Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve
Northwest of Cotacachi, the huge Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve ($2 pp) stretches over 2,000 square kilometers from the cold Andean páramo over the western edge of the Andes and well into the humid tropical rainforests in Esmeraldas province.
Elevation ranges from 4,939 meters (the top of Volcán Cotacachi) to just 30 meters above sea level in the lowlands. The park, part of the Chocó bioregion, extends far along the old Ibarra–San Lorenzo rail line and west over the Cordillera de Toisán to the headwaters of rivers flowing into the Pacific.
Cotacachi-Cayapas is defined by water. The Ríos Bravo Grande, Agua Clara, San Miguel, and Santiago all drain the reserve’s lower regions, and waterfalls like the Salto del Bravo and the Cascada de San Miguel are a few hours upstream by boat from the San Miguel guard post.
The Andean part of the reserve is dotted with trout-stocked lakes, including Lagos Yanacocha, Sucapillo, and Burrococha at the foot of Yana Urcu de Piñan (4,535 meters).
Home to a range of rich habitats, the reserve is a naturalist’s dream. All four species of monkey indigenous to western Andean tropical forests swing through the trees here, including black howlers, and nutria (river otter) tracks often turn up on the banks of the muddy rivers. One of Ecuador’s three species of tapir hides in the underbrush, along with the occasional jaguar, ocelots, and river otters. The rare Andean spectacled bear inhabits the Cordillera de Toisán and the Andean forests on the flanks of Cotacachi.
This stunning crater lake is one of the most beautiful and frequently visited in Ecuador. At the foot of Volcán Cotacachi, 3,070 meters up in the Andean páramo, the azure waters of 200-meter-deep Laguna Cuicocha shine brightly with twin volcanic cones at the center. It’s considered sacred by many locals, and every year at summer solstice people take purification baths here.
A trail leads around the entire lake and takes 4–6 hours. It makes for a spectacular hike with wonderful views of Cotacachi, Imbabura, and snowcapped Cayambe. Looking down, you can see the caldera dropping steeply down into the depths of the lake. Bring water, sunscreen, and sturdy boots. On the weekend there are frequent boat trips ($2 pp), although the islands, Teodoro Wolf and Yerovi, are off-limits due to scientific research.
The park entrance is supposedly staffed 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily ($2 pp if the guards are there), and a visitors center (9 a.m.–4 p.m. daily) overlooks the water with exhibits on the ecology, geology, and human history of the lake.
Close by, the best lodging available is Hostería Cuicocha (tel. 6/264-8040 or 9/920-4786, $40 s, $70 d, breakfast and dinner included).
Buses run regularly from Otavalo to Cotacachi and Quiroga. From Cotacachi, take a left at the last traffic light in town on 31 de Octubre and follow the road west through the town of Quiroga to the park entrance gate near the Laguna Cuicocha. It’s better to take a bus to Quiroga, where you can hire a private truck ($5) from the main plaza or tackle the two-hour uphill hike on foot. Take the taxi driver’s number or arrange a pickup time ($10 round-trip). Note that robberies have occasionally been reported, so traveling with a group is advisable.
The 4,939-meter climb up Mama Cotacachi, first done in 1880 by Edward Whymper, Jean-Antoine Carrel, and Louis Carrel, is fairly straightforward and nontechnical, and the lower part is worth hiking even if you don’t intend to reach the summit. The top can be tricky (some climbing experience and a helmet are advised because of the loose rock), so it’s a good idea to do this on a guided tour from Otavalo, unless you are an experienced climber.
Yana Urcu de Piñan
This mountain, the supposed love child of Imbabura and Cotacachi, is climbed far less often than its parents, mainly because the approach can take up to three days. It rises from the páramo in a less-visited region of the reserve near the Gualaví guard post north of the Volcán Cotacachi. One route runs south from the Juncal bridge, where the Panamericana passes over the Río Chota north of Ibarra.
It can also be approached from the south near the Hacienda El Hospital. Reserve personnel at the entrance may be able to help you plan a route. The ascent itself, up the southeast ridge, is relatively simple and should take 5–6 hours. The hike northwest from Irunguichu (four kilometers west of Urcuquí) to the Piñan Lakes at the base of the mountain is a beautiful way to spend three or more days, described in the West of Ibarra section.
Getting to the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve
From Cotacachi, a road leads west through the town of Quiroga to a park entrance gate near Laguna Cuicocha. Pay the $2 pp entrance fee (although staff are frequently absent during the week). A guard post near Lita, halfway along the route between Ibarra and San Lorenzo, offers entrance into the reserve’s lower-elevation cloud forests.
Boats are available from Borbón, near San Lorenzo, to travel upriver to the San Miguel guard post, but security is a problem in this region, so it’s preferable to access the park from the highlands.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition