Ecuador // The northern sierra //

Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas

Covering more than two thousand square miles of the western Andes, the Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas was established in 1968 and spans from the summit of Volcán Cotacachi (4944m) down to the coastal lowlands (300m), protecting ecological habitats from the páramo grasslands in the east to the dense rainforests of Esmeraldas province. The reserve is part of the Chocó bioregion, which extends into southern Colombia, where high levels of rainfall support one of the earth’s most diverse ecosystems. Twenty percent of Ecuador’s endemic plants are found here, as well as thousands of mammals, birds and insects, including Andean spectacled bears, ocelots, jaguars and river otters.

From Cotacachi and Otavalo, it’s easy to get to the centre of the highland section, Laguna Cuicocha (“Guinea Pig Lake” in Quichua), a spectacular crater lake at 3060m, located at the foot of the dormant Volcán Cotacachi in the southeastern tip of the reserve. The two islands in the middle of the lake, Isla Wolf and Isla Yerovi, are a pair of old volcanic cones that grew up from the floor of a collapsed crater 200m below, and according to legend were used by the Incas as a prison. They’re off-limits due to on-site research, but you can jaunt across the lake on a motorboat ($2 per person), or learn more about it in the visitor centre.  Better still, you can walk around the rim of the crater on a well-kept, circular trail. The ten-kilometre hike (best walked counterclockwise) takes about five hours to complete, though your effort is rewarded by wonderful views of Cayambe and Cotacachi on clear days, not to mention orchids and giant hummingbirds, and even condors if you’re lucky. The trailhead is behind the guard post at the reserve entrance; check here about safety conditions before setting off as there have been sporadic robberies.

The access to climb the snow-dusted peak of Volcán Cotacachi begins at some antennas to its east, at the end of the dirt road heading north from the guard post. It’s not a technical climb, but there is some scrambling near the top as well as risk of rock fall. A guide is recommended, not least because fog often makes finding routes difficult; ask at El Mirador restaurant or tour agencies in Otavalo.