Paramo El Angel – eerie land of frailejones

Frailejones - Espeletia pycnophylla and fog, Páramo El Ángel
Frailejones – Espeletia pycnophylla and fog, Páramo El Ángel / Thomas van Hengstum, / CC BY-SA 3.0

WorldBlue  In short

In the highlands of tropics in several locations of the world have formed unique montane moors with eerie, tall plants. Páramo El Ángel in Ecuador is characteristic example of such ecosystems – here thousands of frailejones are rising up to 10 m tall.

4.3 out of 10 stars 43.3%

GPS coordinates
0.7219 N 77.9068 W
Location, address
South America, Ecuador, Carchi, Cantón Espejo, highlands of Andes between El Ángel and the border with Colombia, Reserva Ecológica El Ángel
Dominant species
Espeletia pycnophylla ssp. angelensis
Approximately 10,000 ha

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WorldYellow In detail

Ecological reserve

The unique ecosystems of the mountain saddles south from Chiles volcano (4,723 m) are protected since 1992 when here was established Reserva Ecológica El Ángel (area 15,715 ha). It includes diverse montane biotopes, such as the unique Polylepis forest and diverse types of meadows and moorlands – páramos.


Páramos are characteristic highland moors in the northern Andes. These ecosystems have formed in highland plateaus and saddles between the mountains above the tree line (in Páramo El Ángel – above 3,100 – 3,400 m).

Espeletia pycnophylla in Páramo El Ángel
Espeletia pycnophylla in Páramo El Ángel / Patricio Mena Vásconez, / public domain

The climate here is moist – the warmed air mases from the Pacific become cold here and the moisture precipitates on the mountains. For most time of the year these highland meadows are shrouded in fog.

Most páramos are located in Columbia, many are found also in Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as in northern Peru, in Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

Harsh weather

The life in páramos is not easy – there are few nutrients (such as phosphorus) in the soil, soil is acidoc. The soil and the air is cold.

In Páramo El Ángel throughout the year the temperature falls below zero in the nights – although it is only 80 km from the equator. In summer months (June – September) days can be warm – up to 18 ° C, but in the winter even in daytime the temperature is around 0 ° C. Strong and chilly winds are very common.

Due to the cold weather organic remnants in páramos do not decompose – they accumulate. The moist climate turns this all into a soaked sponge.

Unique ecosystem

In these harsh conditions has developed very special ecosystem. Species diversity here is much higher than in the temperate moorlands of the world – but much lower than in the nearby tropical rainforests.

In the páramos of Ecuador grow some 1,500 species of plants. Approximately 60% of these plants grow ONLY on páramos.

Plants here have developed specific methods to protect themselves from the frost. One method is – growing in rosettes, thus the wind can not chill the centre of the plant. Many plants have developed very soft, "plumy" leaves and flowers. The old leaves do not fall off – they enclose the stem and allow development of new roots along the stem.

Thus each plant manages to keep the temperature of its stem above zero even in strong, chilly winds.

Páramos de frailejones

Scientists have divided páramos in several (six and more) types. Visually the most exotic is páramo de frailejones – a páramo dominated (at least visually) by thousands of tall frailejones – plants belonging to genus Espeletia. In total in this genus are some 45 – 130 species, all growing in the Andes of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

These countless frailejones are the only tall plants of these ecosystems – except for occasional and not less exotic Puyas.

In Páramo El Ángel the stands of frailejones have formed in the height of 3,100 – 4,500 m. These stands are formed of single species – Espeletia pycnophylla ssp. angelensis.

Espeletia pycnophylla in Páramo El Ángel, Ecuador
Espeletia pycnophylla in Páramo El Ángel / Thomas van Hengstum, / CC BY-SA 3.0

Espeletia pycnophylla

Espeletia pycnophylla is the most common frailejone in Ecuador. This plant has several subspecies. Two of these subspecies grow in Colombia, one – Espeletia pycnophylla ssp. llanganatensis – only in the exotic Valle de los Frailejones in the Central Ecuador.

In Páramo El Ángel grows Espeletia pycnophylla ssp. angelensis and here have formed the largest stands of this species.

This frailejone has very soft, pubescent leaves. It is flowering with numerous yellow flowers. Plant has healing properties.

Only in El Ángel these frailejones reach giantic size – they grow up to 10 m tall. This plant grows only some 2.5 cm per year – thus we can assume that the largest are 400 years old!

Puya clava-herculis
Puya clava-herculis / Image is taken in Cajas National Park, but this plant grows also in El Ángel. Haplochromis, / CC BY-SA 3.0

Other plants and animals

Some 250 species of plants have been found on Páramo El Ángel. Some of these plants have not been found anywhere else – such as the bromeliad Puya angelensis E.Gross & Rauh.

Puyas are the next exotic looking plants after frailejones. These bromeliads grow up to to 4 m high.

Near the park has been found the extremely rare Puya angelensis, here grows the amazing Puya clava-herculis with unusual blue flowers, Puya hamata. These plants are beloved by spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), which also is met in these highlands.

On páramo are living many locally adapted species of animals, such as the rare frog Gastrotheca espeletia.

Lagunas Verdes – Green Lagoons

In the northern part of the reserve, at 3,900 m height are located three small lakes, each with a diameter of some 200 m. These lakes contain sulphur and other chemicals emitted by the springs of this volcanic region – this gives a characteristic green color to the water.

Temperature of the water is 8 ° C.

These unusual lakes together with the eerie frailejones around them create a unique sight.

Petroglyph cliff

On the western slopes of a rounded hill (Cerro Iguán) is located large stone block – Piedra Pintada de San Isidro. Several simple petroglyphs have been found here depicting simple symbols – such as the Sun, monkey and some more.


  1. Patricio Mena-Vásconez, G. Medina, La biodiversidad de los páramos en el Ecuador. Los Páramos de Ecuador. Particularidades,
    Problemas y Perspectivas. 2001. Accessed in 04.03.2012.
  2. Cristina Rivadeneira-Roura y Andrea Coloma-Santos, Reserva Ecológica El Ángel. Guía del patrimonio de áreas naturales protegidas del Ecuador. 2007.

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