El Angel Ecological Reserve
Set high in the Andes, El Angel Ecological Reserve is a protected parkland in northern Ecuador, near its border with Colombia. The remote reserve is known for its fragile páramo, a high mountain ecosystem found at altitudes between 3200m and 4200m.
Spanning an area of 15,700 hectacres, the rugged moorlands of El Angel are peppered with frailejones, an endangered plant species belonging to the Espeletia genus (the sunflower family) and endemic to the northern Andes.
From afar, these curious-looking plants look a little like stunted palm trees crossed with pineapples. Designed to capture water vapour, the hairy, succulent leaves pass droplets into their swollen trunks and down into the soil. Functioning much like a sponge, the frailejones help to absorb and store large volumes of water while continuously, and gradually, feeding the water into subterranean lakes and river.
A Video Guide to Polylepis
The Angel Ecological Reserve also protects acres of ancient Polylepis forest, a rare species of tree that is also endemic to the Andes. The forest is over a thousand years old and venturing into the untamed forest is a little like stepping into a fairytale or fantasy novel. Tangled branches, weighed down with moss and dripping vines, form impenetrable walls, hiding what I can only imagine is a world of magical creatures. If you are ever likely to encounter a unicorn, a centaur or, dare I say it, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, it’s here in northern Ecuador. Wands at the ready!
Known also as arboles de papel (paper trees), the Polylepis trees are made up of wafer-thin layers of reddish bark (Polylepis means ‘many flakes’ in Latin).
Where to stay in El Angel Ecological Reserve
Polylepis Lodge is the only hotel located inside the reserve. Tucked into a remote valley on the southwestern corner of the park, this homely ecolodge marks the spot where the Polylepis forest merges with the páramo frailejones. It’s a spectacular setting and a wonderful place to visit with a group of friends, as we did. (The children in our group were aged 9-10 years at the time).
The hotel is made up of several detached buildings sat between little rivers and waterways (if you’re visiting with toddlers, you’ll need to keep an eye on them all the time as there is a lot of water running throughout the property). A couple of llamas wander freely throughout the property as do a handful of child-friendly dogs.
The lodge is situated at an altitude of 3580 meters, so to be aware of any creeping altitude sickness (no one was affected in our group).
Accommodation for families:
The Family Rooms include 1 double bed, 1 double bunk bed and an ensuite bathroom. At night the rooms are heated with gas fires and all the beds have electric blankets.
The restaurant sits over a river in the middle of the property and is designed to invite Mother Nature in too. Large windows frame twisting trees while glass panels in the floor expose the running water and fish beneath your feet.
All meals are included and the menus are fixed. The food is locally sourced and includes typical Ecuadorian specialities such as Locro soup and trout. The service was a little on the slow side (we were a big group though) but on the plus side, the staff were charming and worked hard to meet our needs.
At the far end of the property is a barn-shaped space with a large open fire. Here guests can sink into large armchairs with a cup of Zunfo tea, a páramo drink (made with or without alcohol) that helps prevent altitude sickness. Tip: Bring hot chocolate and marshmallows (s’mores) for the kids to roast on the fire!
Activities at Polylepis Lodge
We spent our first morning on a guided 3-hour hike that took us up the steep hill bordering the lodge and then across the moors of frailejones. The views from the top of this hill were spectacular and took in miles of rolling, frailejone-covered hills to one side and the dense Polylepis forest to the other.
The trail continued along the ridge of the hill before descending into the mysterious Polylepis forest and, in the case of my son, the bog that marks its entrance. (Lesson learnt: don’t overtake the guide!)
The walk through the forest kept us ducking and diving, and in some places scrambling, over knotted branches and little streams, until we reached an enchanting waterfall. At this point all the brave members in our party stripped off and leapt in! Brrr, Freezing!
The circuit finished at The Lake of Wishes, a peaceful lagoon that sat at the edge of the forest not far from the lodge. Here the children were invited to sit very quietly, close their eyes and make a wish. A sweet way to reflect upon their adventure.
Polylepis Lodge also offer an after-dark ‘Legend and Goblins Tour’ of the forest. After all the day’s activities our children were too zonked to participate. Although this was probably a good thing as we heard it was full of spooky tales that might have prompted a few nightmares! Definitely fun for older kids and adults though.
In the afternoon, the fishermen in our group went on a trout fishing excursion to Razococha Lagoon, a secluded lake near the old road that runs from El Angel to Morán. Surrounding the lake are hills of frailejones and the area is also home to spectacled bears, deers and condors – a spectacular spot for unwinding and reconnecting with nature.
Guides and fishing equipment can be hired through Polylepis Lodge. The lake can only be accessed by foot (approx. 45 mins drive from the lodge and 40mins walk from the road).
With advanced notice, you can book a ride around the hills surrounding the hotel. Sadly we didn’t have time.
Experiential Learning and Education for Kids
We booked this trip through Galapagos Safari Camp (a hotel in the Galapagos that also offers tours throughout mainland Ecuador). For an additional fee, you can also book a facilitator from Kenu Education – an Experiential Learning School – to accompany you.
Dedicated to helping individuals develop a bond with their environment, Kenu Education’s mission is to acquire skills, aspirations and values through hands-on experiences. Acting as a catalyst of transformation they are, in a nutshell, experts in The Art of Family Travel. Their methodologies complement traditional academic curriculums with active learning in natural environments.
A friend in our group very kindly treated us, or rather the children, to one of their educators (Constanza Montero Aguirre – the co-founder of Kenu Education), to lead the children during our stay. I have to say it made ALL the difference! Not only did it give us parents a much-needed break (we could, for example, enjoy long lunches, and – gasp! – uninterrupted conversations, while Constanza kept them busy outside with treasure hunts and nature trails) but Constanza’s activities (including quiet periods of reflection) also gave the children a much deeper appreciation of their surroundings.
What to bring
First and foremost it’s cold up there, particularly in the evening, so bring lots of warm clothes, including woolly hats, scarves and down jackets. During the day, layers work best, and don’t forget a waterproof jacket.
Remember the sun is very strong so hats and suncream are essential.
Welly boots / hiking boots are also a must. The ground can be very wet and boggy in parts.
Kids: multiple changes of clothes! Don’t underestimate how many clothes your children will need, especially socks! Our lot kept wading into pools of water that were higher than their welly boots and ‘accidentally fell’ into the Lake of Wishes.
CamelBaks are also useful, as are rucksacks for hiking.
Trekking snacks and marshmallows / s’mores for the fire. We also brought our own coffee and hot chocolate powder.
Medication for altitude sickness (we take homeopathic pills). We’ve also found that sugary snacks help as well, e.g. toffees or chocolate bars.
A basic first aid kit is always handy when traveling with kids. I find I only ever need it when I haven’t packed it (but thankfully Constanza came prepared!)
How to get there
It’s a 4-5 hour drive from Quito to Polylepis Lodge.
Quito > Otavalo > Ibarra > Mascarilla > El Angel > Polylepis Lodge
We had pit stops in Cafe de Vaca, Cayambe (a 15-minute detour), Otavalo (good locro soup and steak/chips at Sisa) and Mascarilla in El Valle del Choto (worth visiting the Afro-Ecuadorian mask shop, Arte Negro – I’ll share more on this in another blog post)
The Verdict: Would I stay at Polylepis Lodge again?
Absolutely! I’ve seen some online reviews complain about the lodge’s rates, grumbling about it being poor value for money. It is more expensive than most of the hotels outside of the park, but naturally, you pay a premium for it’s privileged location and spectacular setting. The rates also include three meals and guides.
The lodge is not luxurious and it has its flaws – my electric blanket didn’t work, there was a power-cut one evening which the staff weren’t prepared for and the showers are a little on the weak side but it has plenty of plus points to make up for it’s imperfections – the service is super friendly, the water is hot, the rooms are well-heated and, above all, its magical setting is unrivaled. It’s a special place and well worth the drive to get there.
I was not compensated in any way for this review.
Get a quote
You can book Polylepis Lodge with or without the services of Kenu Education through Galapagos Safari Camp.
Note: if you want English-speaking guides, you will need to request these at the time of booking.
I’m working on a video – bear with me!
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