Cotopaxi National Forest - Birding in the Clouds
Lat: 0o 48” S Lon: 78o 26” W
Cotopaxi National Park, situated in north-central Ecuador about 30 km south of Quito, is the most visited protected area within this tiny nation. This wilderness region derives its name from Cotopaxi volcano that is the central point of the reserve. Although Cotopaxi has been claimed by many to be the highest active volcano in the world, it is surpassed by Llullaillaco on the border between Argentina and Chile and Ojos del Salado in Chile. However, standing at 5,864 meters (19,350 feet) it become a formidable challenge to countless adventurous mountain climbers from around the world. The first stop on the eleventh season of "The Amazing Race" was to a hacienda located in the eastern portion of the reserve.
Cotopaxi National Park encompasses 33,393 ha. (83,000 acres) of wilderness area that is home to an extensive diversification of flora and fauna. Temperatures average 7o C (45o F) all year round and windy conditions can be expected, especially in the early afternoon. Cotopaxi is enclosed by clouds most of the year but the months of June – September can provide a good deal of sunshine. Deforestation has destroyed most of the native trees but pines and paramo grasses harbor a great variety of birds. Lake Limpiopungo, to the north of the volcano, provides a habitat for many species of waterfowl as well as the marsh grasses that are home to the Noble Snipe. A walk around the lake can reveal 10 to 15 different aviean species.
Access and Facilities
Locating the park is fairly easy, although it is recommended to travel by private vehicle. Local transportation can deliver a traveler to the park entrance but it is a daunting hike to the major points of interest. To reach the reserve, go south from Quito on the Pan-American Highway until you reach the toll both south of Machachi. Continue south past volcano Rumiñahui on the left. After traversing the foothills and descending the opposite side, there will be a sign indicating the entrance to the park. After turning left onto an unpaved road, travel about 6 km (4 mi.) to the ranger station. The park does not open until 8:00 AM, so if a visitor wishes access to the park at an earlier time it would be necessary to stay at one of the hosterias located within the reserve or to spend the night at the campgrounds.
Once access to the park has been acquired, a 10 km (6 mi.) drive will bring the anxious traveler to Lake Limpiopungo. The lake is located at 3,600 m (12,000 ft.) above sea level and is home to an abundant variety of waterfowl and other avifauna. The Andean Gull, the only gull residing at this altitude in Ecuador, is ever-present. A pathway circumnavigates the lake and is an easy hike for adventurers of all ages.
In addition to the abundant avifauna of the reserve there are numerous other attractions for the curious visitor. Located within the park are several Aztec ruins, dating back several hundreds of years. Wild horses roam the expansive tundra, seeking out paramo grasses to consume in their carefree environment. Campsites can be acquired from La Rinconada and Condor Huyaco for the daring thrill-seeker willing to battle the frosty nights in the Cotopaxi foothills. For the less venturesome, two hosterias provide more comfortable accommodations for the weary traveler.
Ecuador offers the venturesome visitor a variety of opportunities and experiences. Cotopaxi National Forest provides those adventures at the top of the world. Horseback riding, hiking, trekking, mountain climbing, birding, and mountain biking are all part of what make Cotopaxi an enjoyable vacation destination.