Hiking in Cajas National Park: Come prepared but then expect to be dazzled by the diversity
By Brian Buckner
Just a few miles west of Cuenca is the Caja’s National Park. Encompassing a large portion of the Cajas Mountain range, this is a rugged and bio-diverse area that is more than worthy of any hiker’s exploration.
Use online maps to do your initial exploring of the many trails the park offers from the comfort of your home. The park has a nice website, easily located by a Google search. Get a feel for what the park is like prior to your arrival.
Once you’ve completed your research and preparation, catch a bus at the terminal terrestre in Cuenca and for a little more than a buck you’ll be dropped off at the main park entrance on the Cuenca-to-Guayaquil highway.
Although the park offers something for all ages including a cool interpretation center at the headquarters, the hiker should be prepared before heading into the field. Proper acclimation to elevations in the 14,000-foot elevation range is necessary for those who like to really get their high altitude hike on! There are also areas of the park that are much lower for those not wanting to take on the challenges of the cold, rain, sleet, fog and wind at the higher altitudes, that range up to 15,000 feet. Among the other challenges is the unsure footing on steep, rocky grades.
Many times in the Cajas, you will experience clear weather in the morning or very early afternoon. Within minutes, visibility can drop to ten or fifteen feet as fog, rain, sleet and sometimes snow move in. Staying the night when you didn’t intend to is not just uncomfortable, the danger from exposure is real with temperatures dropping well below freezing. Dress accordingly and follow park rules. The payoffs for high altitude hiking are many-fold because of unique opportunities to interact with the landscape and animals. And, it’s plenty safe in my opinion with proper planning, gear and clothing. Beware, however: Over the years, a number of unprepared hikers, including tourists and expats, have died in the upper elevations of the Cajas.
There are easier hikes that take you to some of the park’s spectacular lagoons; according the park literature, there are 200 sizeable lagoon within its boundaries.
The best thing to do, whether you’re an experienced hiker/climber or not, is to get a map of the particular area you’re planning to hike. The park issues maps with your entrance fee, although they often run out of them.
As I said earlier, it’s good to take a little time for acclimation of both the altitude and weather. You’ll have more fun too if you go slowly at first so that you can take in all the attractions in your new surroundings.
In other areas of the park, including the area closest to Cuenca and at elevations slightly above 10,000 feet, you can enjoy easier hiking trails, sunnier weather and maybe see some llamas. You can try your hand at catching a trout too. Birdwatching and photography are other activities besides hiking that you can enjoy in these easier to access and traverse areas. A local bus will drop you by the main highway and you can walk down to the park area, or you can hitch a ride on the road. It’s always a good idea to offer to pay for t he lift, since many of the obliging drivers are poor. Most of them, however, will refuse compensation.
So, you’ve gotten the idea now that a lot of great exploration and sightseeing awaits the hiker in the Cajas, as in Ecuador in general. The country offers four different eco-systems with broad temperature and elevation variations and broad spectrums of flora and fauna. All this lies in an area about as big as the U.S. state of Colorado. Transportation around the country is fast enough but not because of speed, but because Ecuador is small. It’s not hard to travel from area to area in your explorations.
Photos by Brian Buckner.