Ecuador has protected 19% of its area within a range of reserves and national parks, including almost the entirety of the Galapagos Islands and a couple of other UNESCO-listed areas. Enjoy a diversity of habitats, such as rainforest, páramo, volcanoes and mountains, dry tropical forest, mangroves, islands, and marine areas. Within these reserves and national parks, you can find a fantastic amount of Ecuador’s animals and plants. Many of the protected areas can be visited on tours, lodges, and river cruises to experience Ecuador’s natural attractions.
The Galápagos National Park
A world-renowned archipelago, the Galápagos National Park protects the islands made famous by Darwin and the theory of evolution. Enjoy visiting each island to see different wildlife that helped us understand the world’s diversity of animals and plants.
The islands are about 1,000 kilometers west of Ecuador and required the first Galapagos animals and plants to somehow cross this wide expanse of ocean to create the fantastic Eden that awaits you.
See the famed giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Center, the blue and red footed boobies, the marine iguanas, land iguanas, flamingos, the famous finches, and much more.
There are 18 main islands that make up the archipelago and there are also different islets and rocky formations. In addition to these, each island has different bays, outcrops, different beaches made from different minerals, lakes, and other geographical features.
The geological features of each island and bay create a variety of habitats to suit different communities of animals and plants. This is what makes touring the different islands and bays so interesting. And it’s for this reason why we recommend a Galapagos cruise and especially the luxury catamarans to make the most of this incredible area, such as the Ocean Spray Luxury-class Galapagos Cruise.
The cruise itineraries visit different areas, and to see more of the islands, make sure you choose an itinerary visiting the islands and bays you want to see. You can choose a range of days to explore the Galapagos, and the more time you spend here, the more things you will see. There are even 15-day mega-cruises to make the most of the islands and to fully experience the Galapagos.
Aboard these ocean-going catamarans, you will also experience the oceanic environment and we will go into this aspect of the Galapagos further down under the the Galápagos Marine Reserve.
The Yasuni National Park
One of the most wildlife-rich areas on Earth, the Yasuni National Park has broken world records for species diversity across mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and plants. You can see some incredible animals in the Yasuni National Park, including several different monkeys, iconic birds, and large reptiles.
The Yasuni National Park covers around 1 million hectares of lowland rainforest, which gently slopes down away from the Andes. The rainforest protected includes flooded, seasonally flooded, and higher ground forest creating habitats for the high diversity of life.
The Yasuni National Park was incorporated into the UNESCO listed Yasuni Biosphere Reserve because of its incredible amount of biodiversity and its international importance. The reserve is positioned just south of the Napo River, which later joins with other tributaries to form the Amazon River in Peru.
To reach the national park, you will first fly from Quito to Coca, which is your gateway to Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest. You will then travel down the Napo River to begin your tour from some excellent rainforest lodges and river cruises for the Yasuni National Park.
On different Yasuni tours, enjoy many rainforest trails to find howler monkeys, capuchins, squirrel monkeys, titi monkeys, marmosets, and tamarins. In addition to the monkeys, you will see some incredible birds, such as the different macaws, parakeets, toucans, and other colorful species. A rarity for the northern Amazon, you will also enjoy visiting some small clay licks where you can see many parrots gathered at the clay for almost guaranteed wildlife sightings.
From the different lodges for Ecuador’s Amazon, you can enjoy canoeing the many waterways and lakes to find some fascinating lake-living species, such as different lake birds like hoatzins, herons, and cormorants, and hopefully some of the rarer wildlife like the river otters and black caiman.
One of the most highly recommended lodges for the Yasuni National Park is La Selva Lodge & Spa, which offers excellent guided tours, canoe trips, a canopy tower, delicious food, a spa for a massage or relaxing treatment, and a luxurious yet Rainforest Alliance certified lodge.
The Galápagos Marine Reserve
In addition to the land area of the Galapagos Islands protected by the Galapagos National Park, you also have the surrounding ocean protected by the Galápagos Marine Reserve. When most people think of the Galapagos, images of the many different islands and the inhabiting giant tortoises and iguanas come to mind, but the area also has an astounding marine fauna.
The Galápagos Marine Reserve covers a magnificent 13 million hectares surrounding the Galapagos Islands themselves, which is about half the land area of Ecuador. As one of the world’s largest protected areas, the reserve protects an incredible amount of marine life.
The reserve protects close to 3,000 different marine animals and a quarter of these are found nowhere else on Earth. The favorite animals to see include the Galapagos sea lions, hammerhead sharks, Galapagos penguins, dolphins, whales, manta rays, whale sharks, and many different colorful reef fish. Because of its large area and the incredible diversity, the Galápagos Marine Reserve protects one of the world’s largest populations of sharks.
There are different sites in the reserve to enjoy recreational activities like snorkeling and diving to experience this incredible marine world. It’s a fantastic experience to swim with the whale sharks, sea lions, and dolphins, and enjoy sharing their world.
The marine reserve was a very important addition to the Galapagos as prior to the reserve foundation in 1986, only about one percent of the water surrounding the islands was officially protected.
To get the best experience of the marine environment and the Galapagos Islands, we recommend the Ocean Spray, Cormorant Galapagos Cruise, or Petrel Galapagos Cruise. Choose from a range of itineraries to see the iconic wildlife on island walks and enjoy snorkeling and kayaking to explore the marine area. Snorkel with colorful reef fish, see the hammerhead sharks, sea lions, and penguins.
The Cuyabeno Reserve
The Cuyabeno Reserve sits north of the Yasuni National Park and is just across the Napo River. Being so close together, the wildlife is very similar but is a little less diverse than the Yasuni rainforest. This is possibly attributed to the higher fraction of flooded forest in the Cuyabeno Reserve. Despite this, you can still see the fantastic and iconic animals of the Amazon Rainforest.
Covering just over 600,000 hectares of lowland Amazon Rainforest, the Cuyabeno Reserve protects a fantastic amount of animals and plants. Because of the reserve’s more flooded nature, the Cuyabeno has many different waterways and lakes. The lakes attract different wildlife, such as hoatzins, cormorants, monkeys, and caiman.
Enjoy exploring the reserve from different lodges to walk the rainforest and canoe the waterways. The reserve is known to be very accessible and you can enjoy visiting different wildlife-filled lakes from the reserve’s lodges, including the Zancudo Cocha Lake and Lagarto Cocha Lakes.
Migratory birds visit the area when the northern hemisphere is in winter. This is when the reserve is in its dry season and when the water bodies shrink, which is thought to concentrate the wildlife. The driest months are from mid-December to March, and over the non-flooded area, the drier season is better for walking as the trails are less muddy. The wetter months are when the forest fruits and flowers attracting different monkeys and birds to feed from the abundant food supply.
Within the Cuyabeno Reserve, you can find several different monkeys, such as the howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, capuchins, spider monkeys, and marmosets. The birdlife is also fantastic and you can find the iconic macaws and toucans plus a number of other colorful species. Being a more flooded area, the reserve is also home to black caiman, anaconda, dolphins, and the giant river otters.
The northern part of the Cuyabeno Reserve contains the most flooded forest. The trees and plants here are submerged in black water, which is colored by the tannins of decomposing leaves. Plants in this area have adapted to the constantly flooded habitat.
The Cotopaxi National Park
A very attractive and scenic area, the Cotopaxi National Park is focussed on the Cotopaxi volcano. The park is about 50 km south of Quito and makes a great trip from the country’s capital. The volcano itself is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes and had its last major eruption around 100 years ago.
Surrounding the iconic cone-shaped Cotopaxi is an ecological reserve protecting a diversity of animals and plants. The protected area is popular with tourists and locals alike who visit for the incredible scenery, great hiking trails, and climbing opportunities.
The area is inhabited by different animals, including rabbits, wild horses, foxes, bears, and even pumas. The favorites birds in the area are the condors, which you can see flying high above the park.
The name Cotopaxi itself is thought to mean ‘the neck of the moon’, and because of its imposing nature, the volcano was worshipped by early civilizations. The volcano is part of the famed ring of fire that extends around the Pacific Ocean.
Not only a fantastic sight and the second highest peak in Ecuador, the Cotopaxi volcano is also interesting historically. The famous explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who named and described many of the species in Latin America had attempted a climb of Cotopaxi but had failed to reach the top. Humboldt influenced many naturalists, including Charles Darwin who had a copy of Humboldt’s work aboard the Beagle and referenced him frequently in his work Voyage of the Beagle.
In addition to hiking and climbing opportunities within the national park, you can also enjoy camping, horseriding, and mountain biking. Spot the different horses and llama grazing with the beautiful Cotopaxi volcano in the background.
The relatively flat area surrounding the volcano is then dotted with giant boulders as a reminder that the volcano is still active and as evidence to its most recent eruptions. To visit the park, you can arrange a day trip or a more immersive experience.
The Bellavista Reserve
The Bellavista Reserve is a protected area covering 800 hectares of Ecuadorian cloud forest on the north-west slopes of the Andes. The reserve makes a great visit to see different cloud forest plants and animals, and is located about 50 km from Quito.
The reserve was first established by a British/Colombian couple in 1991 and is especially a favorite place to visit for nature lovers and bird watchers. Since its foundation, the reserve has been expanded to it current reach.
As a private reserve and founding member of the Network of Private Protected Forests of Ecuador, you can visit the protected area from the reserve lodge, which has been officially certified by Rainforest Alliance and Smart Voyager.
The subtropical pre-montane rainforest protected within the reserve contain a fantastic amount of wildlife. The Andes region contains one of the world highest diversities of species and the birdlife is especially spectacular. The temperature is fresh compared to the lowland rainforest and nights can get a lot cooler, so make sure you bring clothing for colder weather.
One of the iconic features of the cloud forests are the epiphytes, which can be seen everywhere growing on the different trees. The cloud forests of Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia contain the highest amount of epiphytes on Earth and it adds an enchanting feel to the regions.
In addition to the epiphytes, you can find an abundance of orchids. There are many varieties to find with different forms, colors, and scents.This is an orchid paradise and you can find 10% of all the world’s orchid species in Ecuador.
The birds you can see include the different toucans, many different hummingbirds, nightjars, finches, nunbirds, and the cock of the rocks with their bright red plumage. To date, over 260 birds have been registered within the reserve. You can also find different mammals, such as the spectacled bears, tayras, and coatis.
The Chimborazo Fauna Reserve
The highest mountain in Ecuador, Chimborazo is an inactive volcano that had its last eruption in 550 AD. This is the main feature of the reserve and the surrounding area is home to llamas, rabbits, Andean condor, caracaras, deer, and alpacas. The vegetation and landscape of the reserve is composed of low shrubs, tall grasses, wetlands, and forests of evergreen, high-altitude trees.
The area is a favorite destination for tourists who come to enjoy the beautiful scenery, nature, attractive lakes, and many different hikes. The mountain is the largest in Ecuador and the Chimborazo peak is the furthest point from the Earth’s center due the bulging of the equator. You can even seen the mountain when you’re standing hundreds of kilometers away on Ecuador’s coast.
There are different rivers that begin on Chimborazo, such as the Guayas River that flows to Ecuador’s city of Guayaquil. The rivers flow through the mountain’s surrounding Chimborazo Fauna Reserve, which was founded to protect and re-introduce Andean wildlife. The reserve is especially known for the vicuñas and other camelids. An important animal historically for the Andes, wool from the vicuña was so highly prized that it was reserved for Incan royalty. The vicuña herds are one of the reserve’s main attractions.
There’s a ring around the mountain that is still inhabited by indigenous communities. The people here are keeping ancient customs and traditions alive by raising alpacas and llamas for wool and also involving themselves in tourism. Many of the communities still speak Kichwa, which was the language of the Inca mixed with the local pre-Incan languages of Ecuador. The Incan civilization was the largest pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas and extended down the western side of South America from Ecuador, through Peru, to Argentina.
To enjoy the reserve, you can take different hikes and walking trails, visit the thermal baths in Cunuyacu, enjoy mountain biking and horseriding, and organise community-based tours from Riobamba.
The Cajas National Park
The Cajas National Park is an attractive and interesting national park founded in 1996 and located about 30 km west of Cuenca in southern Ecuador. The park is where two of Cuenca’s four rivers originate and provides a large amount of the city’s fresh water. Both of these rivers cross the country to help form the mighty Amazon River that feeds a basin covering 40% of the continent.
Covering close to 30,000 hectares, the park is mostly covered with grassland, which is known as páramo, but there is also cloud forest and high mountain forest. The animals you can find in the Cajas National Park include the majestic Andean condors, raptors, different hummingbirds, toucans, and around 150 other bird species. The other animals you can find include many different bats, coatis, foxes, rabbits, a diversity of reptiles and amphibians, and also the cats, including the mountain lions.
Evidence of human settlement has been found in the reserve from around 1000 years ago belonging to the Cañari people. There is also a lot of evidence from the Inca civilization, including different Incan roads, and about 30 different archaeological remains are found in the park.
Visitors enjoy different activities within the park, including camping, hiking, and climbing, but the park is also popular with nature lovers and bird watchers. Visitors enjoy day hikes within the protected areas and longer expeditions.
The park is home to some beautiful scenic features, including mountainous scenery, attractive lakes, waterfalls, and waterways. The park contains over 200 different lakes and is easily visited on a day trip from Cuenca. Some of the lakes can be visited after a couple of hours, but others are deeper within the national park and require multi-day hikes.
The Machalilla National Park
The Machalilla National Park is Ecuador’s only coastal national park and offers beautiful scenery, a high amount of both coastal and forest wildlife, and provides a fantastic destination on your journey through Ecuador.
Located just north of Puerto Lopez, the park protects around 40,000 hectares of land area comprised of dry tropical forest, a long stretch of beach, and a significant amount of the ocean including two different islands named the Isla de la Plata and Isla Salango. In addition to the dry forest and coastal areas, the Machalilla National Park also contains a section of mysterious cloud forest. Including the marine areas, the park stretches to around 128,000 hectares.
The Isla de Plata is one of the two islands protected by the Machalilla National Park and is home to a sea lion colony, waved albatross, different boobies, and contains interesting archaeology. On the island, there are two different walks that take a few hours each for you to experience the island and you can arrange a day trip from the coast.
Within the Machalilla National Park on the mainland, you can walk many different trails through the dry tropical forest, enjoy the large hot springs, and relax on some of the best beaches in Ecuador. The most popular is a beach called Playa Los Frailes with its white sand and warm, welcoming water. The beach is about 11 km north of Puerto López and there are trails taking you to some beautiful views
The park also preserves some archaeological sites and has an abundance of wildlife, including marine mammals, land mammals, reptiles, and many different birds. The plant life is also interesting and around 20% of the woody plants are endemic to the region. The park is also a favorite destination for whale watching as humpback whales come to breed within the park’s boundary.
For the best experience of nature on the park’s mainland, you can head to the cloud forests near San Sebastián, which you can reach from Agua Blanca. The area is home to many different birds, orchids, epiphytes, and even some different monkeys. From Agua Blanca, the hike takes around 5 hours but you can also take the journey on horseback.
The Sangay National Park
Sangay National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains two volcanos, glaciers and tropical rainforest. At the time of writing, this is one of only four UNESCO sites in Ecuador. The other three are the Galapagos Islands already mentioned, the center of Quito, and Cuenca. The park protects many different Andean animals and plants, including mountain tapir (the most threatened of the tapir species) and spectacled bears.
Other wildlife living in the Sangay National Park include giant otters, jaguar, Andean foxes, Brazilian tapir, different deer species, puma, and around 400 differed birds. This is a fantastic place for birders and there are many interesting species to see. Spot the Andean condor flying around the mountains, different parakeets, different tanagers, jacamars, toucans, and many restricted-range and endemic species.
Located in central Ecuador, Sangay National Park covers around 500,000 hectares of habitat and contains one of the world’s most active volcanos, Volcan Sangay. Other features and attractions include different waterfalls, caves, thermal springs, lakes, and rivers.
The park is fairly remote but protects the largest amount of Ecuador’s highlands. The habitats protected include Ecuador’s Andean grasslands, called the páramo, and also Amazon rainforest on the eastern side of the park.
Aside from the active Sangay Volcano, the other volcano in the park is called El Altar, which was likely one of the highest volcanoes on earth before it erupted thousands of years ago.
Although the park is fairly remote, there are a few different hiking trails within the Sangay National Park. Because of the diversity of habitats, the park provides some very beautiful scenery and a diversity of different animals and plants.
The Illinizas Ecological Reserve
The Illinizas Ecological Reserve covers around 150,000 hectares of cloud forest, sub-tropical forest, and Andean grassland (páramo). One of the reserve’s favorite features is the Laguna Quilotoa, which has some great hiking opportunities.
The Illinizas Reserve is located around 50 km south of Quito and contains different volcanoes, springs, streams, rivers, a deep canyon, and some very attractive scenery. The Laguna Quilotoa was one of the main reasons for the reserve foundation in 1996, but it was also important to protect the area surrounding the twin peaks of Illiniza. These are snow capped vocanos and provide fantastic views when exploring the reserve. In addition to the geological features and nature, the reserve also contains different archaeological remains.
The Quilotoa Lagoon itself is filled with uniquely colored water, which glistens as an emerald green. The lagoon is volcanic in origin, measures three kilometers in diameter, and contains salty water. Nearby, you can find the indigenous community of Zumbahuas, which you can visit to buy some traditional handicrafts and souvenirs.
Although the reserve is quite remote and not the easiest reserve to visit, the hiking opportunities and scenery make the journey worth it. The reserve’s location is also what has helped protect the environment.
The recommended time to visit the reserve is between August and December to avoid the rainy months. You can enjoy hiking and climbing tours, which you can book in Quito. Many of the excellent hiking trails are unmarked and you need to rely on local knowledge or a trained guide.
The Pululahua Reserve
The Pululahua Reserve protects the collapsed volcano, Pululahua. As well as its geological significance, the reserve protects many different animals and plants. The volcano erupted around 2500 years ago and left what’s now referred to as a caldera.
Enjoy a diversity of Andean vegetation, including the epiphytes, bromeliads, ferns, and the much-loved orchids. There are many endemic species native to the reserve
The crater itself measures around 3,400 hectares and the floor of the crater is filled with cloud forest vegetation and the surrounding hills are covered with beautiful greens. The reserve has a great lookout of the caldera and surrounding environment. In addition to looking at the beautiful scenery, you can enjoy various hiking routes, horse riding, mountain biking, and simply relaxing being surrounded by beautiful nature and scenery.
Unusually for calderas, Pululahua has been inhabited since the time of the Incas and now is home to a community of farmers in the town of Nublin. The caldera is inactive and so there is no danger of an eruption.
El Angel Ecological Reserve
A fantastic protected area to visit, El Angel Ecological Reserve has a mysterious-looking landscape about 170 km north of Quito. Protecting the paramo, known in Ecuador and Colombia, the reserve sits right at the Colombian border.
Over half of the plants found here are found nowhere else on Earth. However, the most iconic are the frailejones, which are a tree-like plant with grey colored leaves and normally grow to around 5 feet, although some get as high as 20 feet. These dot the area and give the appearance of an alien landscape. The plants are synonymous with the area as they cover over 80% of the reserve.
To see the reserve, you need to visit the El Angel-Carchi village and there are various attractive lagoons in the area, including the Voladero Lagoon and Green Lagoon. In addition to the lakes, attractive scenery, and fascinating plants, you can also find different Andean animals, such as the iconic condors, caracaras, deer, and paramo wolves.
Covering around 16,000 hectares, El Angel Ecological Reserve is one of the wettest areas of high-altitude grassland in Ecuador, which helps create the reserve’s unique flora and fauna. The reserve is especially popular with birdwatchers as you can find a number of interesting species, including the condors, caracaras, black-thighed pufflegs, Ecuadorian hillstars, scarlet-bellied mountain-tanagers, Andean lapwings, and even hummingbirds.
Limon Cocha Biological Reserve
The Limon Cocha Biological Reserve covers around 5,000 hectares of primary tropical forest, secondary tropical forest, wetland and lagoon areas, and is especially popular with birdwatchers. Around 400 different bird species are found within the reserve, but it also protects many other animals and different plants.
The reserve has one of the highest populations of tortoises and a large population of black caiman. There are the usual animals you find in the Ecuadorian Amazon, such as macaws, sloths, capybara, different monkeys, such as woolly monkeys, night monkeys, howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, sakis, and the many lake and water birds, such as herons, anhingas, and cormorants. The favorite birds to see include the different parrots, toucans, hummingbirds, and oropendolas. The vegetation is fairly diverse but the main plants are the chontilla palms given the more flooded nature of the reserve.
Located about 60 km from Francisco de Orellana (Coca), the lagoon area was formed by the historical route of the Napo River, which runs through the heart of the Yasuni National Park mentioned further up. The reserve is also home to a small indigenous community who still speak Kichwa as the local language, which is a mix of Incan and local pre-incan languages.
Although a small protected area, the reserve is still home to interesting wildlife and scenery. The main attraction of the reserve is what the area was named after, as Limon Cocha (Lemon Lake) is the only green lake in Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest. To help clarify, the citrus fruits known as ‘lemons’ in many parts of South America are green. It’s a great place to observe the surrounding scenery, enjoy nature, or to spot the many different birds.
The Mache Chindul Ecological Reserve
Mache Chindul Ecological Reserve protects around 70,000 hectares of tropical forest along Ecuador’s southern coastline. One of the main features is the Cube Lagoon, which is a wetland of international importance because of its ecological functions and the animals and plants it supports. Birdwatchers especially love the reserve and almost 500 different birds can be found in the area. The favorites include the hummingbirds, parrots, and toucans.
Other animals within the Mache Chindul Ecological Reserve include different monkeys, including howler monkeys, capuchins, squirrel monkeys, giant anteaters, umbrella birds, and even jaguar. In addition to the rainforest, the reserve also protects one of the last remaining stands of Ecuador’s dry forests. The mix of habitats creates the high diversity of species and just under 1,500 plant species have been recorded within the reserve. The plants in turn create the different habitats for a diversity of animals and there are many species to find. In addition to the fantastic wildlife, this is a great area to see different waterfalls.