This is one of the easiest to reach of all Ecuador’s protected areas. At just 50 km from the capital Quito, the Cayambe Coca Reserve is well served by tourist infrastructure and is a favourite with visitors anxious to sample its many attractions: the paramos and hot springs, the wildlife and the area’s multitude of pristine lakes.
With altitudes ranging from a tropical 600 metres to Ecuador’s third highest point, the permanently snow capped Mt. Cayambe volcano at 5,790 meters, the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve is home to an incredible variety of landscapes. The Reserve protects one of the country’s principal sources of water, and is criss-crossed by rivers, streams, rapids, hot and cold volcanic springs, and endless waterfalls gushing down the green Andean slopes towards the Amazon basin in the East and the Pacific in the West.
The Reserve is also for climbers. Mount Cayambe (5,790m), located in the west of the Reserve, is the country’s third highest peak and experienced climbers can get to this summit from the Los Hermanos Carrel Refuge (4,600m). Several Condor nesting sites have been identified in the surrounding area. As its name suggests, the Cujuya climbing park is also for those interested in the sport. Located in Cuyuja, near Papallacta, the rock in the park has excellent characteristics for scaling.
Two indigenous people live in the reserve. The indigenous Kichwa speaking village of Oyacachi, located in west of the Reserve, is famed for its woodworking skills and crafts. The community, recently launched a community tourism project, which features visits and exchanges with local families, the opportunity to relax in the villages hot springs, and enjoy locally produced trout and dairy products.
The Cofán people live in the park’s lowlands. The Cofán are a traditional Amazonian culture whose origins lie in the area of the San Miguel and Aguarico river basins, close to the border with Colombia. Their language is unique. They have kept their traditional life style of subsistence hunting and farming, and place great emphasis on living in harmony with their lush surroundings. Sinangoe, located in Canton Gonzalo Pizarro, Puerto Libre Parrish, is the region’s largest and most accessible Cofàn community. The community is involved in environmental protection and eco tourism.
Amongst the 106 species of mammal which inhabit the diverse landscapes of the Reserve, are spectacled bears, puma, little pudu deer and Andean foxes. Three hundred and ninety five species of bird have also been identified in the park, although, as many of the mountain areas remain unexplored, the total number could be higher. Many species, such as the majestic condor, whose wingspan can reach almost 3 meters, are threatened, and the preservation of this region is vital for its protection.
Oyacachi, located high in the mountains at 3,100 meters.
Papallacta, located just outside the southern border of the park, on the Quito Baeza road, is surrounded by some 60 lakes. It also has an abundance of hot springs, originating in the Antisana Volcano, which can be enjoyed after taking one of the many hikes into the Reserve to see waterfalls, birds and other local wildlife.
The San Rafael Waterfall fed by the Quijos river, is Ecuador’s highest, at 150 metres. There are also three smaller falls and small rapids.
At the base of the active El Reventador volcano it is possible to see signs of recent lava flows, and this is a great place for hiking.
This Reserve is renowned for its bird-watching opportunities, with almost 400 species identified in the area. Many hikes – both guided and unguided – begin in El Chaco, Papallacta and Oyacachi.
The two- to three-day hike from Oyacachi to El Chaco passes through some of the most remote regions of the Reserve. The trail descends a total of around 1,400 metres, passing through a range of landscapes, with opportunities to see spectacled bears, Andean foxes and many different types of birds.
Depending on the altitude, the average annual temperature in the reserve can range from 5 to 25 °C. This area is wet and humid, and bright sunlight in the mountains can quickly give way to heavy downpours.
What to bring:
Binoculars for bird watching.
Drinking water and snacks if attempting a long hike.
How to get here:
There are several point of access to the Cayambe-Coca reserve, mostly on the Amazon side of the Reserve.
The road from Papallacta to Baeza and Lago Agrio (Nueva Loja) borders the easily accessed southern and eastern edges of the reserve, and the most common points of entry along this road are from Papallacta, El Chaco and Lumbaqui, 70km west of Lago Agrio.
If you don’t have your own transport, take the bus from Quito’s northern terminal (La Ofelia) to Cayambe where a pick up can be hired. The journey to Oyacachi from Cayambe costs around $20 one way for the 90 minute journey, or $50 for a return journey, with three- to four-hours to spend in Oyacachi.
Local traditions and folklore:
The community of Oyacachi, perched high in the Andes, is famed for its exquisite woodwork. Visitors are invited to explore the craft shop, where each item is numbered according to the artist. Roughly-carved wooden bowls, giant ladles and shallow trays are the most traditional items, though the beautifully finished dishes, lidded pots and carved chopping boards demonstrate the true skill of the villagers. During the week, the community workshop is open for visitors to watch the artisans at work.
However, the most impressive and intricate example of the artisans’ talent, and of the remarkable community spirit, are the three totem poles on display in the main plaza. Native species such as spectacled bears, sloth, birds and flowers emerge from the twisted trunks of the native Quijuar tree.
The area by numbers:
• 395: The number of identified bird species, though this number is expected to be higher.
• 150: The height, in meters, of the San Rafael waterfall – Ecuador´s highest.
• 100: The number of plant species endemic to this region.
• 35-64: The temperature, in °C, of the natural hot springs in the Reserve.