24 May Amaru Bioparque Zoo: A Must See in Cuenca, Ecuador
“Imagine if Swiss Family Robinson built a zoo on the side of a hill.” That’s how our friend described the Amaru Bioparque Zoo in Cuenca, Ecuador. As you might suspect, it is unlike most zoos you’ve probably visited.
While staying in Cuenca earlier this year, we kept hearing about the zoo from expats and visitors we met. Once we had seen it for ourselves, we hopped on the bandwagon and started advising others to put this on the top of their “must do” list for Cuenca.
So what sets this place apart?
Unlike the zoos we are used to, I can’t recall seeing any concrete in this place. Rather than weave your way around exhibits via sidewalks, the experience is more like hiking through the woods. Be ready for hoofing it uphill on rough terrain for 2-4 hours. You will follow dirt paths that wind around and up the hill before descending – there is no shortcut back.
Not only will you experience the animals in a natural setting, but you’ll also be rewarded with fantastic views of Cuenca from above.
Although we’re no experts on animal welfare, the habitats seemed more natural and less like cages. Almost all of the animals were very active when we went, which is not usually the case in other zoos.
Up close and personal
The way the habitats are designed, you can often get closer to the animals than you can in most zoos. This, of course, requires visitors to exercise caution and respect and keep a close eye on children. In some cases, like the bird sanctuary, you can actually walk among the animals without any barrier separating you. This is also true along one part of the path which has tiny little monkeys roaming free. Surprisingly, they tend to keep to themselves, picking things to eat off the bushes!
Apart from the African lions, which are included for both educational and marketing value, I believe all of the other animals come from Ecuador. Emphasis is placed on education and conservation – preserving the environment in Ecuador and protecting the life of each species. This is a non-profit and I got the sense that they take their mission seriously, rather than trying to become a big, fancy attraction.
The physical set up of the park itself presents a unique, non-corporate feel; and you can tell that the place is frequented just as much by Ecuadorians as it is by foreign tourists. In fact, not all of the signs and markings in the zoo have been translated into English yet.
When to go
When we went, it had rained moderately about 36 hours beforehand and there were still a few mud puddles but they could be easily avoided. If you went within 24 hours after a heavy rain, it would undoubtedly be slick and muddy and not too much fun. So try to go on a clear day (and if you do, bring sunscreen)!
At the entrance to the park, they have a sign posted with any special activities for the day. Since we only saw the weekend times, it may be worth calling ahead to make sure you go on a day that has bear and lion feedings scheduled.
On Saturday, the park opens at 10am. I would recommend arriving around 10:30. A caretaker feeds the Andean bear family at 11am and gives a little talk, which is located near the beginning of your journey. We found out that two of the bears were rescued and their daughter was born in Amaru zoo in 2014. They enjoy one of the largest habitats for bears that exists in any zoo. Caretakers throw honey on sticks around their habitat to give the bears’ olfactory systems some practice as well as keep them active “hunting.”
At 12pm there is a feeding of the condors, and then at 1pm they feed a pride of lions (this is toward the end of the hike). The lions have a sizable territory that includes a steep hill, which they are amazingly able to traverse. Before feeding, the lions are moved to another area so the zookeepers can hide large chunks of meat (what looked like chicken and goat) throughout the area. The caretakers answer questions about the lions and share some precautions (in Spanish) before releasing the lions back into their territory. Waiting in anticipation, it was pretty impressive to see the big Alpha lion bound across the hill to his catch, followed by another male, several females, and one or two cubs – each seeking out their own catch and chowing down in private. Definitely try to catch the lion feeding!
In the middle of the park, there is a small snackbar, covered tables, souvenir shop, and bathroom. We brought our own snacks and took a break there to eat (it was probably a good thing that we no longer had food on us when we reached the areas with the “free range” little monkeys or the birds).
How to get there
It is possible to reach the zoo by bus, if you find the city bus that goes all the way out to Hospital del Rio. From there, you’ll still have to continue down the highway and then walk a good ways up a steep dirt road to reach the entrance. Being a major budget traveler and one who doesn’t mind walking, I’m still glad we split a taxi (about $5 from the center) and saved our energy for the zoo itself. On our return, we started walking back down the hill and then caught a taxi that had just dropped some other folks off at the zoo.
Entrance prices for Amaru at the time of this writing are:
$3 senior citizens
If you have any questions or would like to share some recommendations of your own, please leave a note in the comments below.
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