Hostería El Ángel Z/fax (06) 977584 rsommer@ecuanex.net.ec , which is by the traffic circle to the south of the town. Rooms are spick and span and comfortable, meals decent, and tours (on foot, horse or bike) excellent. Fundación Golondrinas also is also active in conservation work in the area and organizes treks from El Angel. For details contact tel (022) 226602 fax (022) 566076 email manteca@uio.satnet.net, Isabel La Católica 1559.
You can also gain access to the páramos from Tulcán (the Colombian border town). Head west to the little village of Tufiño, where there are some lovely thermal springs nearby, and continue climbing to the highlands around Volcán Chiles. Ask the tourist office in Tulcan for transport practicalities.

CENTRAL HIGHLANDS

Cotopaxi National Park
At a height of 5,897 m (19,655 ft), the awesome and beautiful Volcán Cotopaxi is the tallest continuously active volcano in the world and the second tallest peak in Ecuador after Chimborazo. With its cone of almost perfect proportions, often veiled in swirling mists, it's a mountain of might and mysteries, as well as an object of worship that local indígenas believe to be inhabited by powerful spirits.

Seldom quiescent for more than about 15 years, Cotopaxi has erupted many times, devastating the surrounding terrain. Fumaroles smoke in its crater, which is 360 m (1,200 ft) deep and 700 m (2,333 ft) in diameter at its widest. At night fires sometimes light up the clouds covering the cone reminding the onlooker of the mountain's potential for destruction.

The upper part of Cotopaxi is permanently covered with snow, its flank gray with lava and volcanic ash, while the base stands in the open grassland of the páramo. The wild and desolate area surrounding the mountain, which includes pine forests, several lakes and streams, encompasses the 33,393-hectare (82,481-acre) Cotopaxi National Park. The park also contains several other high peaks, of which 4,712-m (15,455-ft) Rumiñahui is the most important.

The most frequently-visited park in the country, Cotopaxi National Park contains campsites, rustic cabañas, a small museum, footpaths, and a basic tourist infrastructure. But because of its size, the park invariably seems deserted, except on some weekends during the dry season from June to August.

The park is one of the last refuges of the endangered Andean condor (the name is derived from the Quichua word cuntur). With a wingspan up to three meters (ten feet), weight up to 13 kg (28 lb), and length up to 120 cm (almost four feet), vultur gryphus is the world's biggest bird of prey. Visitors lucky enough to spot this rare black raptor will note the flashes of white on its wings and the white frill at the base of its neck. Several other rare birds can be seen in the park including various highland hummingbirds, and the orange-faced caracara falcon.

As for mammals, the rare Andean spectacled bear makes its home in remote parts of the park, out of sight of visitors. Pumas (mountain lions) and Andean foxes are sometimes glimpsed, while llamas are easy to spot because a captive herd is kept near one of the park entrances. You might also spot white-tailed deer, rabbits and the teeny red brocket deer. Wild bulls munch green grasses and wild horses gallop across wide plateaus.

Cotopaxi National Park is excellent place for hiking, cycling and camping. One of the best camping spots is by the shore of Laguna Limpio Pungo at about 3,880 m (12,726 ft), but you can also stay in the refugio at 4,800 m (15,744 ft) which has bunk beds and cooking facilities, but is extremely cold at night.

Practicalities

The entrance fee is about US$10, with a further $10 for a night in the refuge, and about $1 for camping per night. The main entrance from the east side of the Panamericana is open 7 am to 3 pm, though you can leave the park until about sunset. Acclimatization is very much necessary before even visiting the refuge, with altitude sickness a real threat.

 
 

Buses from Latacunga and Quito drop you on the Pan-American Highway, by one of the two roads that run up into the park, but then it is a long hike or hitchhike to get into the park itself. Alternatively, take a taxi from Latacunga. Many tour companies in Quito run tours to the park.

Numerous agencies in Quito offer two-day Cotopaxi climbing packages. Ensure the Ecuadorian Association of Mountain Guides (ASEGUIM) has approved the guides.

See Julian Smith's article for more...

Sangay National Park

The vast and inaccessible Sangay National Park stretches like a huge blanket of dense vegetation over the eastern flanks of the Andes, from just south of Baños to almost as far as Macas in the south. The park's terrain and wildlife exemplify the diversity, wildness and impenetrability of huge areas of the relatively small country of Ecuador. Most of the steep, thickly-vegetated slopes span altitudes of more than 4,000 m (13,330 ft) over a horizontal distance of just a few kilometers as the condor flies. If the park were ironed flat its surface area would be far greater than its 517,715 hectares (1,278,756 acres).

Its mountain forests are too thick and inhospitable for human habitation, but they are home to many strange and rare creatures - spectacled bears, mountain tapirs, ocelots, porcupines, jaguarundis (wild cats) - some of which are unknown anywhere else on earth. Few humans penetrate this wilderness because the slopes are too steep and the jungle is too thick. Roads that traverse the park are recent. The highly-controversial Guamote-Macas is due to be finished in 2001, and there are plans for further road-building within the park in the future. As a result of the damage caused by road-building, UNESCO placed the park on its "National Parks in Peril" list.

The park, too gentle a word for such a hostile patch of land, is also the footplate for three of the 10-tallest mountains in Ecuador: Tungurahua (5,016 m or 16,718 ft), El Altar (5,319 m or 17,728 ft), and the still active and dangerous-to-climb Volcán Sangay (5,230 m or 17,432 ft). None of them are easy to climb: Tungurahua was only recenlty re-opened following explosions in 1999; El Altar the most technically challenging; and Sangay, because of constant volcanic activity, is probably the most dangerous.

The three entrances to Sangay are Alao, Pondoa and Candelaria.
Contact the Ministerio del Ambiente in Riobamba, or in Quito tel (022) 548924. One of the most experienced and professional companies organizing hikes in the park is Alta Montaña tel (03) 963694 fax (03) 942215, in Riobamba, or in Quito tel/fax (022) 504773, Jorge Washington 425 and 6 de Diciembre, aventurag@laserinter.net

Reserva de Producción Faunística Chimborazo

Although the Reserva doesn't actually protect the peak, you will need to pass through it (and pay the entrance fee) in order to climb the mountain.

Volcán Chimborazo, 6,310 m (2,1031 ft), known to the local indígenas as Taita (father) Chimborazo, is paired with Mama Tungurahua. First climbed by the English mountaineer, Edward Whymper in 1880, the 'Big Ice Cube' attracts numerous mountaineers during peak climbing season in December and from June to September. Only serious and experienced mountaineers should attempt this peak. Full ice and snow climbing equipment, and a good guide, are required.

It is easy enough, however, to reach the first refugio at 4,800 m (16,000 ft) by car or jeep from Riobamba, though acclimatization is necessary. The agencies in Ríobamba have various places to stay close-by. Then it's about an hour's slow climb to the second refuge at 5,000 m (16,665 ft) where the views, if you're lucky, are stunning. Here you can stay the night for about US$10 if you have a warm sleeping bag. Climbs to the summit begin around midnight and take about 10 hours, with four hours for the return trip. Many hotels arrange reasonably-priced day trips to the refugios for small groups (about US$20 per person) while a serious climb can be arranged with agencies listed below.

Alternatively, you can contact the community of Pulingue San Pablo (or 'Waman Way') tel (03) 949510 or 949511 waman_way@hotmail.com (Spanish only) on the road up to the refuge. The community, with funding from the Canadian government, has set up a grassroots ecotourism and sustainable agriculture project just on the border of the Reserva de Producción Faunística Chimborazo, which is run by the Ministerio del Ambiente.

The locals have organized themselves into a guiding cooperative, offering trekking, climbing and horseback riding tours around the area. They have also re-introduced environmentally-friendly alpaca to the area (the re-introduced vicuña are already thriving), as well as setting up trout farms. You can stay in simple cabins nearby. For more information contact the dedicated Canadian Tom Walsh twalsh@ch.pro.ec . Entrance to the reserve (i.e. to the refugio) costs $10 per person.

Ministerio del Ambiente in Riobamba (03) 963-779.
Several tour operators and guides in Riobamba are helpful with expeditions and climbing. A good starting-point contact for advice and guiding is Enrique Veloz of the Asociación de Andinismo de Chimborazo tel (03) 960916, Chile at Francia. All guides should be members of the Association.
Alta Montaña
tel (03) 963694 fax (03) 942215 aventurag@laserinter.net , León Borja 35-17, run by Rodrigo Donoso, has been summiting Chimborazo for years. As well as organizing good equipment and first-class guides, they can arrange treks along the Inca trail to Ingapirca, or horseback riding and mountain biking trips.
Andes Climbing and Trekking
tel/fax (03) 940964 ppurunca@ecu.net.ec , Colón 22-25, are also very experienced.
For mountain bikes in good condition and excellent guides, contact Galo Brit of Pro Bici tel (03) 942468 fax (03) 961923, Primera Constituyente next to Banco Popular.

SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS

Area Nacional de Recreación El Cajas

About 30 km (19 miles) west of Cuenca, El Cajas (it should be a "National Park", though it's not...) embraces a striking landscape of more than 200 lakes, wild páramos and countless ponds lying placidly under barren cliffs, protecting some 28,800 hectares (71,136 acres). This under-explored, high-altitude natural marvel, where temperatures drop below freezing at night and which can be cold and rainy in the afternoon, is for the adventurous, well-prepared and well-insulated hiker. On a clear morning the views are spectacular.

The park is home to the highest-growing tree in the world, the diminutive quinua tree, as well as many rare species of plants, birds and animals. Spotting the fantastically-named high-altitude hummingbirds - sapphire-vented puffleg and the purple-throated sunangel, for example - is reason enough to brave the wintry conditions. Fishing is also good on Lake Toreadora, on the north side of the park, where you'll find a ranger station.

The driest time to visit is between August and January, but it'll probably rain anyway. There are buses from Cuenca to the entrance to El Cajas every day except Thursday leaving from San Sebastián church at about 6 am, which return at 3 pm (check the return time with the driver). Entrance to the park costs $10, but is rarely enforced.

Tours from Cuenca can be arranged by the very amiable and professional Juan Diego Dominguez of Nomada's Adventures tel (07) 838695 or 830 995 pdelsol@impsat.net.ec, Gran Colombia 21-157; the small Expediciones Apullacta tel (07) 837815, Gran Colombia 11-02 and General Torresl; Ecotrek tel (07) 642531 fax (07) 835387, at Larga 7-108 and Luis Cordero, run by the friendly and experienced Juan Gabriel Carrasco, is connected with the Huagrahuma Páramo ecolodge on the edge of the park.
Monta Runa Tours Z/fax (07) 846395 montarun@az.pro.ec at Gran Colombia 10-29 and General Torres, arrange horseback tours of El Cajas, while Ciclismo Total Z/fax (07) 451390, Solano 563 and Avenida del Estado, do the same but on mountain bikes.

Podocarpus National Park

Wild, remote and in many parts unexplored, Podocarpus National Park's 146,300 hectares (361,300 acres) harbour diverse natural habitats, ranging from upper tropical rainforest in the east through cloudforest and up to alpine páramo (moorland). These make the park of supreme importance to science. The meeting of Amazonian and Andean weather patterns creates ecosystems that makes e ndemism common (two species of tanager, for example, are found nowhere else). More than 550 species of birds have been recorded, among the highest counts in the world, with some estimated 3-4,000 plant species. Several threatened species of birds, as well as large mammals such as mountain tapir, pudu deer, giant armadillo, spectacled bear and jaguar, depend on Podocarpus for their survival. The park (named after the country's only native species of conifer) is also the original source of quinine: the cinchona tree (called cascarilla), and ranks among Ecuador's richest cloudforests. Natural quinine extracted from the bark of the tree is the only remedy 100% effective against all strains of malaria.

The entrance fee to the park is US$5, and visits can be made from either Loja, Zamora or Vilcabamba. The refugio at the northern Cajanuma station (10 km (six miles) south of Loja and about eight kilometers (five miles) from the entrance on the highway) has good facilities but if you want to go up to the highland lakes, a one-day hike, you'll need camping equipment.

You can get information and basic maps about the park from the Ministerio del Ambiente headquarters in Loja tel (07) 563131 on Sucre between Imbabura and Quito. Probably a better source of information (particularly for birding field guides) is the Fundación Ecológica Arcoiris tel (07) 577449 fai1@fai.org.ec , on Segundo Cueva Celi 03-15 in Loja.

In Loja, a recommended tour operator in is Biotours Z/fax (07) 578398 biotours@loja.telconet.net on Colón and Sucre. For more specialized birdwatching tours, contact Aratinga Aventuras Birdwatchers Z/fax (07) 582434 jatavent@cue.satnet.net , on Lourdes between Sucre and Bolívar.
In Vilcabamba, contact Cabañas Río Yambala rio_yambala@yahoo.com or yambala@impsat.net.ec www.vilcabamba.cwc.net, or Charlie's Cabins as they are sometimes called. Owners Charlie and Sarah own a piece of land and a refuge on the border of the park, and organize highly-recommended horseback tours up in the hills. Also, Orlando Falco of the Rumi Wilco Ecolodge and Nature Reserve ofalcoecolodge@yahoo.com will prove an excellent and knowledgeable guide.

THE ORIENTE

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve

20 km (12 miles) east of Lago Agrio lies the western tip of the 606,000-hectare (1.5 million-acre) Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, founded in 1979 to protect the rainforest from encroachment by oil companies and settlers. The area is considered to be one of the most important areas of natural beauty and ecological diversity in the Amazon basin. Its dense primary jungle forest is home to various Indian groups, including the Cofán, Siona, Sequoia and Shuar. There is also abundant bird life and myriad rare and exotic plants and creatures, from pink dolphins, caiman, electric eels, manatees and anacondas to jaguars, tapirs, agoutis, peccaries, armadillos and tortoises.

Unfortunately, despite its protected status, oil and logging companies have ravaged much of the region. Wells have been drilled, roads built, forests cut down, and millions of gallons of raw crude oil have been spilled into its rivers, creeks, swamps and lagoons. During the last 20 years, spills from the trans-Ecuadorian pipeline, which Texaco built in 1972, totaled 72 million liters (16 million gallons), half again more than was spilled in the Exxon Valdez accident. Spills such as these contribute to high rates of malnutrition and health problems among the local indígenas, including birth defects and neurological disorders. In recent years, following the enlargement of the reserve in 1991, Indian organizations and conservation groups have fought to save the rainforest from more destruction (see the gringo chief, below). The international NGO Conservation International has been at the forefront of projects to improve park infrastructure and protection.

Despite massive damage, vast areas of the Cuyabeno and its surroundings are untouched and unspoiled, so that visitors to the park may see no evidence of the environmental spoilage and contamination. Local people play a increasingly active part in tourism, and there are number of lodges and camps where visitors can experience the rainforest in all its pristine beauty. To an extent, ecotourism is seen as a viable and less-destructive alternative to the petrodollar, and has played an important role in saving parts of this precious rainforest. The entrance fee to the park is currently $20 per person from July to September, and $15 the rest of the year. The rainiest months run from March to September.

Tours of the Cuyabeno

Many Quito-based companies organize tours in the area. Native Life Travels tel (022) 550836 fax (022) 569741, J Pinto 446 and Amazonas, run by indígenas from Cuyabeno, have a good reputation and their prices are reasonable. Nuevo Mundo Expeditions tel (022) 564448 fax (022) 565261 nmundo@interactive.net.ec www.nuevomundotravel.com , Coruña N26-207, have a reputation of being ecologically sensitive and organize tours to the Cuyabeno River Lodge. Its owner, Oswaldo Muñoz, has been an inspirational leader of the Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association since its inception. They offer special shamanism and natural healing programs.

Several tour companies in Lago Agrio organize less expensive tours to Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and the surrounding area. You might also want to contact the "Gringo Chief" Randy Borman, who runs tours to his part of the reserve: tel (022) 470946 cofan@attglobal.net . Check out the Cofán website www.cofan.org.

The Huaorani Reserve

The traditional home and hunting grounds of the Huaorani rainforest people have been in the Napo area for millennia. In the past few years, however, their land and lifestyle have been damaged and mightily disturbed by the petrochemical and tourist industries. The Huaorani reacted by imposing tolls for the use of their rivers, and entrance fees to their communities, most of which are now part of the Huaorani Reserve south of Coca. Sometimes they demand gifts, which oil companies usually pay because it helps them in obtain concessions.

Travelers who want to visit the Huaoranis, and are sensitive to their situation should read the excellent and highly-recommended book, Savages by Joe Kane. One quote from the Huaorani Moi Enomenga sums up their position: "We do not want to be civilized by your missionaries or killed by your oil companies. Must the jaguar die so that you can have more contamination and television?" But there are many more.

Tropic Ecological Adventures runs a program with the Huaorani, where visitors spend a few nights in Huaorani territory and experience their way of life. Andy Drumm, the founder of Tropic, is a Fellow of Britain's Royal Geographical Society, an advisor to the Huaorani people and works with Moi Enomenga. The company recently won a category in the prestigious ToDo! Ecotourism awards. For more information contact tel (022) 225907 fax (022) 560756 e-mail tropic@uio.satnet.sat www.tropiceco.com , Avenida República 307 and Almagro, Edificio "Taurus," Dpto. 1-A, Quito.satnet.sat;. Other tour operators with good relationships with the Huao are Kem Pery Tours and Safari Tours .

Parque Nacional Yasuní

Ecuador's largest mainland park, Yasuní extends over a whopping 962,000 hectares (2,376,140 acres). It protects a range of rainforest habitats from forested hills, to periodically-flooded and inundated lowlands. Although it was first established in 1979, the boundaries of the park were extended eastwards following the creation of the Huaorani Reserve in 1991. The park is renowned for its huge biodiversity, although to date little of it has been studied. Recognizing its importance, UNESCO declared it a biosphere reserve and many conservationist groups have been involved in its protection. The park faces serious threats from the oil industry: the Maxus consortium enjoys exploration rights in the park for instance. Thankfully, the road Maxus and its predecessor Conoco built has been maintained off-limits for colonizers, and environmental damage from exploration kept to a comparative minimum. The park is extremely remote, and seldom visited. However lengthy tours can be arranged with guides from Coca agencies, as well as the Quito-based ones.

THE COAST

In the north, the local organization, SUBIR, runs projects with the communities of San Miguel and Playa de Oro upstream, as well as trips into the remote Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. They have an office in Borbón, or in Quito tel (022) 528696 fax (022) 656990 subir@care.org.ec . On a tributary of the Borbón, the Cayapas, you can arrange to stay at the comfortable, moderately-priced (full board) Steve's Lodge at the junction of the Cayapas and Onzole rivers, owned by English-speaking Hungarian Stephan Tarjanyi. For more information nagy@uio.satnet.net.

Reserva Ecológica Manglares Cayapas-Mataje
Contact Fundación CIDESA tel (022) 226303 or 527119, locally (06) 789143 e-mail cidesa2@cidesa.org.ec in Limones has set up a project and can arrange visits to mangrove forests of of the reserve.

Machalilla National Park

Isla de la Plata, named after the silver (plata) Sir Francis Drake is reputed to have buried after a successful raid on Spanish galleons, is part of the spectacular, 55,000-hectare (135,850-acre) Machalilla National Park that also embraces regions of dry tropical forest and cloud forest, a beautiful coastline, islands and a number of archaeological sites. A more visible form of treasure on Isla de la Plata is its wildlife, almost as rich and varied as that of the Galápagos Islands, but with the advantage of being concentrated in one area. Frigate birds, waved albatrosses, occasional sea lions and iguanas and three types of boobies are just some of the stars of this insular animal kingdom. Dolphins and hump-back whales can also be spotted between mid-June and early October.

The great curving beaches around Los Frailes, just south of Machalilla town but within the park itself, are some of the finest in Ecuador; they are the most likely to appear on travel posters. A trail from the main coastal road takes you to the first white-sand beach overlooked by green hills. A trail over the headland takes you to the other three beaches, each in its own isolated cove, one of which has black sand. Being part of the national park, there are no houses, the landscape is unspoiled, the water clear and clean for snorkeling, and often you have a beach or two to yourself.

Also within the park, the archaeological site and museum (open 8 am to 6 pm daily) at the village of Agua Blanca are also worth visiting. Considered one of the most important in Ecuador, the site is about five kilometers (three miles) off the coastal road, just north of Puerto López . If you don't have your own transportation, you can hike up from the dirt road, or rent a truck or taxi in one of the nearby towns. For more strenuous hikes into the mountains (such as to the village of San Sebastián, 10 kilometers (six miles) away at 600 m altitude), local guides are available at Agua Blanca.

The museum is full of jewelry, pottery and other objects from the Manta culture that flourished in the area from bc 500 to 1500 ad, the time of the Spanish conquest. There is evidence that the site was occupied by the much-older Machalilla, Chorrera and Salango cultures. A photography exhibit shows that people in the surrounding mountains and hills have the same features as figures appearing in ancient Machalilla pottery. It is thought that the area has been inhabited for at least 3,000 years, making it perhaps the longest continuously-inhabited region of coastal South America. You can learn more about these ancient coastal cultures at another museum in the coastal village of Salango, south of Puerto López.

Practicalities
Most local tour operators can be found in the fishing town of Puerto López, just south of the park. Not all of them have great reputations, and there are many 'unlicensed' operators also hussling for business. When weighing up costs, consider your safety too. The licensed operators employ boats with two outboard engines, use life-jackets and radios, and have basic toilets. The standard of the guide will also be dependent on price. Tours require a minimum of four people, and you may have to pro-actively seek other people to make up numbers. Tours to Isla de la Plata can be arranged in Puerto Cayo, or at Machalilla and Puerto López, but the latter is probably the easiest. Renting a five-passenger boat is about US$100, or joining a group will cost about US$30 per person, not including the park entrance fee of US$20 from July to September, and $15 from October to June. Boats leave in the early morning and return in the afternoon for the one to one-and-a-half hour journey. The crossing is often very rough, so take seasickness tablets and bring waterproof gear. As well as the wildlife on the island, there are good walks, a pre-Columbian archeological site, coral reefs (the only ones on the coast of Ecuador) and great snorkeling. Dubbed the "Poor Person's Galápagos," Isla de la Plata is included by Quito travel agents in tours of this area of Manabí.

In Puerto López, recommended operators include Bosque Marino Tours tel (05) 604221, General Córdova, Machililla Tours tel (05) 604154, Malecón and Julio Zuleta, and Exploratur tel (05) 604128 explora1@uio.satnet.net , Malecón at General Córdova, which can also organize scuba diving trips with advance notice. A good tour operator employing local guides for trips up in to the hills around Agua Blanca is Comuna Agua Blanca Tours tel (05) 604168, on General Córdova.

SOUTH

About 15 km (nine miles) west of Guayaquil on the main road, the Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco, a private reserve set up and run the local cement works and the Fundación Pro-Bosque. The small reserve protects some 3,500 (8,645 acres) of tropical dry forest, home to over 200 bird species and plenty of mammals such as howler monkeys, kinkajous and jaguars. Contact Fundación Pro-Bosque tel (042) 416975 or 417004, Edificio Promocentro, Cuenca and Eloy Alfaro, in Guayaquil, for more information about the park and guided tours. They can also take you on tours of the Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve, (south of Guayaquil), one of the few areas of mangroves left on the coast. The reserve is home to some 200 species of bird, including flamingo from October to December, and also bottle-nosed dolphins between June and November. Boat rides can be arranged through the mangroves, and there are some great trails through the dry forest. The Centro de Visitantes is just off the main highway, and the reserve is open 8 am to 2 pm (get there early to avoid the sapping heat). For more information, contact the Ministerio del Ambiente in Guayaquil, tel (042) 397730, Avenida Quito 402 and Padre Solano.

 
To celebrate the deal, Guide2Galapagos is offering Ecuadorial visitors an exclusive offer: Book a Luxury class yacht with them, and they'll give you THREE AIRPORT TRANSFERS FOR FREE; two for first class and one for tourist-superior. So, what are you waiting for? Check out their highly-informative site. Blue boobies, giant tortoises, sealions and marine iguanas are only a click or two away!

SMALL PRINT: On the request page, you must state you came from Ecuadorial to benefit from the airport transfer offer.
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