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So close to Cuenca, but oh, so far away! A hike to Lake Luspa in Cajas National Park

Parque Nacional Cajas

By Bob Itami

One of the great advantages of living in Cuenca is the close proximity to Cajas National Park. There are many fantastic day hikes in the park and with proper clothing and equipment, you can enjoy one of the great alpine ecosystems in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Thanks to our wonderful guide Esteban Coobija Arévalo, we had a memorable hike to Lake Luspa in Cajas National Park. This is a good day hike as it gets you into the heart of the Cajas on a trail that isn´t too difficult.

Lake Luspa is the largest lake in the Cajas and you are walking on the Inca Trail for much of the hike. You can do this hike on your own, without a guide, but having an experienced guide gives you many more options for those little obstacles nature throws at you, like bad weather, dangerous stream crossings or trail diversions.

Hiking at high elevations requires conditioning if you want to hike safely and for maximum enjoyment. Cuenca is at 2,500 Meters (8,200 ft) above sea level. This hike takes you to 3,860 metres (12,660 ft). You always need to bring clothes for the quick changes at high altitude including cold wind, rain, and muddy trails. A good guide can advise you on the proper equipment and clothing. Even experienced hikers have lost their lives in the Cajas so being prepared is not trivial advice. The mobile app “Maps.Me” shows the trails in the Cajas and saves the maps on the phone so they are accessible even without mobile service.

Map of hike. Trail in red. Round trip distance 9km. (Basemap Opentopomap.org)

To get to the trailhead, you can take any bus going to Guayaquil and have the driver drop you off at the restaurant at Guagrahuma on the west side of the Cajas National Park. The trailhead is across the street from the restaurant. The start of the trail has splendid views of the valley formed by an ancient glacier.

View from the trail into the valley carved by an ancient glacier. Credit: Bob Itami

The trail gradually climbs until you get a view of Lake Luspa, the largest lake in Cajas National Park. You are now truly in the Paramo – which is the alpine moorlands high in the Andes. Enjoy the wildflowers that bloom year-round. Many are found only in the Cajas and are endangered so tread softly.

The Inca trail through the Paramo is well defined and easy to follow but can be muddy after a rain. Credit: Bob Itami

We were going to cross the stream on the outlet to Lake Luspa and walk around the lake, but the water was running high and deep so we opted to stay on the trail north of the lake to view the waterfall at the outlet from Lake Tagliacocha.   The views from the top of the waterfall are stunning and there is a grassy area adjacent to the falls that is a great picnic spot.

Here is a drone video showing the falls.

Ken March with the waterfall emerging from Lake Tagliacocha in the background. Credit: Bob Itami

From the falls, you can make your way down into the valley to the Paperbark Forest (Polylepsis). Make your way to the north end of the forest and follow the trail to a wonderful campsite on the east side of the forest. Here you will find ancient paperbark trees, leaning and twisted, protecting a beautiful campsite near a stream.

View of the paperbark forest. Credit: Bob Itami

From the paperbark forest, we went cross country heading west to pick up the Inca trail and walked back to the trailhead. It was one of the most beautiful and spectacular days in memory in the Cajas.

Esteban Coobija Arévalo (guide), Ken March, Bob Itami, Phyllis Theodos and Janet Engel at Lake Luspa.

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Bob Itami is a retired environmental planner living in Cuenca.
He has had a 20-year academic career teaching at the graduate level at the University of Guelph, the University of Arizona and the University of Melbourne in Australia. As an environmental consultant, he developed visitor management systems with National Parks in Australia and the US. For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, he worked with scientific teams building computer simulation models of recreation behavior, vessel traffic and the effects of global climate warming on international shipping through the Bering Sea. He is a keen hiker and is enjoying exploring the landscapes and cultures of Latin America. Contact Bob for more information at bobitami@hotmail.com