This regional variety is demonstrated in part by 20 distinct species of hummingbirds, including the longest billed and the world’s largest. The area is inhabited by a representative population of the world’s largest flying raptor, the Andean condor. Though presently endangered and declining in number, condors are seen in the Mojanda Lakes area. The region additionally contains some of the last remaining high altitude forests, among the most endangered ecosystems in Ecuador.
A Region of Superlatives
Casa Mojanda is located at the heart of Ecuador’s north-central Andes. At 2870 meters (9800 feet) it lies in the dramatic shadows of Mount Fuya Fuya at 4269 meters (13,800 feet), and the Cotacachi & Imbabura volcanoes, both nearly 5000 meters (16,400 feet). This confluence of soaring peaks and lush valleys sets a dramatic natural resource stage.
The peaks are the remains of formerly active volcanoes that shaped the entire Andean ecological region. The resulting fertile lands have drawn people to the area for thousands of years and the area contains remains of Pre-Incan Pyramids, burial mounds, and Incan roads. Today, the region is made famous by the industrious and friendly Otavalan Indians. They draw visitors from around the world with their skilled weaving and handcrafts, haunting Andean folk music, and the famous Saturday crafts market.
Ecuador is known the world over for nature oriented tourism and in this respect the province of Imbabura, of which Otavalo is a part, is a superlative destination. The Mojanda Lakes, just outside of Otavalo, lie at 12,000 feet at the base of Fuya Fuya, in the remains of an extinct crater. The crystal clear water reaches a depth of 100 meters. Nearby, as part of the heavily visited Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve, one finds Lake Cuicocha, another deep crater lake as well as the large and populated San Pablo Lake which can be easily seen from the Panamerican Highway next to Mount Imbabura. The more adventurous hiker can hike or backpack to numerous other high mountain lakes. A significant part of the local economy depends directly upon ecologically oriented tourism.
Although Ecuador is among the smallest countries in South America (about the size of Colorado) it hosts greater species diversity than almost any other country in the world. This diversity includes 1600 species of birds, 280 species of mammals, 345 reptiles and 358 species of amphibians. In addition there are 25,000 species of plants of which 20% are endemic – found nowhere else on the planet.
The central reason for this remarkable diversity is the wide range of climatic zones. In fact there are 25 separate life zones that include tropical rain forests, tropical dry forests, páramo grasslands, mangrove forests, desert landscapes, to mention only the most prominent examples.
Area of Concern, The Central Highlands
Unfortunately, all of these life zones have been severely altered from their pristine state by humans and their associated activities. The alarming rate of rain forest destruction in Ecuador’s Amazon region is a prime international media topic. Yet, there are other ecosystems that are of equal concern. The highlands of the central Andes are among them.
The central highlands are at high risk due to increasing human pressure in an area supporting a high percentage (25%) of endemic species. People have lived in the central Andes for thousands of years and today the highlands continue to host 40% of Ecuador’s 12 million inhabitants. The regional population continues to increase at a rate that will double the present numbers in 25 years.
The rich mountain soils that drew people into the Inter-Andean Valley also hosts the high number of species found in the Andes.
Sharing the habitat with humans are about 2000 species of plants and animals; 500 of which are found nowhere else. The native forests in the central highlands are nearing extinction as they are cut down for charcoal or firewood and converted to pasture lands and other agricultural uses. Less than 9% of the central highlands are currently covered by natural vegetation.
The striking diversity found in the highlands is due, in part, to the wide range of precipitation, abrupt topography, and isolated habitats formed by rising mountain peaks. These peaks tower above the valleys like islands where unique species have evolved over time. This process of evolution was described by Charles Darwin based on his observations in the Galapagos Islands.