With a thunderous roar that shook the ground for miles, the top of the volcano exploded, sending tons of slushy mud into the nearby valleys and dropping a thick layer of ash over a vast area. The ash settled over the mighty Araucaria trees, hurled to the ground by the blast. Over time, the ash began to harden, and before it could erode away, the area was covered by water, as irresistible geological changes turned what was once a forest into a swampy lake. Under the black waters, the trees, still entombed in the mineral-rich ash, began to change. As the ages passed, silicon, carbon and other minerals from the ash and water seeped into the wood, hardening and preserving it even as the original biological structure of the tree disappeared.
Centuries passed. The land which was once a forest and then a shallow sea was pushed out of the water and became a forest once again. The land began to naturally erode, and the once-flat land became hilly. More centuries passed, and the trees, which had not seen the light of day for millions of years, were slowly exposed, no longer wood now, but stone.
The largest field of exposed petrified wood in the world is found just south of the Ecuadorian city of Loja, not far from the Peruvian border: its name is El Bosque Petrificado de Puyango, or the Puyango Petrified Forest. Massive stone logs 70 million years old cross the trails, fallen giants from a bygone age. Petrified forests are rare: wood usually decomposes once it dies, and Puyango is considered a very significant source of information by scientists, especially as most of the trees are in the Araucarias family, which are rarely fossilized. There are marine fossils in the park as well, a remnant of a time even before the trees, when the area was a shallow sea.
However, there is more to Puyango then petrified wood. In the local language, Puyango means â€śdry, dead river,â€ť and for good reason. The region is considered a dry tropical forest, a rare ecosystem as most forests in the tropics tend to get a good deal of rain. The area is a protected national park, and features a diverse ecosystem with unique wildlifeâ€”more than 130 species of birds call the forest home for some, if not all of the year. It is also known for many beautiful species of butterflies.
For some, the best part will be the fact that Puyango is well off the gringo trail: itâ€™s very remote, and the nearest city of any size is Loja, about four hours away.