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Ecuador has nearly 30 national parks and preserves that together protect all of its varied ecosystems and approximately 17% of the national territory. Those protected areas cover everything from the country's highest mountains to the blue depths of the Galápagos archipelago, and include vast expanses of Amazon rainforest, misty cloud forest, and paramo, as well as the mangroves and threatened tropical dry forest of the Pacific lowlands. Several of the largest protected areas stretch from the Sierra down to the Pacific lowlands or Amazon basin, in which case they protect a series of different but interconnected life zones -- important for the many animals that migrate seasonally between the mountains and lowlands.

Most of the country's protected areas are remote, undeveloped tropical forests, with few services or facilities available for visitors. Others, however, offer easier access to the country's varied natural wonders. Because most parks have limited or no infrastructure, and access can be difficult, it's usually best -- and in some cases obligatory -- to visit them on an organized tour. Many parks have farms or villages within them, most of which existed before those protected areas were created. And as is all too common in developing countries, hunting, illegal logging, mining, and even oil exploration take place in some of Ecuador's parks and reserves.

Most of the national parks charge $10 to $20 (£6.65-£13) for admission, but it costs a hefty $100 (£67) to enter Galápagos National Park. At parks where camping is allowed, there is usually an additional charge of around $5 (£3.35) per person per day. The following section is not a complete listing of all of Ecuador's national parks and protected areas, but rather a selective list of those parks that are of greatest interest and accessibility. Those protected areas are grouped according to the regions they lie in: the Sierra, Oriente, Pacific lowlands, and Galápagos.

The Sierra

Cajas National Park -- Located in the western Andes near the city of Cuenca, Cajas National Park comprises a vast expanse of paramo -- a high-altitude ecosystem dominated by grasses and bushes -- dotted with 232 lakes, rocky peaks, and patches of cloud forest. The area is generally cool and misty, but when the sun burns through it can be quite warm, and the rugged landscape is impressive. It is home to several duck species, the gray-breasted toucan, and the Andean condor, as well as wild llamas. The park also holds the ruins of pre-Columbian buildings and the remains of the Inca trail. Guided tours to Cajas are recommended, since an expert's knowledge can help you spot and identify wildlife, and there is a real risk of getting lost there when it's foggy.

Location: 32km (20 miles) west of Cuenca.

Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve -- This important protected area stretches from the icy heights of Volcán Cayambe, the country's third highest peak, down to the rainforest of the Amazon basin. It covers almost 403,103 hectares (996,089 acres) and protects an array of ecosystems that when combined are home to a wealth of wildlife. More than 900 bird species have been identified in the park, ranging from the Andean condor to the cock of the rock. The park's western sector is centered on Cayambe, a glacier-topped giant that is one of the country's more difficult climbing peaks. Volcán Reventador, farther to the east, is a 2-day hike, but lies in a lush area rich in wildlife. The park's upper sector holds several popular lakes, such as Laguna de San Marcos and Laguna Puruhanta. Access to the park's lower forest is available near Papallacta and at Cascada San Rafael, a spectacular waterfall above Coca.

Location: 75km (47 miles) northeast of Quito.

Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve -- One of the country's biggest protected areas, covering more than 204,420 hectares (505,133 acres), the Cotacachi-Cayapas Reserve is also one of its most important, owing to the diversity of wildlife zones that it protects. The reserve stretches down from the paramo west of Ibarra to the lowland rainforest of the Chocó region, comprising a series of ecosystems that are home to such rare species as the spectacled bear, ocelots, and more than 500 bird species, including the Chocó toucan, great green macaw, and Andean condor. But most of the reserve's natural wonders are inaccessible to all but the most dedicated hikers. Other areas, however, are very accessible, such as the Laguna Cuicocha, a beautiful crater lake that can be reached by a paved road, a short trip from Otavalo or Cotacachi. The lagoon has two islands that can be visited on a boat ride, and a trail that skirts the crater's edge provides impressive vistas. Admission costs $5 (£3.35). Nearby Volcán Cotacachi can be reached via a 4WD track that leaves the main road near the lake. The Lagunas de Pinan, another of the park's Sierra attractions, are surrounded by relatively well-preserved paramo.

Location: 18km (11 miles) west of Cotacachi.

Cotopaxi National Park -- This is one of Ecuador's most popular parks, thanks to its proximity to Quito and the majesty of its volcano. The park is dominated by awe-inspiring Volcán Cotopaxi, a 5,897m (19,347-ft.) snow-draped cone that is Ecuador's second highest peak and its most popular mountaineering spot. The park's 33,393 hectares (82,516 acres) are traversed by a series of dirt tracks that provide the opportunity for hiking, mountain biking, or horseback-riding trips, but most people visit spots close to the park's small museum and main ranger headquarters. Other destinations inside the park include the Laguna de Limpiopungo, where you might see Andean gulls, American coots, Andean lapwings, paramo rabbits, or perhaps a herd of wild llamas or horses grazing in the nearby plains. El Salitre, a pre-Inca site near the northern entrance, has an excellent volcano view. A trail near the lake leads to the smaller Volcán Rumiñahui, a 2-hour hike away, which is sometimes visited by Andean condors. The pine forest near the park entrance is the product of a reforestation project, but hikers or riders who make it to the volcano's eastern slope can explore native cloud and Andean dwarf forests that hold an array of birdlife and other animals.

The park admission costs $10 (£6.65), and camping costs $2 (£1.35), but be forewarned: It can get very cold at night. The climbers' refuge at the volcano's base is accessible by 4WD vehicle, plus a short hike; a bunk there costs $10 (£6.65). But few guests actually sleep here, as most summit attempts begin around 11pm to midnight; you hike through the night to reach the peak in the early morning light and to descend before bad weather moves in.

Location: 60km (37 miles) south of Quito.

Ilinizas National Park -- Spread over 149,000 hectares (368,187 acres) in the country's northwest Sierra, the bulk of Ilinizas is remote, unexplored wilderness. Two of its sites, however, receive a fair amount of visitors: the crater lake Quilotoa and the twin Ilinizas peaks. The bright blue Laguna Quilotoa lies in a deep crater, a hiking trail around the edge of which makes for an excellent day hike -- a popular tour offered by nearby lodges and outfitters. The ascent of the Ilinizas peaks, the highest of which stands at 5,263m (17,267 ft.), is popular with mountaineers. The smaller Iliniza Norte is a relatively easy climb good for acclimatization before attempting the country's highest peaks, but Iliniza Sur is an experts-only technical climb. A refuge at their base has two dozen bunk beds and a basic kitchen.

Location: Quilotoa is 15 minutes from the town of Zumbagua.

Podocarpus National Park -- Off the beaten path, Podocarpus covers a vast swath of the southern Sierra stretching from the paramo down to the rainforest. Its 146,280 hectares (361,466 acres) consequently contain an array of life zones, giving the park some of the greatest biodiversity of any of the country's protected areas. It is named for the endemic coniferous podocarpus trees that abound in its Andean forests, known locally as "romerillo." But those conifer forests are just one of an array of ecosystems protected within the park, which include highland lakes, paramo, cloud forest, and rainforest. Its resident flora and fauna include the rare mountain tapir, a tiny deer called the pudú, and more than 600 species of birds, including such threatened species as the umbrella bird, bearded guan, and coppery-chested jacamar. The park also protects a large petrified forest in Puyango, more than 100 Andean lakes, and the headwaters of southern Ecuador's principal rivers.

Podocarpus is best visited from Loja, which lies close to its upper sector, or Zamora, which is closer to its cloud forests. The park's Cajanuma Administrative Center is 14km (8 3/4 miles) south of Loja. A refuge 8km (5 miles) uphill from there has about 10 bunk beds, whereas the Lagunas del Compadre, a dozen lakes with a camping area, is about a 2-day hike in. Access to the park's lower sector is available via the Bombuscara ranger station near Zamora; the sector also has a shelter with dorm accommodations. The loop trail, called Sendero Higuerones, is an excellent bird-watching route. The admission fee is $10 (£6.65) per person per day; camping costs an additional $3 (£2) per person in a tent; and a bunk at one of the shelters costs $5 (£3.35) per person per night.

Location: 14km (8 3/4 miles) south of Loja, or 6km (3 3/4 miles) south of Zamora.

Sangay National Park -- Sangay is one of the country's two parks to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the Galápagos. The park, which spreads out over almost 518,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) to the southeast of Baños, is a hiker's paradise, but is also accessible on horseback or mountain bike. Its natural attractions include 324 lakes; the volcanoes of Altar, Sangay, and Tungurahua; and a wealth of rare flora and fauna. Sangay and Tungurahua volcanoes are both sporadically active, and thus too dangerous to climb, though Tungurahua's occasional incendiary performances can by enjoyed from miles away. Altar, an extinct volcano that is Ecuador's fifth highest peak, is a popular climbing and trekking destination where there are lush forests, waterfalls, and a crater lake. Together with adjacent Llanganates National Park, Sangay National Park protects an array of ecosystems ranging from Andean paramo to lush rainforest; these areas are home for hundreds of bird species and such rare and endangered fauna as the spectacled bear, mountain tapir, and condor. Sangay National Park can be accessed from Baños, Riobamba, Puyo and other towns of the central and southern highlands. Admission is $10. All of the hotels and tour agencies in the region offer trips and tours here.

Location: Sangay National Park is a broad swath of high sierra stretching south and east from Baños and Riobamba. This massive park can be entered from various points, but the most popular entrance is the northern entrance, located about 70km (43 miles) of Baños.

El Oriente

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve -- This wildlife reserve is one of the largest and richest in Ecuador, with over 655,781 hectares (1.6 million acres) of lowland rainforest in the northeast corner of the country. It is very wet, with numerous oxbow lagoons, streams, and rivers, the largest of which is Río Aguarico. Access to the park is by boat, and as you explore its smaller waterways you may see gray river dolphins, caimans, monkeys, marmosets, macaws, toucans, or hoatzins, an unusual bird found only in the Amazon basin.

This area also is home to the Siona, Cofán, and Quichua indigenous communities, several of which are accustomed to receiving visitors. The best way to visit the reserve is on day trips from one of the lodges along the Aguarico River, which are several hours by bus and boat to the east of Lago Agrio, an oil town that's a 30-minute flight from Quito. Tour and lodging prices usually include the reserve's $20 (£13) admission fee.

Location: 30km (19 miles) east of Lago Agrio.

Yasuni National Park -- Ecuador's biggest national park, Yasuni covers almost 962,000 hectares (2.4 million acres) of lowland rainforest to the south of Río Napo, in the country's eastern extreme. Its jungle is drained by hundreds of lakes, streams, and rivers, such as the Yasuni, Tiputini, and Shiripuno, all of which flow into Río Napo. Those smaller waterways offer the best access to Yasuni, and exploration of them offers opportunities to spot some of area's rare wildlife, which includes pink river dolphins, tapirs, capybaras, giant river otters, anacondas, harpy eagles, various types of macaws, and approximately 500 other bird species.

Yasuni is also home to the Huaorani, an indigenous group that has only had contact with western civilization since the mid-20th century. The only way to visit the park is from one of the nearby nature lodges or on the Manatee Amazon Explorer. Those companies will arrange payment of the $20 (£13) park entrance fee and provide naturalist guides who help spot wildlife and explain the local ecology. Unfortunately, Yasuni wilderness and its Huaorani inhabitants are threatened by oil companies, loggers, and poor farmers, all of which are slowly looting the park of its natural treasures.

Location: 250km (155 miles) east of Quito.

The Pacific

Galápagos National Park -- The crown jewel of Ecuador's national parks system, Galápagos is not just the country's most visited park -- it is the reason most people travel to Ecuador. This 14,245,000-hectare (35-million-acre) marine park was the country's first protected area, and remains its most important. Its endemic birds, giant tortoises, and marine iguanas are biological icons, and their archipelago is of such global importance that UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site. The ability to follow in Darwin's footsteps and marvel at such biological oddities as swimming iguanas, flightless cormorants, and finches that drink blood is a dream come true for many nature lovers. A week spent exploring this park, whether on a cruise or from one of the hotels, is one of the world's great outdoor experiences. Park admission costs $100 (£67).

Location: 966km (600 miles) west of continental Ecuador.

Machalilla National Park -- The only major protected area in Ecuador's Pacific lowlands, Machalilla encompasses some of the last surviving expanses of tropical dry forest in the country. The park's approximately 55,000 hectares (135,908 acres) of dry forest include a mix of endemic plants, such as the ivory palm, as well as more common cactuses and kapok trees. During the dry season, many of the park's trees and bushes drop their foliage, which gives the area a desertlike appearance but makes it easier to spot wildlife. The park is home to animals such as the black howler monkey, the collared peccary, and the endangered brocket deer, as well as some 270 bird species that include such rarities as the gray-cheeked parakeet and the Esmeraldas wood star. The park also contains various archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Valdivia culture.

In addition to the dry forest, Machalilla protects a stretch of coastline that contains sea-turtle nesting beaches and the offshore islands of Isla Santiago and Isla de la Plata, which are important seabird nesting sites. The park's more than 128,000 hectares (316,295 acres) of protected ocean are rich in marine life, offering the country's best scuba diving outside the Galápagos Islands, and are a feeding and breeding area for humpback whales from June to October. Tour companies in Puerto López and Salinas offer boat trips to Isla de Plata for whale-watching, snorkeling, or scuba diving. The park's forests, beaches, and archaeological sites can be easily visited on day trips from Puerto López, where the park administration is based. You can pay the $15 (£10) admission there.

Location: 224km (139 miles) northwest of Guayaquil.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.