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Podocarpus National Park

Podocarpus National Park is one of the jewels of Southern Ecuador and is named after the Podocarpus tree, the only native conifer in the Ecuadorian Andes. Spanning 1,462 square kilometers (564.5 sq mi) of Andean cloud forest, the park hosts five different microclimates and provides drinking water for Loja, Zamora and a number of smaller towns in the region. The park ranges from 900 to 3,600 meters (2,953-11,811 ft) and is home to toucans, spectacled bears, mountain tapers, pigmy deer and over 600 species of birds; 97 percent of the park’s fauna is invertebrate.

There are two main access points to the park: from Loja and from Zamora. To access the high zone, travel 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) along the highway between Loja and Vilcabamba until you reach the Cajanuma Ranger Station.

From this point, head 8.5 kilometers (5.3 mi) along a smaller road until you reach the administration center. From here, there are four main self-guided trails: “Oso de Anteojos,” 400 meters (1,312 ft) long, moderately steep and easily accessible; “El Bosque Nublado,” 750 meters (2,460) long, medium difficulty; and “El Mirador,” 1.5 kilometers (0.9 mi) long, medium difficulty. For a day-long hike, you can continue along “El Mirador” for 3.5 kilometers (2.2 mi), however some parts of this trail are very difficult. The “Lagunas del Compadre Trail” is 15.5 kilometers (9.6 mi) one way and is very steep. For this trail you must bring good camping gear and warm waterproof clothes, and for your safety, advise the park that you will be hiking this trail.

The access to the low zone is 6.8 kilometers (4.2 mi) from Zamora. The last 0.8 kilometers (0.5 mi), you must hike along an easy trail to the Bombuscaro refuge, where there are four different trails. Two lead to waterfalls: “La Chismosa,” 200 meters (656 ft), and “La Poderosa,” 450 meters (1,476 ft). The other two trails are “La Urraquita,” 600 meters (1,969 ft), and “Los Higuerones,” 3 kilometers (1.9 mi). All of these trails are of medium difficulty. Entrance to the park is free.

Tours to Podocarpus can be arranged in either Loja, Zamora or Vilcabamba. Otherwise, it is easiest to catch a taxi ($10 from Loja, $4 from Zamora, $15 from Vilcabamba) from any of those towns to either of the access points. It is a good idea to arrange for the same taxi driver to come back to get you at a set time to bring you back to town. If you want to save money or don't know how long you'd like to stay in the park, you can also walk the eight kilometers (5 mi) downhill from the refuge to the main highway, where you can flag down a bus to Vilcabamba. From Vilcabamba, it is also possible to rent bikes to bike to the park.

17 Jan 2013

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