Trekking in Ecuador and the best National Parks

From trekking in the Sierra to exploring the country's National Parks, outdoor enthusiasts have discovered that Ecuador's diverse topography provides an ideal environment for adventure travel...
Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. Photo: Shutterstock
Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. Photo: Shutterstock

Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. Photo: Shutterstock

From trekking in the Sierra to exploring the country's National Parks, outdoor enthusiasts have discovered that Ecuador’s diverse topography provides an ideal environment for adventure travel. The country’s small size makes getting around easy: nothing is too far away from anything else, and there are roads to almost everywhere.
Yet, for its size, Ecuador has an amazing assortment of terrain, while the climate is favourable for almost year-round excursions. Except for February and March, when it seems to be raining everywhere, good weather can be found in one region or another throughout the year.

 

Trekking in the Sierra

Trekking is one of the most popular adventure activities. A number of national parks offer uninhabited areas for days of wandering, while the populated highlands of the Sierra are dotted with small villages whose inhabitants usually offer a welcome to backpacking gringos. One of the most popular treks in Ecuador is the easy three-day hike to the ruins of Ingapirca, the finest example of Inca stonework in the country. The hike begins in the charming village of Achupallas, north of Cuenca, 15km (9 miles) off the Pan-American Highway. A dirt track eventually gives way to a cobbled footpath leading to a pass. You have to squeeze through a small cave to get to the other side. After a brief descent, the trail starts to climb again and traverses a mountain slope above the green valley of the Rio Cadrul. An excellent site for the first night’s camp is beside the sparkling waters of the high mountain lake Laguna Las Tres Cruces (Lake of the Three Crosses).

After about a half-day walk on the second day – crossing rocky ridges and skirting boggy valleys – the trail drops below the peak of Quilloloma. The remains of the old Inca road appear in the valley below. There is an excellent place to camp near Laguna Culebrillas and some minor Inca ruins, aptly named Paredones (“ruined walls”) because of the surviving crude stonework. A final three- to four-hour hike on the third day follows the grassy Inca road to the ruins of Ingapirca.


National Parks

Several National Parks within the highland region of Ecuador are especially popular with trekkers because of the ease of accessibility, established trail systems, and marvelous scenery. In most cases, day hikes supplant longer treks for those who prefer to see the sights with a lighter load. Parks can be visited at any time of year, but facilities within them are at a minimum, if they exist at all. A small park entrance fee is usually charged.

Cotopaxi National Park, which you can explore on Insight Guides' Ecuador: History and Culture trip not only attracts climbers who come to scale the Cotopaxi volcano, but also its wide open páramo, which is ideal for cross-country treks. The lower slopes (called the Arenal – a word that comes from the Spanish arena meaning sand) are an interesting landscape of volcanic sand and boulders from an eruption and associated mud flows in the late 19th century. The Trek of the Condor is a three to four-day hike from the village of Papallacta to the base of Cotopaxi. It passes several mountain lakes harboring Andean teal, Andean lapwing, caricari, and wild horses. The glaciers off Antisana loom over the páramo, and condors can sometimes be seen soaring around Sincholagua.

Parque Nacional El Cajas lies about 32km (20 miles) west of Cuenca. Within its 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) there is a huge variety of landscapes, ranging from granite rock outcrops to barely penetrable cloud forests, where mountain toucans and tropical woodpeckers make their home. Experience Ecuador's cloud forests on Insight Guides' Ecuador's Finest: Cloud Forest to the Galapagos trip. With the exception of dayhike trails around the ranger station, most of the area is totally without marked trails, yet a cross-country trek of several days is quite feasible. The region is dotted with some 250 lakes of various sizes and colors, and fishing for trout is encouraged.

Parque Nacional Podocarpus, south of Loja, is very popular with hikers. The area is largely cloud forest and is home to the reticent spectacled bear, the flamboyant Andean cock-of-the-rock, and the mountain tanager. A trail system includes several day hikes from the park headquarters, and there are various options for overnight camping. Conservation group Arcoiris offers further information.

 

 This article was originally published on 18th November, 2013


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