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.
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.
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, 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)