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Cajas Hiking Tour – Cuenca, Ecuador

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

The vista from the viewpoint wasn’t particularly impressive. The grey clouds hovered over the hills that encircled us at 4,000 meters, casting a dreary mood over the land. I however, could watch the wisps of clouds dance across the bellies of the mountains, like the slow exhale of a smoker, for hours. I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest where clouds feel like a warm blanket.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

While Dave and Sora pedaled their way up and over 8% grades lasting 20 kilometers, I joined TerraDiversa, a Cuenca-based tour operator, on their Cajas hiking tour. Located just a half hour from Cuenca, Cajas National Park is a 28,544-hectare park that consists of 237 lakes –all of which are interconnected, making Cajas the place with the highest concentration of lakes in the world. It supplies Cuenca with 60% of its drinking water, said to be the best in South America. For the first time in almost a year, we were able to drink water straight from the tap.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

Trout introduced from Canada years ago have threatened the native population of preñadores, the local fish, thus trout fishing is encouraged. Fires are the biggest threat to the park. As fishing is a popular sport among the locals who do not understand fire safety regulations, every three to four months, fires rage in the park.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

Cajas, originally named Cassas, a Kichwa word meaning cold pass between hills, was renamed to Cajas by the Spaniards, which means boxes. The park is home to over 500 species of plants, 85% of which serve medicinal purposes, 150 types of birds, and 44 species of animals.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

From the viewpoint we headed back to the van to La Toreadora Trailhead to commence our Cajas hiking tour. A Canadian man from my group expressed his concern for hiking in the altitude, as he breathed heavily descending the short staircase. The remaining group members consisted of a Czech couple, an earthquake city planner from the Philippines, a retired Australian couple, and a man from Mexico. It was quite possibly the most diverse tour group I had ever joined.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

Cajas is known for its vast number of confusing trails. Hikers become lost regularly, and a pair of French hikers were recently rescued after spending the night in the park as a result of losing the trail. Professional guides know the park well and in addition to guiding visitors along the right trails, they point out the plants and animals that you wouldn’t see were you hiking the paths alone.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

They say in Cajas, you experience all four seasons in an hour. While we arrived to clouds and a bit of rain, the moment we donned our raincoats, we exchanged them for sunglasses, only to put our jackets back on a half hour later.

Our guide, Flavio stopped occasionally to point out flowers that only grow in Cajas. He rustled behind tall grasses to find Tipo, a natural medicine used by the Ecuadorians to treat ails like altitude sickness. We passed along the small twig that resembled thyme down the line and took in the aroma of the healing plant.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

La Toreadora is a lake that sits at 3800 masl and even small inclines rob the breath of even the most active individuals. Taking advantage of our forced breathers, Flavio would whip out his phone and begin to play bird recordings, an attempt to flirt with the nearby species that occupy the park. More often than not, if we stood quietly, we’d hear the call returned and birds would swoop into the nearby trees or bushes in search of their new potential mate.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

The 13-kilometer walk took us past lake after lake, with viewpoints showing off all the lakes, dozens pocketed at the base of the mountains. We ducked our heads as we entered the polylepis or “paper” tree, an indigenous Andean species named so for the red paper-like bark that flakes off in sheets.

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The point-to-point hike took us about three hours and by the time we reached the van in the parking lot, we were starving. Fortunately lunch was the next stop before a second shorter hike around Llaviucu Lake.

We stopped at a log restaurant whose specialty was of course trout, for which most of my peers opted. I received a vegan meal consisting of a sort of tortilla made from corn and a giant pile of vegetables (veggies aren’t exactly common accompaniments to meals in Latin America, so I was the only one of the group with color on my plate. Vegan for the win). We watched Beethoven on the blaring TV as we finished our meals, reminiscing about the popular childhood movie.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

After lunch, we continued our Cajas hiking tour at Llaviucu Lake to walk the short path around the lake. At 3160 masl, it was quite remarkable how much the environment changed. Where rugged peaks and brown landscapes with few trees dominated our first hike, we were now in a lush green forest with moss and thick forest. This reminded me of the Pacific Northwest and I felt right at home.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

A lone cabin sat across the water from where I stood as I held back from the group to take video and photos, again watching as a stream of clouds glided across the towering mountains.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

With a full day hiking in Cajas National Park, barely scratching the surface of what the park offered, I forgot that we were only 30km from the city. Only nature surrounds, with the rivers transporting water to the city seemingly so far away.

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

TerraDiversa
www.terradiversa.com
Calle Larga 8-41 y Luis Cordero, Cuenca
Phone:  +593 0 7 282 3782
Hours: Mon–Fri 9AM–7PM
Time required: 8 hours (including drive)
Difficulty Level: Easy – Elevation aside, the hike was mainly flat with a few small climbs.
Price: $50 (includes a bilingual (English/Spanish) guide, private transportation, pickup and drop off from particular meeting points (at your hotel for private tour), both a 3-hour and a 1-hour hike in different sections of the park and lunch at a local restaurant)

Cajas Hiking Tour with TerraDiversa. Just a half hour drive from Cuenca, Ecuador, Cajas National Park makes a spectacular nature retreat | Long Haul Trekkers

Thank you so much to TerraDiversa for inviting me on the Cajas hiking tour, which they offered at a discount in exchange for my writing a blog post. As always, all opinions are my own and I wouldn’t suggest you go on an adventure if we didn’t enjoy it ourselves.

Anita

Tuesday 29th of November 2016

It looks like a great hiking opportunity. I understand a guide is neeeded there for not getting lost.It's interesting to learn how name of the was changed because of Spaniards. Nice photos. Thanks for sharing!

Jen

Tuesday 29th of November 2016

The Spaniards changes so many names of places in South America - domination at it's finest! The guide is absolutely worth it because they will point out all the things that you would have no idea existed at all without them.

shobha42016

Tuesday 29th of November 2016

Great photos! you do feel like you are floating above the clouds. the llamas are absolutely adorable.

Jen

Tuesday 29th of November 2016

Thank you so much for the kind words! The clouds were so mesmerizing to watch. And llamas, no matter how many times you see them, are always adorable!

Tom

Tuesday 29th of November 2016

This is absolutely incredible! I would love to hike around here. The similarity with the scenery in New Zealand is astounding as well!

Jen

Tuesday 29th of November 2016

The lower portion did remind me a lot of New Zealand. The change in flora and fauna between the upper and lower level was just astounding!

Rooting Robert

Monday 28th of November 2016

Thank you for taking me with you. Those photos are amazing! Love the cactus one especially, although it kinda reminds me of a spider somehow. The diversity of nature encountered on your tour is fascinating.

Jen

Monday 28th of November 2016

Thank you so much! The plant you're referring to is a bromeliad, which is related to pineapple.

Diane Freaney

Tuesday 22nd of November 2016

I am always amazed at the number and quality of the photos included in each blog post. This blog post even includes a video - short but excellent.

I am guessing your photo/video equipment is small and light because I know you are traveling by bicycle.

I would love to see a blog post on how you create such beautiful blog posts from remote corners of the world, with minimal equipment.

Jen

Thursday 24th of November 2016

Thank you, Diane. I love taking and editing photos, so it means a lot that you pointed them out and highlighted them! I don't go all that light! I have Canon DSLR, a wide angle lens, a tripod, the GoPro, and my phone that I use for photos. Plus the laptop for editing.

I'll think about the blog post you suggested! Thanks for the input.