Home > Ecuador > Exploring Ecuador’s Podocarpus national park, Part One

Exploring Ecuador’s Podocarpus national park, Part One

Loja is a charming, mid-sized colonial city, capital of the namesake province on Ecuador’s southern Andes, near the border with Peru. The city glitters with its three and four hundred year old churches and convents; colorful plazas, antique and well preserved Spanish-style homes with  courtyards and balconies; cobble-stoned streets and a unique atmosphere of tranquility, flowers and peace… Nestled on a relatively narrow Andean valley, under the shadow of the Villonaco Hill and crossed by two rivers, lined with pretty waterfront alleys and parks escorting their winding course through the city, Loja is a hidden gem of Ecuador, yet easily accessible with daily flights from the main cities of Quito and Guayaquil.

After a pleasant night’s sleep and a splendid buffet breakfast at the superb boutique Hotel in Loja’s downtown historic center; we set off to visit the southernmost and one of the most amazing National Parks of Ecuador: the Podocarpus, which extends from the Andean heights to the Amazon plains, covering a variety of ecosystems and rich biodiversity.  Enrique, Jose and I eagerly start listening to the enthusiastic remarks of Rodrigo and Bolivar, our guides and both dedicated biologists, who start telling us all about this natural wonderland, one more hidden treasure of Ecuador. As we drive away from Loja, with a southeastern direction, we can still see the towers and domes of the city’s churches and, tucked on an elevated hill, an authentic castle, one of the icons of the city, which adds character to the whole scene.  The castle is as private property and a bit of an extravaganza of a local family. Our van rolls over the well paved Pan American Highway and we begin climbing to one of those Andean passes which crisscross the main Cordillera, from east to west.  Less than twenty minutes from having left Loja, we reach a bit over 9.000 feet above sea level at the Cajanuma Pass.  Here, we leave the main highway and enter a narrower second-class road, which leads us on a relatively short ride, to the gates of the main western entrance to the Podocarpus National Park.

It is cold and windy, even though there are clear blue skies and just some scattered clouds.  Our first stop is at the Park’s Interpretation Center where we can see illustrations of the geological, geographical and ecological features of the Park.  Here we learn that Podocarpus is the Latin name of a native tree called “Romerillo” in Spanish and which used to abound in the Pre-Hispanic forests which covered much of Ecuador’s Andean Region. Precisely this National Park boasts an important number of these awesome and very tall trees, which are nowadays carefully protected and being reintroduced in several parts of Ecuador. The Park’s rangers instruct us about the rules for visitors on this protected area, before we begin a hike, accompanied by our knowledgeable guides, Rodrigo and Bolivar.  We are at a typical Andean “paramo” or high moorland, where the vegetation is predominantly made of small shrubs and pampas grass.  The scenery is imposing, always framed by the Cordillera, and, as we march along the well-marked trail, we begin looking for small birds, including one or two rare species of high altitude hummingbirds, busily flying among the sparse vegetation.  We are hoping to catch at least a glimpse of the endangered Condor, Ecuador’s bird symbol, which presides over the country’s Coat of Arms.  Extensive hunting plus the deforestation have brought these magnificent birds, the largest in wingspan on these latitudes, to very scarce numbers.  But we are lucky today and, with Rodrigo and Bolivar’s trained eyes, and the aide of binoculars, we manage to spot two condors hovering high above the tallest peaks, their black and white under wing’s plumage clearly visible and stretched out like giant kites. Our guides tell us that a few days stay in this area and camping on it, could well provide us with sightings of another endangered species, the spectacled bear or the elusive puma…. What we do get to see are some wild rabbits, scurrying through the vegetation.  The trail leads, if we had the time to do it, on a four hour trek, to a complex of lagoons, called “El Compadre”, where some remarkable Andean scenery, fauna and flora can be spotted.  However, we must move on towards the Park’s eastern Amazonian part; so we retrace our steps back to the Cajanuma Interpretation Center, to continue our journey towards “the other side” of this amazing Natural Protected area.  We will tell you about it on our next issue, not to be missed.

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