Note: This website is no longer being updated and is being maintained for archive purposes by the Department of Botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Please see About the Project for further details.

Link to North America map of regional study sites
North America map

Link to Middle America map
Middle America map

Link to South America
South America map

Link to Centres of Plant Diversity home page



Link to South America Regional Overview

(Tropical) Andes: CPD Site SA31


Location:  In central Ecuador beginning 160 km south-east of the capital of Quito, between about latitudes 1°25'-2°40'S and longitudes 79°-78°W.
5177 km² in park.
1000-5319 m.
Wide range of vegetation formations in various páramos, wetlands and Andean to sub-Andean forests.
High diversity and high endemism expected, with at least 3000 species in park.
Useful plants: 
In nearby communities many plants used for fuelwood, construction, fibre, forage, food and medicinals.
Other values: 
Protection of watersheds and fauna, including threatened species; wilderness; potential genetic resources; scenery; ecotourism; education.
Road construction, colonization, overgrazing, logging, poaching, set fires, mining, tourism.
National Park and UNESCO-MAB World Natural Heritage Site.

Map 67: CPD Site SA31


Sangay National Park (picture) (Map 67), which occupies parts of the provinces Tungurahua, Chimborazo, Cañar and Morona-Santiago, includes páramos and Andean and sub-Andean forests of central Ecuador's Eastern Cordillera (Cordillera Oriental or Real) with an eastern outlier - Sangay Volcano, and in the south extends westward as the Nudo del Azuay across the continental divide to the Pacific slope (SFRNR n.d.). Altitudes range from 5319 m atop El Altar (which also has Amerindian names of Collanes and Cápac-urcu) to c. 1000 m on the eastern boundary toward the Amazonian lowlands.

The region has spectacular scenic beauty, which is dominated by three snow capped volcanoes, two of which are active: Tungurahua (5016 m) and Sangay (5230 m) (picture); the third is El Altar (5319 m), which has an impressively eroded and glaciated caldera collapsed to the west (Meyer 1907) and is extinct. In the southern part of the park are highlands with older mountains or "cerros" (Wolf 1892), some of which usually have some snow; they include Achipungo (4630 m), Sorochi (4730 m) and Ayapungo (4699 m). From southern Ecuador southward, active Quaternary volcanism is absent for 1600 km until latitude 17°S in southern Peru (Clapperton 1993). Sangay (called Tungur by the Shuar or Jívaro) is one of the world's most active volcanoes, with fumaroles observed continuously and glowing tephra and hot rocks ejected often (cf. Sauer 1965, 1971); the most recent violent eruptions of Tungurahua occurred in 1916-1925.

Around the volcanoes are glacial valleys (Clapperton 1993; Sauer 1965, 1971), which mostly trend eastward toward the Amazonian lowlands. Cirques, moraines and U-shaped valleys with extensive meadows are common highland features (Armstrong and Macey 1979). Most of the region's rivers eventually drain into the Amazon Basin. Among the many rivers are the Llushín Grande which flows into the Pastaza River, the Palora with its tributary the Sangay which collect drainage from El Altar and Sangay, the Upano with its major tributary the Abanico, and in the south the Juval which flows into the partially bordering Paute River. The hydrography is complemented by over 100 glacial lakes in the páramo zone: among the prominent lakes are Pintada, Verde Cocha, Atillo (or Colaycocha), Magtayán, Cubillín, Culebrillas and the Aucococha Lakes. At the unusual elevation of 1800 m, in sub-Andean forest to the east of Sangay are the Sardinayacu Lakes.

The eastern part of the park is formed of Mesozoic and Tertiary volcanic and sedimentary rocks. The highlands are formed by pre-Cretaceous metamorphic and plutonic rocks strongly compressed vertically. The three strato-volcanoes originated from Tertiary and intensive Quaternary volcanism, emitting andesites and pyroclasts (Banco Central 1982; Schuerholz et al. 1980/1982). Explosions, hot lava flows and strong fumarolic activity are characteristic, and the surrounding land has frequently been devastated by mud flows and ash eruptions. The soils are black Andean rocky lithosols, with latosols in the foothills toward the Amazon (Armstrong and Macey 1979).

The climate is variable, with significant local differences. There is no well-defined wet or dry season particularly on the Amazonian side, although for example in the Culebrillas River area north-west of Sangay Volcano, May-August is wetter and October-January drier (Downer 1995). The annual rainfall in the east is as much as 5000 mm, whereas on the western slopes it is no more than 600 mm. Annual mean temperature also varies dramatically, from 24°C on the lower slopes to 0°C at 4750-4800 m and well below 0°C on the highest mountain peaks, which have glaciers (Armstrong and Macey 1979; SFRNR 1991, 1992; Acosta-Solís 1984; Clapperton 1993).

Return to Top


The extensive expanse of the region provides for a diversity of vegetation that is extremely rich in ecological variation - at least nine life zones from subalpine to premontane have been designated using the Holdridge system (Cañadas-Cruz 1983). Three major vegetation types are recognized: páramos, which may include forested patches; Andean forests, including the Ceja Andina; and sub-Andean forest. The upper montane forest is generally called cloud forest because these forests are nearly constantly covered by fog or misty precipitation.

Just below the snow-line at c. 4800 m, lichens and bryophytes are characteristic. Below them is the "páramo" (Acosta-Solís 1984), treeless vegetation dominated by bunchgrasses (Calamagrostis, Festuca, Stipa) and characterized by cushion plants (Azorella pedunculata, Plantago rigida, Werneria humilis), which occur with xerophytic shrubs such as Arcytophyllum aristatum, Baccharis genistelloides, Calceolaria gossypina, Chuquiraga jussieui, Disterigma codonanthum, Gaultheria sclerophylla, Hypericum sprucei, Loricaria complanata, Myrteola nummularia, Pernettya prostrata, Vaccinium floribundum and Valeriana microphylla; ferns such as Blechnum loxense, Elaphoglossum cardiophyllum and Jamesonia escamanae; and many herbs such as Carex microglochin, Equisetum bogotense, Gentiana sedifolia, Gentianella splendens, Geranium cucullatum, Lupinus pubescens, Rostkovia magellanica, Oreobolus ecuadorensis, Pinguicula caliptrata, Ranunculus gusmanii, Valeriana bracteata and Viola glandulifera. In undisturbed páramo may be found the bamboo Neurolepis aristata.

Sometimes patchy remnants of Andean forest occur as ecological islands in the páramo, dominated by small slow-growing Polylepis reticulata, the region's only tree that can grow up to 4100 m (e.g. in Alao Valley). Stunted forest 10 m high known as the Ceja Andina arises below the páramo, occurring from 3800-3200 m. Common species are Brachyotum lindenii, Buddleja incana, Coriaria ruscifolia, Diplostephium glandulosum, Escallonia myrtilloides, Freziera microphylla, Gaiadendron punctatum, Gynoxys buxifolia, Hesperomeles lanuginosa, Miconia salicifolia, Monnina crassifolia, Muehlenbeckia vulcanica, Pentacalia vaccinoides, Ribes lehmannii, Saracha quitensis and Tristerix longebracteatus.

The Andean forest (cloud forest) (picture) occurs with local variations from 3200-2800 m. These dense forests 15-20 m in height are adapted to steep slopes and high humidity. Characteristic woody species are Alnus acuminata, Clethra obovata, Miconia latifolia, Myrcianthes hallii, Myrica pubescens, Myrsine andina, Oreopanax sprucei, Passiflora cumbalensis, Piper lanceaefolium, Saurauia aequatoriensis, Vallea stipularis and Weinmannia mariquitae. There are also Sphaeropteris atahuallpa tree ferns. The abundance of epiphytes is remarkable, including bromeliads such as Tillandsia tetrantha, orchids and ferns. Landslides (natural or human-caused) are colonized especially by the high-Andean bamboo Chusquea scandens.

Sub-Andean forest occurs below 2800 m and near 1000 m overlaps with Amazonian floristic elements. This vegetation type is probably the most species-rich, but is also less known. The vegetation is luxurious, with trees 25 m or more tall which may include several endemic species, and also with valuable timber species (e.g. Cedrella, Cordia). Characteristic woody species are Saurauia aequatoriensis, Cedrella montana, Clusia spp., Croton lechleri, Geonoma spp., Hedyosmum sprucei, Nectandra spp., Ocotea spp., Podocarpus oleifolius, Tibouchina lepidota and Vismia tomentosa.

Much of the eastern area bordering the park has been cleared in recent years in colonization projects (Rudel and Horowitz 1993). Common species of secondary forests are Cecropia spp., Pollalesta spp. and Tessaria integrifolia. There is a strip of colonized clearings in the forest along the Guamote-Macas road/trail (Upper Upano River) (Armstrong and Macey 1979). The original forests of the slopes to the west have long been replaced by grasslands for cattle.

Return to Top


The flora of Sangay National Park (picture) is poorly known, but at least 3000 species are expected to occur. Studies of the Andean forests of Ecuador above 2400 m recognize 93 families, 292 genera and 1566 species of trees and shrubs (Ulloa-Ulloa and Jørgensen 1993). Most of these genera are represented in the Sangay region. From a checklist of the high-Andean flora of Ecuador which contains 4430 species of seed plants (Jørgensen and Ulloa-Ulloa 1994), only 400 species were documented as occurring in the NP (with its pre-1992 boundaries). Collections have been made especially in the region's localities of Tungurahua, Alao across to Huamboya, Sangay, and Osogachi (Acosta-Solís 1968; Jørgensen and Jaramillo 1989; Schuerholz et al. 1980/1982). A thorough inventory of the park's flora is needed.

The southern area of the park, particularly at the Nudo del Azuay, is transitional between the northern and southern zones of the Ecuadorian Andes, which have been recognized as physiographically and floristically different (e.g. Wolf 1892; Acosta-Solís 1984). This area's floristic composition may be particularly diverse and interesting.

The eastern slopes of the tropical Andes have a high percentage of the neotropical flora, and their endemism appears to be high (Gentry 1989). Species considered endemic to the park or with its periphery as well include Calceolaria martinezii, Centropogon trachyanthus, Miconia caseariata, Oritrophium ollgaardii, Polylepis microphylla and Saurauia aequatoriensis. A beautiful high-Andean species collected only a few times is Mutisia rimbachii.

Return to Top

Useful plants

Although studies have not been made directly within the region, the area is used by Amerindian groups of the surroundings. Several timber resources and various plants are certainly used for fuelwood, construction, clothing, food, medicinals and rituals (cf. Cordero 1911; Kvist and Holm-Nielsen 1987). The great diversity of undamaged vegetation also is an enormous genetic reserve, and surely a source for wild relatives of crops and potentially valuable medicines.

Return to Top

Social and environmental values

Sangay National Park harbours a very diverse fauna, which is also not well documented. A major scientific investigation is in great need, as many species await study or discovery. The mammals are as varied as the Andean fox (Pseudalopex culpaeus), mountain paca (Agouti taczanowskii), a guinea pig (Cavia sp.), the eastern South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and red howler monkey (Alouatta seniculus). The region is one of the last large refuges for many threatened species of mammals and birds, as well as the plants. The 28 species of large mammals include several classed in the IUCN Red Data Book as threatened. Among them are the severely endangered mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque), which has one of its few large populations in the park - a collection and list have been made of plants that it eats and in some cases helps to disperse or that are notable in its habitat (Downer 1995 and pers. comm.); and northern pudú (Pudu mephistophiles), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and jaguar (Panthera onca).

Some 500 species of birds are likely, including several of world interest such as the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana), torrent duck (Merganetta armata) and giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas) - the world's largest, with a wing-span of 30 cm (Armstrong and Macey 1979; SFRNR 1991). Sangay NP embraces two Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs). The Central Andean páramo EBA (B60) is home to ten bird species of restricted range, all confined to páramo and the páramo­Andean forest ecotone; five are considered threatened. At lower altitudes, this park is home to some of the 15 restricted-range species of the Eastern Andes of Ecuador and northern Peru EBA (B18), which primarily inhabit the sub-Andean forests; three of them are thought to be threatened.

The abundant vegetation is a very important protector for many watersheds, acting as a huge sponge which captures the rain and mist that is an important source of water in lower regions for direct human use, irrigation and development work. Proper management is essential to maintain this resource.

The region has archaeological importance of unknown extent - evidence of pre-Spanish settlement has been found in the Palora Valley. Near the park to the south-west (east of Cañar) are the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. Due to the region's extreme inaccessibility and difficult terrain and climate, most of the area is uninhabited and human influences are mainly on the periphery. Lowland parts of the park are used by Canelos Quichua Amerindians in the north-east (cf. Whitten 1985) and Shuar in the south-east (cf. Rudel and Horowitz 1993). In the park highlands Atillo settlement has some 400 people, mostly Andean Quichua, and along the park's western edge there are several long-established agricultural villages and large farms raising cattle, which use the páramos and also extract wood (FN 1992b; Cifuentes et al. 1989; Armstrong and Macey 1979; Downer 1995).

The landscape, geology, fauna and flora of Sangay NP are strong attractions but have not been appropriately developed even though the region attracts national and international tourists, mountain climbers and scientists (Macey et al. 1976; Schuerholz et al. 1980/1982; Anhalzer 1989; Martínez 1933; Snailham 1978).

Economic assessment

The economic values that this region has for the country have not been formally evaluated, but at present are underestimated. Local inhabitants have not regarded the resources of this legally protected area in a sustainable, economically significant manner. The value of the region's ecological services - such as protection of valley soils - is surely very high, taking into account the numerous natural water reservoirs and rivers, and agricultural activities in the lowlands adjacent to the rivers.

The Shuar use the land mostly for subsistence agricultural purposes, whereas the colonizers use their lands with more intensity. Close to the north-western part of the region are two tea-producing plantations. In the adjoining inter-Andean zone, usual vegetables are cultivated (maize, potatoes, etc.) and cattle ranches are operated (Macey et al. 1976). The páramos are partially used for the raising of cattle.

As a world-class protected area with many biologic resources and impressive scenery, good management within the constraints of sustainable development can transform this park into an important source of income both for nearby locations and more broadly. Nonetheless the income from tourism will be less significant than the region's overall ecological and biological rewards.

Return to Top


The Andean ecosystem has been greatly affected by excessive human activities. A large proportion of the Andean forests has been lost, especially as a result of deforestation caused by gathering fuelwood and by expansion of the agricultural frontier. Damaging factors include fires and grazing cattle which locally alter the vegetation or compact the soils.

The predominant threat to the region is the forthcoming opening of the Guamote-Atillo-Macas road (which is slowly being built but on schedule). The road will extend across the middle of the park and divide it into two sectors, transforming access with an easy route for logging and colonization - spontaneous or perhaps supported by official agencies (Downer 1991). Many natural areas are likely to be rapidly devastated (FN 1992a; cf. Rudel and Horowitz 1993).

Legal artisan mining occurs in the region and perhaps is harmful particularly because it is without regulation and careful technology. Projects for prospecting and exploiting auriferous and non-metallic mined resources are expected to develop, and mineral concessions are a potential near-term threat. Although the park is protected legally, the government in other protected natural areas has considered other resources more important and permitted some exploration and exploitation. This situation could get worse because of conflicting laws and very different political support concerning biological resources versus mined or other economic resources.

The impact of nearby communities does not seem major, but could become so. Reduction of surrounding natural habitats is forcing nearby communities to hunt more within the park. The provinces of Chimborazo and in recent years Morona-Santiago have been the main sources of colonists invading the NP. The impact of tourism has not been studied, but does not seem to be a major problem. Increasing tourism could represent a large near-term difficulty for administration of the park (Cifuentes et al. 1989).

Return to Top


The greater Sangay region is one of the few large, highly diversified Andean ecosystems remaining in Ecuador; although disturbed in places (cf. Armstrong and Macey 1979), it has the best remaining natural páramos and Andean forests. A National Reserve was decreed in 1975, and Sangay National Park was established in 1979 with an area of c. 2720 km² (SFRNR 1991); it was expanded in 1992 to 5177 km² (by extending south and westward along the Nudo del Azuay to Cañar) (SFRNR n.d.). The region was recognized in 1983 as a UNESCO-MAB World Natural Heritage site. The park's administrative centre is in Riobamba, with six peripheral guardianships. The NP is included in the Parks in Peril campaign (TNC 1990).

Sangay has an old management plan (Schuerholz et al. 1980/1982; SFRNR 1991), which requires revision and improvement. Education, ecotourism and research to show the value of the park should be encouraged. Facilities for visitors only in designated areas, and guidance by trained personnel - which may include local people - are required, as well as complete protection of the unaltered vegetation.

Ecuador's system of protected areas consists of 16 reserves (SFRNR 1991), and altogether 32 are expected to be established. In the Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería the Instituto Ecuatoriano Forestal y de Areas Naturales y Vida Silvestre (INEFAN) (formerly the Subsecretaría Forestal y de Recursos Naturales Renovables), which is responsible for the administration of these protected areas, works with many problems such as limited infrastructure and few professional personnel, uneven political support and lack of funds. Yet the efforts have achieved some success in conservation of remarkable natural resources, sometimes aided by the conditions of difficult access, as is presently the situation for Sangay NP (Cifuentes et al. 1989).

Throughout society there is a growing concern for the conservation of biodiversity, which is expected to exert more pressure on the government to adopt appropriate environmental policies. UNESCO's disturbing designation of Sangay National Park as a World Heritage Site In Danger, should help to protect this extraordinary region.

Return to Top

Map 67. Sangay National Park, Ecuador (CPD Site SA31)


Acosta-Solís, M. (1968). Divisiones fitogeográficas y formaciones geobotánicas del Ecuador. Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, Quito. 307 pp.

Acosta-Solís, M. (1984). Los páramos andinos del Ecuador. Publicaciones Científicas MAS, Quito. 222 pp.

Anhalzer, J. (1989). Sangay, parque nacional. Azuca, Quito. 54 pp.

Armstrong, G.D. and Macey, A. (1979). Proposals for a Sangay National Park in Ecuador. Biol. Conserv. 16: 43-61.

Banco Central del Ecuador (1982). Atlas del Ecuador. Les éditions J.A., Paris.

Cañadas-Cruz, L. (1983). El mapa bioclimático y ecológico del Ecuador. Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería, Programa Nacional de Regionalización (MAG-PRONAREG), Quito. 210 pp.

Cifuentes, M., Ponce, A., Albán, F., Mena, P., Mosquera, G., Rodríguez, J., Silva, D., Suárez, L. and Torres, J. (1989). Estrategia nacional de áreas protegidas II fase, contexto nacional. Fundación Natura and Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería (MAG), Quito. Pp. 62-64.

Clapperton, C.M. (1993). Quaternary geology and geomorphology of South America. Elsevier, Amsterdam. 779 pp.

Cordero, L. (1911). Enumeración botánica de las principales plantas, así útiles como nocivas, indígenas o aclimatadas que se dan en las provincias del Azuay y de Cañar de la República del Ecuador. Retrato del Autor, Cuenca. 305 pp.

Downer, C.C. (1991). Andean highway violates international treaty. E-Sheet 2(52) (15/05/91): 1.

Downer, C.C. (1995). The gentle botanist. Wildlife Conserv. 98(4): 30-35.

FN (1992a). Acciones de desarrollo y áreas naturales protegidas en el Ecuador: 2. Parque Nacional Sangay. Fundación Natura (FN), Quito. 11 pp.

FN (1992b). Parque Nacional Sangay. In Parques nacionales y otras áreas naturales protegidas del Ecuador. FN and MAG, Quito. Pp. 20-25.

Gentry, A.H. (1989). Northwest South America (Colombia, Ecuador and Peru). In Campbell, D.G. and Hammond, H.D. (eds), Floristic inventory of tropical countries. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx. Pp. 391-400.

Jørgensen, P.M. and Jaramillo, J. (eds) (1989). Informe final del proyecto "Estudios botánicos sobre la taxonomía del bosque montano". Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Quito. 205 pp. Unpublished report.

Jørgensen, P.M. and Ulloa-Ulloa, C. (1994). Seed plants of the high Andes of Ecuador – a checklist. AAU Reports 34: 1-443.

Kvist, L.P. and Holm-Nielsen, L.B. (1987). Ethnobotanical aspects of lowland Ecuador. Opera Botanica 92: 83-107.

Macey, A., Armstrong, G.D., Gallo, N. and Hall, M.L. (1976). Sangay, un estudio de las alternativas de manejo. MAG, Dirección General de Desarrollo Forestal, Departamento de Parques Nacionales y Vida Silvestre, Quito. 98 pp.

Martínez, N.G. (1933). Exploraciones en los Andes ecuatorianos. El Tungurahua. Publ. del Observatorio Astronómico y Meteorológico, Sección Geofísica, Quito. 118 pp.

Meyer, H. (1907). In den Hoch-Anden von Ecuador. Reimer, Berlin. 552 pp. / (1938-1939 & 1993). En los Altos Andes del Ecuador (Guerrero, J., transl.). Anales Univ. Central (Quito) 60: 779-915, 61: 183-394, 1363-1569 & Ediciones Abya-Yala, Quito. 750 pp.

Rudel, T.K. and Horowitz, B. (1993). Tropical deforestation: small farmers and land clearing in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Columbia University Press, New York. 234 pp.

Sauer, W. (1965). Geología del Ecuador. Ministerio de Educación, Quito. 384 pp. / (1971). Geologie von Ecuador. Gebruder Bortraeger, Berlin. 316 pp.

Schuerholz, G., Paucar, A., Huber, R. and Soria, J. (1980/1982). Plan de manejo del Parque Nacional "Sangay" / Parque Nacional "Sangay". MAG, Dirección General de Desarrollo Forestal, Departamento de Administración de Parques Nacionales y Vida Silvestre, Quito. 190 pp.

SFRNR (1991). Parque Nacional Sangay. In Sistema Nacional de Areas Protegidas y la vida silvestre del Ecuador. MAG, Subsecretaría Forestal y de Recursos Naturales Renovables (SFRNR) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Quito. Pp. 15-17.

SFRNR (1992). Parque Nacional Sangay. MAG, SFRNR, Unidad de Educación Ambiental, Quito. Educational pamphlet.

SFRNR (n.d.). Parque Nacional Sangay. [Scale 1:200,000.] MAG, SFRNR, Quito. Draft map (enlarged NP).

Snailham, R. (1978). Sangay survived. Hutchinson, U.K.

TNC (1990). Parks in peril, a conservation partnership for the Americas. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A. 24 pp.

Ulloa-Ulloa, C. and Jþrgensen, P.M. (1993). Arboles y arbustos de los Andes del Ecuador. AAU Reports 30: 1-263.

Whitten Jr., N.E. (1985). Sicuanga Runa. University Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago. 315 pp.

Wolf, T. (1892). Geografía y geología del Ecuador. Brockhaus, Leipzig. 671 pp. / (1933). Geography and geology of Ecuador (Flanagan, J.W., transl.). Grand & Toy, Toronto. 684 pp.


This Data Sheet was written by Patricio Mena (Fundación Ecociencia, Casilla 17-12-257, Quito, Ecuador), Dra. Carmen Ulloa Ulloa (Missouri Botanical Garden, P.O. Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166-0299, U.S.A.) and Olga Herrera-MacBryde (Smithsonian Institution, SI/MAB Program, S. Dillon Ripley Center, Suite 3123, Washington, DC 20560-0705, U.S.A.).

Return to Top

North | Middle | South

CPD Home

Botany Home Page | Smithsonian Home Page