The Macizo del Cajas Biosphere Reserve contains a large number of ecosystems, ranging from high mountains down to coastal and marine areas along the Pacific. It also includes the El Cajas National Park, which features a tundra vegetation on a spectacular jagged landscape of hills and valleys.
El Cajas National Park is located in southern Ecuador, in the province of Azuay, west of Cuenca. Encompassing an area of 28,544 ha (70,500 acres), it features a tundra vegetation on a jagged landscape of hills and valleys. The park is part of the Macizo del Cajas Biosphere Reserve. The area is characterized by large outcrops of bedrock. This is called knob and kettle geomorphology and results in a spectacular landscape, where the outcrops alternate with lakes.
The Qhapaq Ñan or "Inca Trail" crosses the park and is a vestige of the road linking Tomebamba with "Tambo de Paredones" (Molleturo), on the strategic route between the highlands and the coast. The highest point is the 4,450 m high Cerro Arquitectos (Architect's Hill) and the elevation of roads reach higher than 4,310 meters (13,550 feet). There are as many as 250 lakes and ponds located within the park, making it vital water source in the region.
Humidity, low temperature, and high altitude with low atmospheric pressure create an ecosystem that accumulates organic material in the soil that is able to retain water. The high grassland ecosystem (páramo) contains plants suitably adapted to it, 19 of them endemic to El Cajas. The dominant plant is straw grass (Calamagrostis intermedia).
Above 3,300 meters the quinua (Polylepis) or 'paper tree' forest can be found. It is in forests such as these that a second protected population of the rare Fuchsia campii, in the Onagraceae family, is predicted to live, as it has also been found in another nearby national park of similar ecological characteristics. In the lower parts of the park, the cloud forest and perennial high mountain forest are present, primarily in the ravines near the brooks and rivers.
El Cajas National Park is home to a large variety of animals, some of which are endemic or highly endangered. Among the most prominent are the South American condor, of which only 80 remain throughout all Ecuador; the curiquinga, a large black and white raptor, and the largest hummingbird of the world, the giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas), which lives only on agave flowers. The violet-throated metaltail (Metalura gorjivioleta) is endemic to El Cajas and surrounding valleys.The avifauna consists of 157 bird species, making birdwatching an alluring activity for visitors.
Overall, 44 mammalian species have been identified in the park. Species include types of opossums, cats, and bats. Also there are pumas, coatis, weasels, skunks, foxes, porcupines, pacas, shrews, rabbits and other rodents. Endemic are the Cajas water mouse (Chibchanomys orcesi) that belongs to the group Ichthyomyini and Tate's shrew opossum (Caenolestes tatei).
At least 17 species of amphibians live around the lagoons of El Cajas. This includes those of the genera Atelopus, Telmatobius, Gastrotheca, Eleutherodactylus, and Colostethus. The high variety of amphibians suggest the presence of a diversity of insects, as they are a chief amphibian food source.
Situated in southwestern Ecuador, the Macizo del Cajas Biosphere Reserve includes a large number of ecosystems ranging from high mountains down to coastal and marine areas along the Pacific. Its surface area covers 976,600 ha (2.4 million acres) and includes El Cajas National Park and the Quimsacocha National Recreation Area, which play an important role in water provision and regulation.
The biosphere reserve has four major ecosystem types: Páramo, Montane forest, cloud forest and mangrove.
- The Páramo ecosystem is composed mainly of tufted grasses (bunch), mostly ranging between 3000 and 4000 amsl (above mean sea level). At its lower limit are found the ceja andina shrub (located in the transition between highland montane forest and páramo) and cultivated fields where Andean forest has been deforested. The dominant genera are Calamagrostis and Festuca.
- The Montane forest ecosystem is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. It performs a number of important ecological functions, such as water harvesting and erosion control. It is also very fragile as its steep slopes make the forest extremely vulnerable to accelerated erosion under heavy rain conditions. The forests extend along the western slope of the Andes mountains, ranging from 300 to 450 amsl to 3000 amsl.
- Cloud forest is located on the western flank of the Western Andes. It is characterized by very irregular relief with steep slopes that result in significant topographic variability with an altitudinal gradient ranging between 2200 to 2900 amsl. The key feature is high rainfall and humidity with the constant presence of haze, interspersed with vegetation. These waters drain into creeks and streams, which function as important sources for the major water systems of the western region.
- The mangrove ecosystem comprises tidal areas with fluctuations of 5 amsl. Depending on the location it may be either permanently flooded or subject to twice-daily floods. This gradient flood level and saline soil influences the structural and compositional characteristics of the vegetation. In the Pacific, the amplitude of tidal variation is greater than in the Caribbean and mangroves, therefore, extend far into the river deltas. This dynamic produces intense succession processes, resulting in the formation of almost monospecific communities.
Around 838 800 people live in the biosphere reserve: 6.79 per cent inhabit the buffer zone and 93.21 per cent live in the transition zone. The core zone is unpopulated.
The coastal territory is largely characterized by large and medium-scale agricultural and aquaculture activities, which function as important export items for the national economy. The expansion of arable soil and shrimp farming has absorbed remnants of forests in the foothills of the western mountains and mangroves.