Text and photos by Jeremiah Reardon
It was a glorious afternoon as I gazed up to the Cajas Mountains and considered how fortunate my friends and I had been to return to the city safe and well. I had recently hiked in the Cajas on a Sunday with David, a new friend from Oregon, and my young Ecuadorian companeros, Isaiah and his wife Maria. Little did I realize when we set out that morning how perilous our expedition would be. Along with unforeseen weather this outing tested our mettle.
Once Isaiah parked the car, we climbed the trail with metal-framed steps and wooden handrails to the top of 14,025-foot Cerro de Cajas. Letting the stunning panorama of the Andean mountains and sky sink in for my companions, I suggested today’s hike to the south, past Laguna Negra to Laguna Larga, a leisurely two-hour trek. Alerted by the sight of smoke rising from a valley commingling with clouds, we watched in amazement as trees burst into flames on a cliff face opposite Larga’s eastern shore.
As we headed down Cajas to Negra, a mountain feature caught the attention of Isaiah and Maria. She remarked, “Jeremiah, that smooth rock looks like Christ’s face.”
“Yes, Maria. And He’s crowned with the thorns.” I pointed out jagged boulders above His “face.” Isaiah and I took pictures of Christ in agony, dark boulders giving the illusion of flowing hair.
A short distance from Negra, bomberos (firemen) from Cuenca’s water company walked quickly in single-file. Each held a length of yellow aluminum pole attached to a large rubber flap like seen over the rear wheel of a tractor trailer. Hiking in the direction of the fire, we watched the crew reach into burning trees and extinguish brush fires across the smoldering cliff. Shouts could be heard as they coordinated their work.
We sat on Laguna Larga’s beach with a clear view of the fire-ravaged valley. Once we had snacked and drank bottled water, our refreshed foursome rejoined the trail. A steady drizzle started to fall. We’d better get to the highway soon and avoid this rain, I thought, not wishing to alarm my friends. If rain developed, what had been a “walk in the park” would turn into a forced march.
A few of the bomberos caught up to us along the trail. Isaiah offered to share a couple of water bottles from his pack. “Gracias,” they agreed. We paused to listen how a fisherman started the fire. “He reported it, and we put it out,” said Luis, his name stitched on his ETAPA company jacket. “But somehow it caught fire again, as you saw. I’m sure it’s out this time.”
Brown ducks followed by ducklings paddled along Larga’s shoreline. Drizzle turned to rain, which the bomberos took as a cue to hustle ahead. We trailed in silence, each of us contemplating how best to deal with the inclement weather. Poor Maria! Every ten minutes or so, she would sit and catch her wind. “We’ll take it easy along this trail till we reach Negra. Okay, Maria?” I said as I offered my winter gloves. “Gracias, Jeremias,” she said, leaning against Isaiah.
He later confided to me, “Maria had a bad headache by the time we got home. I took her to the hospital’s emergency room. The doctor told us that she breathes through her mouth rather than her nose due to a deviated septum. At high altitude, Maria breathes thin air, which wore her out.”
Fog descended, blocking a clear view of reference points. David took out his iPhone to get his position in relation to coordinates he had entered at Cerro de Cajas. Glancing at the screen, I suggested a route to avoid the valley’s marshy terrain, which captured rain water.
I began to set the pace, the others following. Even though a seasoned hiker, winded and stressed, I worried, I’ll end up with a heart attack if I’m not careful! I sought out blue paint on boulders. It felt good to spot these trail signs while dealing with limited vision under the hood of my rain jacket.
Nearing the highway, I heard road traffic. Hallelujah!
David walked with Maria and Isaiah. He called me over. “It looks best to go that way,” he pointed, indicating Cerro de Cajas.
“On an earlier hike, David, I had to go around a herd of llamas grazing there in the meadow. So, I turned south in that direction,” pointing towards sand-topped Cerro Arcquitecto, at 14,600 feet, the highest mountain in the park. “We’ll use its foothill trail to avoid walking in water. It’s elevated and connects to a creek under the highway. Maybe, another half hour to the road, I estimate.”
“Okay, Jeremiah. Lead the way. I’ll keep an eye on our friends,” David said.
Rainwater trickled over my eyeglasses and a shoe lace had come loose, inconveniences which I ignored as I led the way, water squishing in my shoes. I glanced over my left shoulder to see Isaiah lift Maria to carry her through a pond. I weighed the wisdom of guiding them or finding the highway.
A small forest of paper-bark trees with branches resembling yoga poses blocked our way. We threaded through damp wood with green plant cover sprinkled with tiny flowers. With a final push, we tumbled over a galvanized guardrail onto the smooth highway, exhausted and exhilarated. We stood and caught our breath at the highest point of the Cuenca-Guayaquil route, 13,500 feet.
We laughed as we dodged traffic and trod down to the car parked in the Tres Cruces trail parking lot. Tourist groups gaped at our drenched clothing. We shed our outer-gear and deposited wet packs into the car. Isaiah shared a concern, “A few months ago I caught pneumonia. I have to get into dry clothes.” I pulled out a jacket from my pack, which he happily accepted. Maria helped him change.
“Restaurante Casa Vieja has wood burning stoves, Isaiah. We’ll be there in about fifteen minutes,” I suggested. Isaiah drove quickly through switchback curves to farmsteads and resorts boasting trout fishing. Restaurants lined the highway. Isaiah turned left onto a gravel driveway. Casa Vieja’s one-story adobe building beckoned us. Smoke escaped its chimneys. Finished with curved-clay roof tiles, stucco walls featured mountain landscape murals.
We entered and acknowledged diners at cloth-covered tables. “Buen provecho,” we exclaimed, Ecuador’s traditional mealtime greeting. Our waitress led us to a side room with our table next to a hot stove. An Ecuadorian family sat on benches at the other table.
From the firewood box, Maria withdrew a skinned tree branch. She arranged Isaiah’s wet shoes and soaks on it to prop against the warm chamber. Our waitress returned with a tray laden with small mugs of canelazo, hot spiced cinnamon rum made from local sugar cane. We toasted our good fortune, “Salud!” Hot potato soup served to warm us in body and spirit. We all enjoyed trout dinners, fresh from Rio Quinoas, which rushed past the parking lot.
Since that eventful day, I have been back to hike in the Cajas, a treasured retreat from city life. Now, I remind my companions to have gear for weather and terrain challenges that mark the Cajas with fun and excitement. We were lucky once and I can’t count on that every time.