To the south and east of Loja lies Parque Nacional Podocarpus, an Ecuadorian national park that spans two provinces and straddles the spine of the Andes as they snake southward to Peru. It covers 900 square miles—almost twice the size of Grand Teton National Park—yet it has only two entrances. The “lowland” Bombuscaro entrance at the edge of the Amazon basin lies on the eastern side at about 3,000 feet above sea level, and the “highland” Cajanuma gate on the western side leads to trails that reach 11,500 feet along the Andean ridges. In the span of 3 days last week, we visited both from our base in Loja.
In Spanish, “mirador” means viewpoint, so naturally, we had to take the trails named for Miradores on both sides. From the Cajanuma gate (a 20-minute taxi ride from Loja, then another ten-minute ride bouncing in the back of a pickup truck), we found the trailhead and started our ascent. Like most trails in the Andes, this one rose quickly and steeply – in this case, through what’s known as a “cloud forest;” damp, mossy, and thickly wooded, though we could see blue skies and sun when the trees parted. At the start, we could see the Podocarpus pines for which the park is named, though most have been forested away. Lining the trail were leafy trees, and the air smelled of fog and deep, rich soil. About an hour in, we could see the ridge we were aiming for still high above us. But despite our slow pace due to altitude and steepness, after another hour we had passed through the level of the clouds and emerged on top of the ridge, where clouds passed below us like a misty moving walkway.
The sun shone brightly at the top and we could see clouds sweeping up the steep ridge from the valley below. When they reached the ridge they looped back toward the valley, pushed back by high pressure on the dry side of the ridge. This constant battle between dense clouds on one side and dry, warm sun on the other has played out over and over in this spot for millennia, and in the course of an hour we witnessed the sun winning, pushing the clouds back where they came from, and then losing its battle, with clouds finally enveloping the ridge.
By that time, we had started our descent on this loop trail that from this summit follows a ridgeline north before hooking back towards our starting point. We looked back to see that the bright, sunny spot where we had stopped for water and photos had become fully shrouded in clouds. The ridge was steep and unforgiving, in places with sheer drop-offs for thousands of feet on both sides and little vegetation higher than scrub brush. We were glad to have our hiking poles, which had helped push us up earlier, now to provide extra stability—though sometimes they unexpectedly poked through loose soil, finding no purchase, got stuck in mud, or snagged by the scrub brush. In other places we put our weight and trust into ropes strung for hikers to cling to as they made their way up or down the steepest pitches.
It was truly one of the most challenging hikes we’ve done, and we found ourselves needing to focus intently on each footfall, each pole plant, and each safe stopping place. But like most challenges, it came with significant rewards. Panoramas of sharp, green peaks and steep ravines spun around us on all sides, as if we were living in the aerial footage from a David Attenborough documentary. When we finally reached a covered viewpoint at the far end of the ridge, we encountered the first people we had seen all day: hikers who had come up an easier way to what was our final mirador – a mix of expats and locals who opted not to do the full loop. After a quick chat, we headed down the remainder of the now-easy-seeming, well-groomed part of the trail. We were nearly spent, but had several miles to go in order to meet up with our taxi pickup, which we had arranged for earlier. We were as pleasantly surprised to see the driver as he was to see us – maybe more so!
Two days later, we jumped on a bus in Loja just as it was pulling out of the station, with a young man shouting “Zamora! Zamora!”, our destination. We marveled at the road’s construction as it twisted and turned over the northern ridge of Podocarpus and then down about 7000 feet to the edge of the Amazon region. It was a bit like stepping off a plane in Florida after stepping on in New England–we quickly realized that the long pants and shirts that had been appropriate in Loja would not do here. We were clearly in the tropics now.
In Zamora, we caught a taxi to Copalinga, an eco-lodge near the Podocarpus entrance. Copalinga is primarily known as a birders’ retreat, and their open-air restaurant has a viewing area where they leave out bananas, corn, and seeds to attract various species, as well as several hummingbird feeders. We probably saw five or more different kinds of hummingbirds in the short time we were there (very different from the US, where there’s only a couple of species in the whole country). We saw a spectrum of tanagers and other birds in bright blue, teal, yellow, orange, and red, and a huge pileated woodpecker with a bright red crest. We heard many different exotic calls, some lovely songs and other less lovely screeches (including one from a “Speckled Chacalaca” that sounded like “takin’ a poop, takin’ a poop” – no joke! Say it to yourself while you listen to the video I took!).
But we were not there to watch birds from a porch, so we decided to check out the trails behind our cabin. It must take a small army of staff with machetes to keep the jungle at bay on these trails. Massive ferns, vines, and broad-leafed jungle plants grow lushly in this hothouse environment, and in many places we found ourselves using hiking poles to hack through vines that crossed the trails. About halfway up one trail, we stopped to take a photo and I kneeled down, soon to learn that stinging ants were there first and didn’t appreciate my intrusion. After hopping up and down and swatting them off my skin and socks, I became much more attentive to possible dangers around us that never materialized, looking up and down for snakes (never saw one), spiders (only webs) and dangerous plants (we got snagged by sticky or prickly vines a few times, but no lasting harm). When we reached the top, there was indeed a nice view looking back toward Zamora and across the mountain ravines, so we rested and rehydrated while soaking it in.
After a much-needed shower and cold cervezas with dinner, we watched night fall from our cabin, listening to a chorus of tree frogs and other creatures of the dark over the rushing river nearby. At dawn, we dressed and went to the restaurant to drink tea and see the morning birds, which did not disappoint. We wolfed down a hearty breakfast and walked a dirt road to the start of the trails—en route, we startled some parakeets nesting in vines on a cliff. They settled in a tree quite near us, so we could see clearly their bright greens, blues, and oranges. They turned out to be endangered white-breasted parakeets, which are only found in two or three places in southern Ecuador, and are not a common sight.
Gluttons for punishment and views, we decided to tackle this side’s Mirador trail. It had been cleared of brush quite recently, so we found more and better views than the previous day, but the park manager was not exaggerating when he told us through words and gestures that the trail was very steep and we would work hard (and sweat a lot) on it. We did!
Despite the better trail maintenance, it was still jungle, with exotic flowers in bloom, giant ferns, and dangling vines. It pulsed with heavy heat and mysterious sounds. A full spectrum of colorful butterflies fluttered around us. We smelled damp vegetation, decaying plants, and our own sweat-soaked bodies and clothes. Both of us mentioned having the same sensation we have when snorkeling: like we are visiting a strange, colorful world where we do not really belong. In both the ocean and in the jungle, you catch glimpses of creatures that are far more quick-moving, quiet, and comfortable there than we can ever be.
We rested at the top-most viewpoint to pause and breathe deeply. We spent time reflecting on those we love and have lost while absorbing the serene, humbling beauty—grateful for the time on Earth we were given with them.
After a much easier descent, we took another short trail to Cascadas, a 70-meter-high waterfall that attracts hikers, tourists, and locals alike to stand in its powerful shower and splash in its basin. Unlike any mountain waterfall I’ve ever felt, it was refreshing and cool, but not shockingly frigid. After the sweaty hike to the top, it was a gift that restored my energy.
The amazon side of Podocarpus was certainly hot—on the 90-minute bus ride home, we watched the temperatures drop from 90℉ in Zamora to 70℉ in Loja. But it was also exotic—the hikes felt a bit like swimming through dense and mysterious land-kelp, teeming with invisible life and surprising spots of color. The highland side’s stunning and expansive mountain views, more moderate temperatures, thrilling ridgeline, and witnessing the constant battle between cloud forest and highland dryness all made that a top-five hike for us.
Fortunately, we did not have to pick door number one or door number two – we could simply say, “both please!”
Seven Ways We Have Learned to Use Hiking Poles
- Push yourself up a steep incline
- Brace yourself going down a steep incline
- Steady yourself when you slip or stumble
- Vault over streams and puddles
- Push underbrush aside so you can see where to put your foot
- Whack away vines and ferns like a machete
- Pick up dead leaves like a trash spiker (whether you intend to or not)