Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve
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The Ecological Cotacachi-Cayapas Reserve, in the Western Andes, encompasses 204,420 hectares (505,133 ac) that ranges in elevation from the summit of Cotacachi (4,939 m/16,200 ft) to coastal rainforest (300 m/980 ft).
Access to the reserve is difficult since most of the area is covered by thick vegetation, except for the eastern edge, which is páramo. Most people choose to access the reserve from Otavalo or Ibarra, but it is also possible to gain entry by traveling up the Cayapas River from the coastal Afro-ecuadorian community of Borbon.
The Piñan area, a section of high, unspoilt páramo, is located at the eastern end of the Cotacachi-Cayapas reserve. For incredible views, which many consider to be the best in Ecuador, try summiting the Yanaurco in the Piñan. The trek takes between three and four days and begins at the small village of Iruguincho, northwest of Ibarra. A stop in the village will give you an insight into the traditional farming practice in the area, which has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
As you climb high into the páramo, you may notice herds of wild horses, an abundance of small lakes and spectacular local vegetation that includes a variety of wildflowers. Due to the isolation and unspoiled nature of the area, the Piñan is one of the best places in Ecuador to see condors and white-tailed deer. For those interested in birds, there are also caracaras, finches, flycatchers, and a large number of hummingbird species.
From the Yanaurco summit, the views are breathtaking. On a clear day you can see the whole of the Ibarra/San Pablo valley and a scattering of more than 40 lakes. Campus Trekking Agency, based just outside of Quito, is one of the Ecuadorian operators that offers guides for the Piñan trek. Contact: Campus Trekking Tel: 02-234-0601, URL: www.campus-trekking.com. You can also find guides in the Piñan community itself. For more information check in their website www.pinantrek.com.
One of the most popular places to visit in the reserve is the impressive Laguna Cuicocha, a stunning crater lake situated at the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano, at an altitude of 3200 meters (10,500 ft). Emerging from the dark waters of the three-kilometer (1.86-mi) wide lake are four spectacularly perfect vegetation-covered domes which were formed by the last eruption over 3,000 years ago. Boats, which depart every half hour or so, will take you around the islands, near which you can observe bubbles of sulfur gas escaping to the surface and turning the water lukewarm. The ride costs $2 per person and includes a voucher for a steaming hot cup of canelazo at the open-air lakeside cafeteria (where you can also purchase empanadas and choclo con queso if you get hungry). Be sure to wrap up warm for the boat ride.
If you are up for a three-to-four-hour hike, you can also follow the path along the rim of the crater, which offers spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes and of Otavalo valley. Most people head off around the lake anticlockwise from the cafeteria. Be aware that the hike has steep sections, especially at the beginning if you take the anti-clockwise route. The walk is probably best done in groups, as in the past there have been reports of robberies. The hike’s highlights include countless species of pretty orchids and flowers and great views of the lake and its islands.
Getting To and Away from the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve
From Otavalo’s bus terminal, take a green-colored bus heading to Quiroga/Cotacachi and get off in Quiroga ($0.20, 15 min). From Quiroga, you can hire a taxi or truck to the reserve (and the lake) for $6. If you are heading to the reserve or lake from Cotacachi, you can also hire a taxi for around $6.
Other places nearby Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve: El Ángel, Quito, San Antonio De Ibarra, Agato, Salinas Valley, Cotacachi, Lagunas de Mojanda, Otavalo, Cayambe and Lago San Pablo.
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