Podocarpus National Park in southeast Ecuador is what is known as a “megadiverse” area because it is a meeting point between four ecological systems: Northern Andes, Southern Andes, Amazonian and Pacific. The 360,000-acre park has only two main entrances, the Cajanuma Sector located 8 kilometers south of Loja, and the Bombuscaro Sector, near Zamora, at a lower altitude. Once inside the park, the visitor will be amazed by the incredible diversity of flora and fauna, some of which can be found nowhere else in the world.
Huachuma, or the San Pedro Cactus
The ritual use of huachuma, considered a sacred medicinal plant, dates back 3,500 years to an ancient Andean civilization called Chavín. During the Spanish conquest, it became known as “San Pedro,” the name of the saint said to hold the keys to heaven.
Considered the Botanical Garden of America, Podocarpus has a variety of mountain forest ecosystems with more than 4,000 species of plants. The park takes its name from the romerillo tree (Podocarpus glomeratus) that can reach 120 feet in height. There are a large variety of orchids, as well as laurel, San Pedro cactus, black elder, alder, acacia, sage, cedar, castor-oil plant, and walnut, to name but a few.
The Mountain Tapir
The Mountain Tapir has changed little since its origin in the Miocene era, about three million years ago. It is now an endangered species, primarily due to deforestation for agriculture and mining, and poaching. Its toes, snout, and intestines are used in local folk medicines.
In addition to the huge variety of plants, there are 68 species of mammals that have been recorded so far, four of them endangered: the mountain tapir, spectacled bear, northern pudu, and jaguar. There are 560 species of birds, including the Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, the Inca Jay, the Yellow-throated Bush-tanager, the Lemon-browed Flycatcher, the Oranged-billed-sparrow, the Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and the Foothill Elaenia. About 40% of all mammals and birds are endemic, meaning that they are only found in this park.