Very few people visit the high-altitude páramo landscape in the El Angel Ecological Reserve in northern Ecuador, and that’s a shame.
Exploring El Angel Reserve in Ecuador
Ecuador has more than 30 national parks, ecological preserves, and wildlife refuges. In 2012, then President Rafael Correa waived the entry fee to all of them (except Galapagos Islands National Park) in an effort to get more Ecuadoreans out into their wild spaces.
However, many parks in Ecuador are still virtually visitor free. Take El Angel Ecological Reserve for example. Located just three hours from Quito, this reserve contains some of the country’s most gorgeous high-altitude páramo plus three of the four species of Seuss-like frailejón plants on the planet and the world’s only known stand of a certain species of hobbity polylepis tree. Yet we saw a grand total of five other people when we explored this stunning park.
Páramo is a moor-like mossy, marshy wetland that acts like a giant sponge, trapping water which is then slowly released. Páramo landscapes provide drinking water for millions of people and support some pretty odd and specific flora and fauna. The most striking páramo plant is called a frailejón. It grows quite tall (up to 23 feet or 7 meters), has huge hairy leaves (to protect the plant from extreme cold), develops yellow flowers, and is in the same family as pineapples.
The El Angel reserve covers 40,873 acres (16,541 hectares) at altitudes between 11,154 feet (3,400 meters) to 13,779 feet (4,200 meters). We saw just a tiny slice of this cold, harsh environment when we walked the 1 mile (1.7 km) Laguna de Valedora loop trail.
The trail was very well-groomed with graveled sections and stairways with handrails. That’s good since the spectacular landscape is likely to keep your eyes off the trail. Picture frailejón plants as far as the eye can see. Then add in scenic lakes, circling birds of prey, and a series of three inviting mirador gazebos. The trail even accesses to the lakeshore at one point. We recommend bringing a picnic.
Sleeping in El Angel
About a mile past the entrance to the El Angel reserve you’ll find the entrance to Polylepis Lodge which is in its own private reserve which includes a 4 acre (1.6 hectare) forest of polylepis trees. There are 23 types of polylepis trees and all are marked by peeling, paper-like bark, gnarled, stunted stature, and a covering of moss and bromeliads. The polylepis forest at the lodge is full of a species of polylepis found nowhere else on earth.
The trees thrive there at 11,700 feet (3,566 meters) in a glacial valley that’s 2-4 million years old. It’s a rainy, foggy, windy environment which makes the cozy common spaces and rustic accommodations at Polylepis Lodge very inviting.
Rooms at Polylepis Lodge include rustic cabins near the main buildings with hardwood floors, hot water, a double bed and bunk beds, private bathroom, and a wood-burning cast iron stove. There’s also a suite with its own jacuzzi and a standalone cabin further in the forest.
All guests have access to the lodge’s sauna and jacuzzi and use of the weirdly modern common room with its fireplace and mini-museum full of pottery found on the property. Rates include tours on the property and three meals a day. The food is good, fresh, and plentiful including locro soup and trout which is farmed onsite.
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador