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Ecuador!

Podocarpus National Park
by Julian Smith

May/Mayo 1998

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Ecuador's southernmost national park is a hidden gem. Large tracts of virgin forest shelter a bewildering array of climates and residents; some of the most spectacular scenery lies within easy access of Loja and Vilcabamba. Even as poaching, illegal colonizing, and especially mining take their toll on Podocarpus, the relative few tourists that visit come away knowing they've seen something special - whether it's the fairy-tale high-altitude forest or one of the flashier of the park's hundreds of bird species.

Habitats

The park ranges from 1,000 meters in the river valleys to 3,600 meters in the higher reaches of the Nudo de Sabanilla mountain range, part of the larger Cordillera Real. Stretching unbroken from the high Andes to low-altitude rainforest, Podocarpus' 360,000 dripping hectares encompass countless microclimates, many found nowhere else in Ecuador.

Most of the park lies between 2,000 and 3,000 meters, consisting of hillsides covered with moist cloud forest. Four separate watersheds, including that of Loja, depend on Podocarpus for their moisture. Over 100 small Andean lakes left in glacial depressions dot the landscape, fed and drained by waterfalls and rushing streams.

Flora and Fauna

Over 40% of the park's 3,000-4,000 plant species are endemic. Podocarpus takes its name from having the country's largest contingent of the Podocarpus or romerillo tree, the only conifer native to Ecuador. Though many of them have been cut down for their high-quality wood, some old 40-meter giants can still be appreciated in remote tracts of cloud forest. Once the world's only source of quinine to fight malaria, the Cascarilla tree, Chinchona succirubra, is common on the western slopes. Other common plants include orchids, bromeliads, palms, and tree ferns.

Podocarpus is by far the most important animal sanctuary in Ecuador's southern Andes. Along with attractive but seldom-seen species such as the spectacled bear, mountain tapir, ocelot, puma, and deer, the park is home to an avian variety to make a birder drool: 600 species recorded so far and many more on the way.

The main entrance at Cajanuma has been called one of the best spots in the world, in terms of variety and easy access, for viewing Andean birds. The list goes on and on: 61 species of hummers, 81 different tanagers, the Andean cock-of-the-rock, and the endangered bearded guan, (Penelope barbata), are only the beginning. Endemic species such as the neblina metaltail(Matallura odomae) and the white-breasted parakeet(Phyrrura albipectus) also make a strong showing.

Visiting the Park

For most of the park, Oct.-Dec. are the driest overall months, with Feb.-April seeing the most rain. Temperatures vary from a 12 C average in the high Andes to 18C in the rainforest. The west side of Podocarpus is covered by the IGM 1:50,000 maps Rio Sabanilla and Vilcabamba (or the 1:100,000 Gonzanama), and the east side falls with the 1:50,000 Zamora and Cordillera de Tzunantza. INEFAN and Arco Iris in Loja (see "Loja and Vicinity," above) have information on the park, and tours run from both Loja and Vilcabamba.

Western Access

The turnoff for the main park entrance is 10 km south of Loja on the road to Vilcabamba. From here it's nine km uphill to the Cajanuma refuge, opened in 1995 with the help of the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and the Peace Corps. It has space and facilities for up to 20 people-book with INEFAN in Loja beforehand. Pay the US$5 entrance fee (if you haven't already), grab a map, and hit one of the many marked senderos (trails) that wind off into the woods, ranging from the 400-meter loop Sendero Oso de Anterojos (Spectacled Bear Trail) to the two-day hike to the Lagunas del Compadre.

Eastern Access

The lower-altitude reaches of Podocarpus can be accessed more directly by way of Zamora. A 40-minte journey down the west side of the Rio Bombuscara - half drive, half walk - brings you to the Bombuscara interpretive center. After a dip in the river, try the one-hour trail to a cliff lookout, and keep your eyes open. Maybe you'll see a grey tinamou, coppery-chested jackamar, Ecuadorian piedtail hummer, or one of a whole spectrum of tanagers (paradise, orange-eared, blue-necked, bay-headed, green and gold, and spotted).

Even more remote is the Romerillos guardpost along the Rio Jamboe, reached by heading 18 km down the east side of the Rio Bombuscara. Both of the eastern entrances are best reached by taxi or ranchero from Zamora. Technically these are lowland park entrances, and as a result cost US$11 if you buy your ticket at the gate - but tickets sold by INEFAN in Loja for US$5 are good for any entrance.

Recommended Reading Excerpted from Ecuador Handbook by Julian Smith, Moon Travel Handbooks, 1998.

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