The Most Complete Guide of Ecuador

Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve

The Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve stretches for 243.638 acres, making its way from Imbabura, in the Ecuadorian Sierra, to the coastal province of Esmeraldas. With a wide range in altitude covering its extensive territory, its ecosystems vary from evergreen forests in the lowlands, to cloud forests, tropical forests, prairies, sandbanks and paramos. It’s no wonder that such a diverse ecological reserve is the birthplace of thousands of species of flora and fauna, rich native cultures, and important water sources.

From the summit of Cotacachi (4.399 m a.s.l.) to the tropical forests surrounding the riverbed, Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve is thrilling to explore. Adventure yourself to a territory of bountiful rivers, hundreds of species of orchids, bromeliads hanging from mossy trees, condors flying above and even snow above Cotacachi Volcano when the temperatures drop.

Did you know? In the higher Andes, Kichwa communities thrive, while the lower region is home to the indigenous nationalities Awá, Cachi, Épera, as well as Afro-Ecuadorians and mestizos.

Main Attractions:

Higher elevations:


Also known as the Lagoon of the Gods, a water filled caldera awaits just 12 km from Cotacachi. Turquoise waters and high sulfuric properties make this lagoon an unparalleled landscape to witness. To fully explore Cuicocha, you can take a 12,5 km trail circling the lagoon, across the paramo. Discover the wildlife and vegetation of the area and encounter animals such as hummingbirds and rabbits along the way! Difficulty: High, the trek is approximately 5 hours long.

Tip: You can also walk up to a viewpoint following the Orquídeas trail (short- approx. 40 min) or rent a boat and tour around Cuicocha’s two islets Yerovi and Theodore Wolf (approx. 20 min)!


West of Yanahurco, Piñan is an ample paramo with fascinating lagoons, paradisiacal landscapes and a welcoming community (that provides facilities for lodging). It is also known to be a great place for horseback riding and trout fishing.


A 4.939 m volcano is the highest point in the reserve, and its summit can occasionally be seen covered with snow. A 14 km trek will take you from the control point up to the antenna sector. Difficulty: Advanced, you will need to be accompanied by a mountain guide.


10 km away from Sachapamba, a road will take you to Yanacocha lagoon, and 5 km further to the summit of Yanahurco. *Guide and camping gear necessary.

Lower elevations:

Chocó Region: Venture into the humid forest and navigate Cayapas River to visit Charco Vicente, San Miguel Waterfall and the jump at Río Bravo.

Charco San Vicente: A 3.5 km unguided tour across a primary forest.

Playa del Oro Community: Following Santiago River, an afro Esmeraldeña community will be your host, taking you on a tour to explore the humid tropical forest of the coastal region.


Jungle Excursions: explore the tropical forest with guided or self guided tours and discover the exuberance of the coastal region. They don’t call Esmeraldas the “Green Region” for nothing!

Photography: No matter if you visit the highlands or the low elevations, beautiful scenery will accompany you everywhere you go.

Trekking: Established trails will take you across mountains and forests, all over the reserve. There are also areas you can explore on your own (follow your own path and bring out the adventurer in you!).

Camping: Camping near a lagoon in the páramos of Cotacachi-Cayapas is an experience you will never forget! Plus, you can even fish your own dinner at night.

Canoeing: If you visit the lower elevations, be prepared to hop on a canoe and travel across rivers.

Biking: certain roads within the reserve can be travelled by bike! Ask your guide upon arrival to take you to the best trails for dirt bikes and enjoy a good ride.

Flora & Fauna:

Fauna: Condors, toucans, curiquingues, hummingbirds and over 680 species of birds (the reserve was declared an IBA), spectacled bears, wolves, white tailed deer, pumas, rabbits, frogs, coral snakes, lizards, tigrillos, otters, howler monkeys, jaguars, sloths.

Flora: Orchids (there are more than 200 species of orchids in the reserve), Pumamaquis, Polylepis (or paper trees) yagual, palo rosa, myrtles, aguatillos, guayacanes, chanul, custard apples, bromeliads, ferns.

Interesting fact: The Pumamaqui tree is endemic to Ecuador and it is named after the puma, because its leaves resembles a puma’s claw.

How to get there?

Higher Elevations:

From Quito: Take Panamericana Norte until you reach Cotacachi. From Cotacachi, a 12 km drive through a paved road will take you directly to Cuicocha.

Lower Elevations:

From Quito:

From Borbón: From Borbón you can get to the nearest towns inside the reserve, San Miguel (4h boat ride through Cayapas) or Playa de Oro (from Selva Alegre you can take a 1h boat ride).



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