Ecuador ’s southernmost national park encompasses dramatically diverse terrain—from high-elevation páramo down to tropical rainforest across a vast 1,460-square-kilometer expanse.
Its relatively remote location leaves the park out of reach for most foreign visitors, who don’t make it this far south, but they are missing large tracts of virgin forest sheltering an astonishing array of species, and some of the most spectacular scenery lies within easy access of Loja and Vilcabamba .
Although poaching, illegal colonizing, and especially mining have taken their toll, large sections of the park remain untouched, and the bird-watching here is particularly good, with more than 600 bird species.
Podocarpus, named after the evergreen tree that is Ecuador’s only endemic conifer, was established in December 1982. The park stretches across two very different regions.
Beginning in the province of Loja, the zona alta (high Andes section) makes up the largest area, rising to 3,773 meters elevation in the Nudo de Sabanilla mountain range. The zona baja (lower section) in Zamora-Chinchipe Province to the east stretches down to 1,000 meters elevation on the edge of the Amazon rainforest.
Most of Podocarpus lies at 2,000–3,000 meters elevation and consists of hillsides covered with moist cloud forest and waterfalls. The park contains an incredible 136 lakes that feed over a dozen rivers in the two provinces.
More than 40 percent of the park’s thousands of plant species are endemic. Sadly, many of the Podocarpus conifers have been cut down for their high-quality wood, but some remain, growing up to 40 meters tall. The cascarilla tree (Cinchona succirubra), once the world’s only source of quinine to fight malaria, is common on the western slopes. Other common plants include orchids, bromeliads, palms, tree ferns, and wild naranjilla.
Although you will be very lucky to see them, many animals live in Podocarpus. Species include spectacled bears, mountain tapirs, ocelots, pumas, and deer. The park is also a bird-watcher’s paradise; among the 600 recorded species are 61 species of hummingbirds, 81 different tanagers, the endangered bearded guan, the Neblina metaltail, and the Andean toucan. The main entrance at Cajanuma is renowned as an excellent spot for bird-watching.
Fundación Jocotoco (Quito office: Los Shyris N37-146 at El Comercio, tel. 2/227-2013, www.fjocotoco.org ), which is very active in southern Ecuador , took its name from the call of a new species of antpitta that was discovered on the park boundaries in 1998—its call sounds like a cross between an owl’s hoot and a dog’s bark. International funding has allowed the foundation to purchase tracts of land adjacent to the park to protect the second-largest known antpitta in the world.
The park entrance fee has been reduced to $2 pp, paid at either entrance. The cabins ($3 pp) inside the park are preferable to camping, due to the unpredictable high-altitude weather.
Podocarpus has two main gateways. The most commonly used is in the zona alta. Head 14 kilometers south of Loja (or north from Vilcabamba) to the turnoff for the Cajanuma ranger station. Buses to Vilcabamba  can drop you off here, but it’s another nine kilometers uphill. You can also take a taxi directly from Vilcabamba ($15). At the entrance is the refugio, opened in 1995 with the help of the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and the U.S. Peace Corps. It has space and facilities for up to 20 people. Book your spot with the Ministerio del Ambiente in Loja beforehand.
Grab a map and hit one of the many marked senderos (trails) that wind off into the woods, ranging from the half-hour, 400-meter loop Sendero Oso de Anteojos (Spectacled Bear Trail) to the two-day hike to Lagunas del Compadre. The Sendero al Mirador takes 3–4 hours to reach a lookout point at 3,050 meters elevation.
The San Francisco Cloud Forest, administered by the Fundación Arco Iris and the Ministerio del Ambiente, is west of Loja on the road to Zamora. Here you can hike the Sendero los Romerillos (4 hours round-trip) to a grove of ancient Podocarpus trees and stay in a simple but comfortable lodge ($8–10 pp) with hot showers and kitchen facilities. Reserve in advance in Loja with Arco Iris (Ciprés 12-202 at Acacias, Sector la Pradera, tel. 7/258-8680, www.arcoiris.org.ec ).
Reach the zona baja via Zamora. This is the less visited section of the park, with lower-elevation, more tropical landscapes. Six kilometers south of the city (walk or take a taxi), down the west side of the Río Bombuscara, is the Bombuscara ranger station. After a dip in the river, try one of the numerous short trails, and keep your eyes open—maybe you’ll see a gray tinamou, coppery-chested jacamar, Ecuadorian piedtail hummingbird, one of a whole spectrum of tanagers (paradise, orange-eared, blue-necked, bay-headed, green-and-gold, and spotted), or a white-breasted parakeet (Pyrrhura albipectus). The Sendero Higuerones is the longest trail (3–4 hours round-trip). There are basic cabins available ($3 pp).
For most of the park, October–December are the driest months overall, while February–April sees the most rain. Temperatures vary from 12°C average in the high Andes to 18°C in the rainforest. Raingear is a must. The west side of Podocarpus is covered by the IGM Río Sabanilla and Vilcabamba 1:50,000 maps (or the Gonzanamá 1:100,000 map), and the east side falls within the Zamora and Cordillera de Tzunantza 1:50,000 maps. Tour companies in Loja, Zamora, and Vilcabamba offer trips.