Ecuador's first National Park was the Galapagos,
formed in 1959, but it was not until the mid- to late 1970s that a
comprehensive national park system began to be established on the
mainland. The park includes 13 major islands, 6 small islands, and 42
islets (some barely big enough to set foot upon). It is not the volcanic
islands that attract most visitors, but rather the renowned wildlife
endemic to the islands, located 600 miles from the nearest continent.
Giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, waved
albatrosses, and marine iguanas roam around in what Darwin described as
a "living laboratory" of evolution.
The first mainland park was Cotopaxi, established in
1975, followed by Machalilla, Yasuni and Sangay in 1979, and Podocarpus
in 1982. The most important recent addition was Cajas in 1996, among
several others, as well as reserves of various kinds and a few national
monuments and recreation areas. New reserves and parks are added
regularly. In addition, local conservation organizations have set aside
private nature reserves. All of Ecuador's major ecosystems are partly
protected in one (or more) of these areas.
The national parks do not have much of a tourist
infrastructure. There are almost no hostels, drive-in camping grounds,
restaurants, ranger stations, museums, scenic overlooks or information
centers. Many are inhabited by native peoples who were living in the
area for generations before it achieved park or reserve status. Some of
the parks and reserves are remote, difficult to reach and lack almost