Almost nineteen percent of Ecuador’s territory is protected within 40 national parks, reserves, refuges and recreation areas, including 97 percent of the Galápagos Islands plus an ample marine reserve surrounding them. Encompassing mangrove swamps, dry and wet tropical coastal forests, cloud and montane forests, tropical rainforests, páramo and volcanoes, the protected areas represent a cross section of the country’s most outstanding natural landscapes and habitats.
Some are so important they have earned international recognition – such as Sangay, a World Natural Heritage Site; Yasuní, a World Biosphere Reserve; and the Galápagos Islands, which are both. The principal aim of the Ministerio del Ambiente, which ultimately manages them, is to protect native flora and fauna from ever-increasing external pressures; few protected areas have the resources beyond this to invest in tourist facilities. Some parks might have a rudimentary refuge and a few trails, but for the most part these are pure wildernesses – areas that are primarily protected by virtue of their remoteness and inaccessibility – and exploring them is only possible with a guide and camping equipment or the logistical help of a tour operator.
No permit is needed to visit Ecuador’s national parks; you simply turn up and pay your entrance fee if there’s a warden (guardaparque) at the guard post (guardería) to collect it. Entrance to protected areas usually either costs $10 or $5, roughly according to their popularity, except for Cuyabeno ($20), Pasochoa ($7), Machalilla ($12–20), and the Galápagos Islands ($100). Nationals and residents pay substantially reduced rates in all cases.
Ease of access differs wildly from one park to the next, but most are reached via rough, bumpy dirt roads, and getting there often involves renting a vehicle or booking transport through a local tour company.
The guardaparques are the best people to speak to if you want information; they can also put you in touch with a good local guide, if not offer their own services. Alternatively, try the Ministerio del Ambiente office in the nearest town, which should have small leaflets (trípticos) about the park and basic maps. Finally, there’s the head office in Quito (on the 8th floor of the Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería building on avenidas Amazonas and Eloy Alfaro; t02/2563429, wwww.ambiente.gob.ec), which keeps information on all the parks and runs a library, though it can take time to track down what you want there.
Few parks have provision for accommodation. Wardens are happy to let you camp, but there’s rarely a designated camping area or camping facilities. Some reserves have a basic refuge (refugio); most of the volcanoes popular with climbers have these within a day’s climb of the summit, usually a hut with a couple of rooms full of bunks, some simple cooking facilities and running water. They cost $5–20 a night and you should bring your own sleeping bag.
There is also a growing number of smaller private reserves, which have been set up for conservation, scientific research or ecotourism projects and managed by philanthropists, environmentalists or ecological foundations. Generally, these places are much better geared to receiving tourists than the national parks and many have a purpose-built lodge or accommodation within the main research station. They will often also have clear trails, equipment to borrow (rubber boots, binoculars), guides and information, such as bird lists. Yet all this convenience comes at a price – anything from $20 to over $100 a night, including meals, unless you’re a volunteer, but it’s well worth the extra cash for the chance to experience some of the most exciting ecosystems on the planet. The most obvious examples are the cloudforest reserves of northwestern Ecuador and the jungle lodges in the Oriente.