ACCESS CUENCA Shirlee’s excellent solo adventure to El Cajas National Park
A couple days before we were scheduled to depart for home, I woke up to what, here in Nevada, we call a “blue-bird day”: a picture-perfect sky without a cloud in it. And since I’d only seen El Cajas on the bus from Guayaquil, it was now or never to really head back up to the national park, located a half-hour from Cuenca, under the rare blue sky.
Deke had other plans, so I was on my own. Should I take a cab? A bus? A rental car? What was safest for a woman by herself?
After consulting with a nice front-desk clerk in equally choppy Spanglish, I decided it would be safe, relatively easy, and least expensive to take a bus.
I gathered my camera gear, pocket translator, and supplies, kissed Deke so long, and headed for the local bus stop.
When it arrived, I boarded, inserted the 25-cent fare and rode 15 minutes to the Terminal Terrestre, Cuenca’s long-distance bus station.
So far, I’d acted confidently, pretending I knew exactly where I was going and how I was getting there. But inside the terminal, I wandered around a bit, wondering what to do next. Noticing my dismay, a kindly Ecuadorian man asked where I was going. I told him and he pointed me in the right direction.
I arrived at the gate, where a young man behind the turnstile asked for 10 cents to enter the bus staging area. I didn’t understand the 10-cent business, but I handed him a dime, then joined a few other passengers on the bus to Cajas.
When the driver boarded, I asked in easy Spanish I’d memorized from the pocket translator, “Is this bus going to Cajas?”
“Si,” he responded.
The bus pulled away from the terminal and took an upper avenue that looks out over El Centro, then stopped at a market where vendors boarded, selling watermelon, apricots, and bags of chifles (fried plantain chips). Not only did watermelon sound perfect for the warm day, but I also knew the word for it. I said, “Sandía, por favor,” and paid 50 cents. The vendors got off and the bus drove on.
In no time, we were out of Cuenca. Green hills, small farms, and sprawling haciendas dotted the hillsides against the bright sky, with just a few clouds starting to gather overhead.
As we climbed, the man across the aisle spoke to me in Spanish. I couldn’t make out the words, but I did understand his gestures, and I crossed over to the other side of the bus to get a better view. I felt exhilarated! I was on my own, in completely unfamiliar country, on a bus looking out at spectacular alpine scenery.
The driver pulled to the side of the road in front of the sign that said El Cajas National Park. I grabbed my backpack and off I went. After walking maybe 30 feet, out of nowhere a beautiful lake reared up to greet me. I swallowed hard; it was beautiful and unexpected.
I continued walking, checking out some small buildings, running into llamas, and taking photos. At the visitor center, I checked in, paid $10, received a big map, and returned to the lake. My idea was to make it all the way around. I certainly couldn’t get lost if I kept the lake in sight. Everywhere I turned was a photo op.
I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive: a woman, in a foreign country, alone in the wilderness. Also, by now the clouds were getting thicker. Still, I continued along the lakeshore, checking my surroundings and snapping lots of photos.
Nearly halfway around, at a bridge and waterfall, I decided I’d gone far enough. I was relieved to turn around. Now I was walking back along a trail I knew, as opposed to trekking deeper into the unknown.
I was really alone out there. I could see a group of three across the lake, but that was it. I didn’t see any wildlife, though I looked. I did see beauty — lots of it.
As I returned to the bus stop, crossing the road to catch a ride back down to Cuenca, I thought, I did it! I’d made it safely and it wasn’t bad at all.
Still, I don’t recommend taking this trip alone. Not that anyone can’t do it by themselves, but going with someone allows you to share your grand experience. To me, nothing is truly spectacular unless it’s shared.