Step off the beaten trail and take a dive into the unexpected. Ecuador, despite being the 4th smallest country in South America, abounds in natural wonders. The land of volcanoes, famous for the mythical Galápagos islands and the Middle of the Earth, offers stunning and varied landscapes to nature lovers and adventure hikers. It counts with 11 national parks and 24 more areas –reserves and refuges– that are nationally protected. Making their way from the top of high-standing plateaus down to the ocean’s coast or into the midst of the jungle, we’ve asked fellow travellers to introduce us to their favourite national parks in Ecuador.


Best national parks in Ecuador:


Cayambe-Coca National Park

Natasha from the Great Ocean Road Collective visited Cayambe-Coca National Park in November.

San Marcos lake in Cayambe-Coca national park, Eduador
(Photo: marxelocinema / Pixabay)

Located less than 40 kilometers from the capital Quito, you’ll find the stunning Cayambe Coca National Park. Extending through several provinces, the huge park is home to volcanoes, grassland plains, and dense forests rivalling the likes of the Otways in Australia. There are three entrances, and because there aren’t many trails within the park, the entrance will determine which ecosystem you experience.

Why is this your favourite national park in Ecuador?

We used the Cayambe entrance in Pichincha Province to explore the park where there are amazing views of the snow-capped Cayambe volcano. Within this portion of the park, you can visit the rural villages of Paquiestancia or Oyacachi. There are plenty of beautiful waterfalls, high-altitude lakes, as well as hot springs, to be explored.

The second entrance, Papallacta, provides access to a picturesque landscape of lakes and Andean grasslands. Though we didn’t get to visit this part of the park, it is popular amongst bird watchers: it is known as a great area to spot tanagers and sword-billed hummingbirds.

The third entry point, East Slope, is close to Santa Rosa de Quijos and used to give access to the San Rafael Falls. Once the highest in the country, the falls were magnificent, but unfortunately mysteriously stopped flowing in 2020.

What did you like less?

One downside of the tropical climate within the park is the frequent rainfall. During the rainy season, the dirt roads can get washed out or landslides can cause roadblocks. We recommend using a 4×4 or high-clearance vehicle to get you around. You’ll also want to be sure to have sturdy footwear and a rain jacket!

 

Useful information about Parque Nacional Cayambe-Coca

Best time to go: Dry season is officially from June to September but it might rain here even if it’s sunny in Quito
Closest city (towns): Quito (via Cayambe, Papallacta or Santa Rosa de Quijos)
How to get there: By private car, rented or as a tour
Entrance price: free
Other expenses: /

Taking its name from two of its highest peaks (volcano Sumaco and Mount Galeras) and the river that runs through the province (Río Napo), Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park is a wild area of high mountains and deep canyons covered in thick cloud forest. Ready for an adventure? Largely untouched and un-visited, this particularly wet area isn’t exactly easy to reach.

The best way is to rent a car and drive to the small village of Pacto Sumaco, via the town of Baeza. From this point, you can hike up the muddy trails to the summit of the 3732 m (12244 ft) Sumaco volcano. That’s a 3-to-5-day round-trip for you but don’t despair: there are 3 cosy refuges on the way. It’s highly recommended to hire a guide at the village, as trail signs are a luxury in the park.

Another adventure in this national park is to trek Mount Pan de Azúcar; as far as we know, you’ll have to book a guide for that from the town of El Chaco, north of Baeza.


 

Cotopaxi National Park

D&J from Make Them All Trips of a Lifetime visited Cotopaxi National Park in February.

Lake on a misty day in Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador

While staying in Quito, Ecuador, we had the unique occasion to visit Cotopaxi National Park and drive up the side of the snow-capped (active) volcano, stopping along the way to see llamas and alpacas. The road to the second highest parking lot in the world drove through the vast moorland of the park before climbing up. The path was rocky and winding, and with every turn, the lava boulders that lined the path grew larger.

Dressed in our thickest clothing, hats and gloves, we tried to step lightly in the snow, more than 15,000 ft above sea level. The air was notably thin, the ground steep and slippery, but we waddled our way to a stump, where we sat to soak up the view.

Why is this your favourite national park in Ecuador?

Even on a partly cloudy day (yes, we were literally in the clouds) the views were spectacular. After our descent, we strolled alongside the mesmerizing Laguna de Limpiopungo. The mossy hillside reflected in the still lake, the gentle roll of fog along the ground, the small birds floating along the waters edge. Together, they all contributed to one of the most memorable days in Ecuador.

Cotopaxi National Park is a massive stretch of land with serene and unique views, a photographers and nature-lovers dream come true. Visitors may walk, hike, climb, camp and bike, but with over 33,000 hectares of land, best to plan a full day (or three).

What did you like less?

Due to its size, unless you plan on camping for a period of time or returning for multiple visits, there will always be something time does not permit you to do or see in Cotopaxi.

 

Useful information about Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

Best time to go: Anytime! The average temperature is between 9-11 degrees Celsius
Closest town: Quito or Latacunga (depending on the entrance)
How to get there: Drive, Taxi, Private Guide
Entrance price: $10 USD
Other expenses: Taxi or car rental; private guide; museum entrance: $2

Find more practical information on the park’s official website.


 

Sangay National Park

Altillo Lake in Sangay NP, Ecuador
(Photo: amalavida.tv from EcuadorCC BY-SA 2.0)

South from Cotopaxi, along what could be dubbed ‘the corridor of the volcanoes’, the Sangay National Park welcomes you in its 4,828 sq km (3,000 sq mi). It takes its name from –yet again– a volcano, the Sangay, which last erupted in 1934.

What is so attractive about this national park?

Being so vast, the Sangay combines most of the inland ecosystems that can be seen in Ecuador. Its grasslands, wetlands, lakes, high peaks and plateaus, and its rain- and cloud forests host a fantastic array of wildlife, which has made it a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of course, as a visitor, it would be impossible to see even half of those ecosystems. But Ecuador offers some of the wildest nature hikes in South America and Sangay is probably the most accessible National Park in the region.

The area around El Altar is the easiest to reach and offers several hiking options. The hike to the crater lake inside this extinct volcano is rewarding and accessible, although pretty steep and muddy; it’s also possible to rent a horse to feel like a XVIth-century explorer. Tough hikers might prefer to join a climbing party to the summit of the Sangay, at their own risk.

What are the drawbacks?

Note that the 2 other volcanoes present in the park, Sangay and Tungurahua, are still active. In fact, they still regularly blow out smoke, if not ashes or even rocks from time to time. Volcano Sangay is particularly remote and that area can only be reached by booking a climbing tour from Quito or Riobamba.

The weather being so wet here most of the year, expect to have your feet in the mud and your eyes in the fog almost constantly.

 

Useful information about Parque Nacional Sangay

Best time to go: Dry season is June to September
Closest town: Riobamba
How to get there: public bus to the village of Candelaria
Entrance price: officially $10, often not required
Other expenses: nights in refuges


Between Cotopaxi and Sangay, another part of the Andes mountain range is under national protection – the Llanganates National Park. This park comprises two ecosystems: the mountain “páramo” (high-altitude tundra) to the west, inhabited by the friendly llamas, alpacas, vicuñas; the lower forests to the east, a 1st taste of the Amazon rainforest, swampy and thick with plants and shrubs that grow only in this part of the world.


 

Cajas National Park

We visited Cajas National Park in June.

Woman looking towards the horizon, Cajas national park, Ecuador

This misty landscape of rugged hills, tundra and dark blue lagoons offers several hikes for different levels – but all will be equally fascinating. For us, Cajas National Park simply ranks among the top things to see in Ecuador.

Why is this your favourite national park in Ecuador?

Just a short bus hop from the pretty town of Cuenca, hikers can rest their eyes and minds on appeasing colours and shapes. (El) Cajas is an easily-accessible national park in the south of Ecuador with rolling hills, long grass and curving lagoons. The blooming wild flowers fascinated us in the midst of this simple yet majestic landscape, with hardly anyone around.

The intercity bus drops you right at the entrance where the friendly park ranger helps you choose the best hiking trail; there are different options to choose from depending on the time at your disposal and your hiking level.

What did you like less?

It’s quite a wet part of the world, innit? Rain can surprise you even during the official dry season. That can make the earth trails muddy and slightly difficult in parts. Moreover, and although it’s not difficult to find our way back to the entrance, we regretted the lack of signs.

Finally, the last bus to Cuenca is quite early in the evening so make sure you time your visit well. Otherwise, it’s really easy to hitch a ride back.

 

Useful information about Parque Nacional Cajas

Best time to go: Between June and September, but the weather is unpredictable
Closest town: Cuenca
How to get there: Local bus from Cuenca: estación Occidental (08h30, 10h20, 12h00, 14h00, 14h30); or  estación Sur – Feria Libre (07h00, 08h45, 10h30, 12h20, 13h30, 14h45). Costs 2 USD. The park entrance is at “La Toreadora”.
Entrance price: Free
Other expenses: /

By the way, Cajas is among our 24 favourite national parks in South America.


 

Machalilla National Park

Couple of blue-footed boobies
(Photo: ArabsalamCC BY-SA 4.0)

This park is the only coastal national park in Ecuador, therefore the only one besides Galápagos to nationally protect the marine ecosystem. In fact, Machalilla’s main island, Isla de la Plata, is often dubbed ‘the small Galápagos’ or ‘Galápagos of the Poor’. It offers an affordable way to spot (some of) the same stunning wildlife without having to take the plane.

What makes this national park so great?

Machalilla is a welcomed change from the other National Parks in Ecuador, which often surround mountain páramos and tropical rainforest. Being more accessible, it counts with better infrastructure and welcomes a broader range of visitors. Furthermore, it’s rather concentrated and can be visited in a couple of days.

The dry forest, which makes up the largest area of the park, offers several easy-access hiking trails. One of them leads to the cosy and protected beach of Los Frailes, for sunbathing and relaxation; another one goes to Agua Blanca, with its hot springs and its ancient ruins; yet another one takes you in a couple of hours into the cloud forest where you can see monkeys.

The highlight is undoubtedly Isla de la Plata, an uninhabited haven for bird species like the frigate or the colourful boobies, but also for sea turtles and dolphins. Since it isn’t allowed to visit by yourself or stay overnight, you must book a day-trip with a tour agency from Puerto López. On the way, you could even catch sight of humpback whales during the breeding season (between June-Sept). Then indulge in a snorkelling or scuba diving session, knocking about with giant manta rays.

What could be better?

We don’t see anything wrong about Machalilla National Park, really – quite the contrary. But keep in mind: this isn’t an alternative to the one-and-only experience of visiting the Galápagos. What you can find here is a tasty hors d’oeuvre, even quite a delicacy on its own. But it won’t replace the unique flavour of that world apart.

 

Useful information about Parque Nacional Machalilla

Best time to go: Between June & September to see the whales
Closest town: Puerto López (or the smaller Puerto Cayo)
How to get there: By bus
Entrance price: free
Other expenses: Tour to Isla de la Plata, about $50 USD


Isla de la Plata is part of our recommended 3-week itinerary in Ecuador.


 

Galápagos National Park

Oksana & Max from Drink Tea & Travel visited Galápagos National Park.

Birds eye view on Isabel island, Galapagos, Ecuador

The Galapagos archipelago encompasses one of the most impressive natural parks on the planet. This world famous area is the home to diverse wildlife, volcanic terrain, and is the inspiration behind Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. It is a once in a lifetime destination worthy of every travelers’ bucket list.

Why is this your favourite national park in Ecuador?

One of the reasons we loved this national park so much is because of the incredible amount of wildlife which could be seen on land and in the water. We saw everything from sea lions to galápagos penguins, blue-footed boobies, tortoises, marine iguanas, and blue herons. As avid divers, we were also able to get in the water to see hammerhead sharks and other marine life.

Animal life was top of mind when we were planning our trip but upon touching down in Galápagos we soon found the locals to be friendly and otherworldly landscapes made up of deserted beaches, volcanic terrain and unique geological formations which made our trip all the more special.

What did you like less?

Travelers who did not respect the park’s rules. There are regulations in place to protect the animals and environment from anymore human interference. These include simple things like picking up trash, staying 2 metres from the wildlife, and staying within marked trails. We would encourage everyone to plan a responsible trip to the Galápagos.

 

Useful information about Parque Nacional Galápagos

Best time to go: For the best weather, visit between December to May
Closest town: The biggest cities on the Galapagos Islands are Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
How to get there: By flight from Quito or Guayaquil, or with a cruise
Entrance price: $100 USD for adults, $50 USD for children and a $20 Transit Control Card fee
Other expenses: Many attractions you can only visit with a certified guide


 

Podocarpus National Park

Franziska & Kevin from Two Ramblers visited Podocarpus National Park in May.

Path leading to a waterfall in Podocarpus National Park, Ecuador

Podocarpus National Park lies at an interesting geographic point. The Andes, the Amazon and the Pacific all influence its climate and vegetation. It is named after the podocarpus tree, a conifer of which particularly big specimens grow in the park.

What is unique about this national park?

Podocarpus National Park has a highly diverse flora and fauna thanks to its geographic location. A research station is based in the park where scientists from all over the world continue to discover new species. As a visitor you can spot many different insects and birds like see-through butterflies and huge groups of parrots. The park is also home to the spectacled bear. If you are incredibly lucky, you might meet one. Just as impressive is the variety of plants in the park. There are species you might know as house plants but of a much bigger size and others unknown anywhere else in the world.

There are two different places from where you can access the park: a northern entry point near Zamora and a second one to the south of Loja from where you can visit the west of the park. At both places you can find a ranger station where you need to register, can get some information about the park and the different hiking options. As the area you can visit in the west lies higher than the part in the north, the landscapes differ quite significantly. Visiting both parts allows you to really discover the different levels of rain forests including waterfalls, a river and great viewpoints over the jungle.

What did you like less?

Despite protection efforts, like many national parks Podocarpus is suffering from human impact through agriculture and mining. You can really see the difference in the pieces of land surrounding the park where the lush vegetation has had to make way for fields.

The ranger station for the western part of the park lies just off the main road between Loja and Vilcabamba. However, the hikes through the park start 8 km further uphill. It is best to let a taxi drop you off at the start of the hike rather than at the ranger station and to make arrangements to be picked up afterwards, unless you want to walk the distance to the main road where the bus passes.

It is really recommended to visit the park outside the rainy season. You will not be soaked and get to see more wildlife and views.

 

Useful information about Parque Nacional Podocarpus

Best time to go: Best outside the rainy season
Closest towns: Loja and Zamora
How to get there: by bus or taxi
Entrance price: free (donation)
Other expenses: /

Southeast from Podocarpus, Yacurí National Park borders Peru with its Andean plains and high mountain evergreen forests; parts of it are also covered in wet cloud forest, making it an interesting patchwork of ecosystems. The entrance is near the town of Amaluza, off the highway 682 that passes through Loja and Vilcabamba and connects to Peru.

The highlights here are the many high-altitude lakes that spot the area like black mirrors. Some of them are believed by local Kichwa medicine men to have curative waters. Another reason to visit the park is for the Inca Trail and the archaeological ruins it runs along. Lucky hikers could also spot here spectacled bears and pumas, two species that are unfortunately disappearing.


 

El Ángel Ecological Reserve

Carley from Home to Havana visited El Ángel Ecological Reserve in November.

View on El Angel National Park in Ecuador

While the El Ángel National Ecological Reserve is overshadowed by some of Ecuador’s larger national parks, the other-worldly scenery here is not to be missed. Instantly recognizable for its unique flora and fauna found only in this páramo micro-climate nestled in the mountains, El Ángel stands out among Ecuador’s national parks and reserves as one of the most unique. 

What’s the best part about El Ángel?

The most emblematic feature of El Ángel is its massive frailejón plants – giant, flowering plants that can grow up to six meters in height and cover the hillsides throughout the reserve. These towering plants add to the reserve’s almost Martian landscape, covering its rocky crags and rimming its high-altitude lakes for some incredible scenery around every corner.

Despite offering scenery and experiences that can be found nowhere else, few tourists make time for El Ángel in their itinerary among the many other must-see places in Ecuador. You’ll feel like you’re truly discovering the park for yourself when you visit, adding even more to your peaceful yet exhilarating visit.

What did you like less?

While being a less touristic area of Ecuador has its advantages, one downside to the reserve is that it can be challenging to access due to limited tourist infrastructure in the area. It can be easiest to find transportation from Tulcán or Ibarra, the nearest cities both a little over an hour from El Ángel.

While accommodation options in the town of El Ángel are limited to a few basic hostels and just one lodge, spending an evening here can allow for much more time at the reserve, and buses or private transportation options to Tulcán or Ibarra are still affordable. 

 

Useful information about Reserva Ecológica El Ángel

Best time to go: Anytime
Closest town: Tulcán or El Ángel
How to get there: By private car from the South (El Angel-La Libertad-Cobos road) or the north (Tulcan-Tufiño)
Entrance price: free
Other expenses: /

There are several other fascinating ecological reserves scattered throughout the territory of Ecuador.

Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve is right under El Ángel and showcases the beautiful Lake Cuicocha, near the town of Otavalo.
Illinizas Ecological Reserve is South of Quito and hosts Volcano Illinizas and the stunning Lake Quilotoa.
At the same height, you’ll find Antisana Ecological Reserve, a smaller park that cuddles around the volcano of the same name.

It’s great to see so many wildlife refuges and biological reserves protecting the unique ecosystems of Ecuador!


 

Yasuní National Park

Reflections on a lake in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador
(Photo: Geoff Gallice CC BY 2.0)

In the East of the country lies the thick expanse of the Amazon rainforest. Despite being threatened from all sides, the Amazon is here too, breathing its vital oxygen to the world. (I hope Jeff Bezos doesn’t misunderstand this sentence.) It’s an important part of our world that needs to be respected and visited properly. We recommend you look into eco-lodges that have a low impact on the environment and also help local communities.

What is the highlight of this national park?

The wildlife, of course! It’s said that Yasuní is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, with a record-breaking concentration of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, plants, you name it. From pink river dolphins to giant otters to monkeys and cute marmosets, a tour or an Amazon cruise can arrange for you to spot these elusive (and some of them endangered) animals.

Besides offering protection to the fauna and the flora of the area, the Yasuni National Park also hosts several Indigenous tribes, protecting their primeval way-of-life. This is also a form of biodiversity, one that goes against cultural uniformity and contributes to making our world so marvellous.

What could be improved?

Yasuní offers the real immersion into the jungle that day-trips from towns could not offer – but it comes at a high price. Most lodges in the park have chosen the high-standard model of accommodation. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a few days of adventurous exploration coupled with luxurious relaxation but we would have liked to see places catering to more humble travellers too.

Having said that, a few kilometres north from Yasuní is the Cuyabeno Wildlife Preserve. It’s another essential area for the protection of the Amazon habitat where lodges and tours tend to be cheaper.

 

Useful information about Parque Nacional Yasuní

Best time to go: Dry season (June-Sept) for less mud, wet season (Oct-May) for more chance to spot the wildlife
Closest town: Coca (also called ‘Puerto Francisco de Orellana’)
How to get there: Bus to Coca then boat down the Napo river
Entrance price: free
Other expenses: at least USD 100$ / night at a lodge or on a tour

Kudos to the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador for this list of protected areas in the country that includes opening times and main attractions.

Are you planning a trip to Ecuador? Which national parks attract you the most?
Tell us in the comments section below!


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Who am I?

Anthony fell in love with the world, and more particularly with South America. He wants to offer inspirational guides to the curious backpacker, travel stories to the online generation, and incentives for a more responsible and greener way-of-travel for everyone.

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9 Comments

  1. Definitely better than the Sash song. Such a diverse country I wouldn’t know where to start. Think the blue footed boobies would win it for me.

    1. The wildlife of Ecuador is definitely a hit. It’s a perfect country to experience nature even without being much of an adventurer. Hope you make it there one day, John. Thanks for popping by!

  2. Love all these park suggestions! I’ve been to El Cajas National Park and it was well worth it. Ecuador is stunning, and I would love to visit the Galapagos and Yasuni. A little luxury paired with nature sounds divine!

    1. It must indeed be something to be cosily resting in the thickest of the jungle. Hopefully spotting some wild animal too; we haven’t had luck with that yet. Thanks for stopping by, Tiffany!

  3. What a great guide! Love the collection of Ecuador national parks – it was a very well done collab post! You’ll be my #1 guide when I finally focus on south American national parks 🙂

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Lannie! We really enjoy writing about those national parks and nature reserves – it’s a way for us to travel vicariously and also to show the importance of biodiversity.

  4. Fabulous post, Anthony. It was really your blog that got Ellie and me thinking about Ecuador, and in particular hiking in Ecuador. None of our friends here in London have visited this country, I believe, or did Stromfields? Not sure. If they did, then they didn’t talk about it. Ecuador has an even more exotic vibe to it for me than the other countries. Ellie and I are very much hoping to make it to Latin America in 2021. It would be a first for both of us.

    1. We’re super stoked we’ve inspired you to visit Ecuador & hopefully South America in general. That’s the very goal of this blog! For active people like you, I really recommend the town of Baños – you’d love it! But hey, make sure you bother us with questions before setting off; we’d be very happy to help.

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