Heading southeast of Guachalá, the dirt road climbs through onion fields and páramo grasslands for an hour’s drive until it passes the Las Puntas hills, site of the entrance checkpoint to the vast Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca (daily, 7am–6pm; $10, though this is often overlooked; ID required). Founded in 1970 the reserve protects over 4000 square kilometres of land, from 5790m to just 600m above sea level. This huge range in altitude spans ten ecological zones that harbour a staggering number of plant and animal species, including nine hundred birds (among them the condor, mountain toucan and Andean cock-of-the-rock), and rare mammals, such as the spectacled bear and dwarf deer. Also living within the reserve are Quichua-language speakers at Oyacachi, a village renowned for its hot springs, and the Cofán people, in the far northeast of the reserve at Sinangoé, who offer family-based accommodation for $30–40 per person per day (arrange through the Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán; wwww.cofan.org).
The reserve’s highest point is the summit of Volcán Cayambe (5790m), Ecuador’s third-highest mountain; just south of the summit is the highest point on the equator, reputed to be the only place on the planet where the latitude and average temperature are both zero degrees. The volcano has a refuge ($17) at about 4700m, reached by a 25-kilometre dirt track leading southeast from Cayambe, with bunks, kitchen facilities, electricity and running water; bring a sleeping bag. The climb from the refuge to the summit (6–7hr) is regarded as more dangerous than either Cotopaxi or Cayambe for its many crevasses, risk of icefall, strong winds and frequent bouts of poor weather, though many agencies in Quito can arrange guides, equipment and transport. Nearer the refuge is an area of crevasses and ice walls often used by climbing schools and agencies for technical training.
There are several other points of access to the Cayambe-Coca reserve, mostly in the Oriente. The road from Papallacta to Baeza and Lago Agrio 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 Lumbaquí, 70km west of Lago Agrio.
Not far beyond Las Puntas checkpoint, the entry road descends into soft cloudforest and ends at OYACACHI, nestled at 3200m in the crook of a valley. The village lies at the high end of one of the oldest routes into the Oriente, very likely the one Gonzalo Pizarro used during his ill-fated search east for El Dorado. One legend maintains two families met here to establish the community, one from the highlands (the Parión family), the other from the rainforests in Oriente (the Aigaje family); it might be a quaint story, but almost every one of the village’s Quichua-speaking residents has one of these names. They live by the reserve’s environmental regulations, which prevent them from developing or cultivating the surrounding terrain, but do grant them generous plots of communal and individual land nearby. Self-imposed rules prohibit the sale of cigarettes and liquor in the village. A hydroelectric dam provides energy, and trout farming, cheese production and woodcarving bolster the local economy. On the main street opposite the school is a communal store many local families supply, where you can buy anything from a simple batea (tray) to elaborate animal carvings.
The main attraction for visitors though, apart from the starting point for a hike to the Oriente, are the thermal springs, Fuentes Termales (daily 8am–4pm; $2), where you can wallow in the warmth of several steaming pools while admiring the wooded hills around you. Apart from weekends, when there’s a woodcarving market at the entrance, you’ll have the place to yourself.
Oyacachi receives few tourists, but there is a bus service from Cayambe, meaning unless you come on Sunday you’ll probably have to stay the night here. The hotel (no name, ask for it or the owner, Elgar Parión; t02/2288968 is the shared number for the whole village; $11–15) has a few perfectly comfortable yet simple rooms with a shared bathroom. Campers can pitch their tents near the springs for a few dollars. You can get meals up the street from the hotel at La Oyacacheña (no sign), run by María Zoila Aigaje, who cooks up a mean fresh trout. Other locals would also be happy to cook for you; just ask around. A taxi or camioneta from Cayambe costs around $20–30 one-way (1hr 15min), or around $40 for a full day.