Parque Nacional Cajas (El Cajas on Wikipedia) is a national park near Cuenca in Ecuador. Elevations in the park range form 10,100' to 14,600'.
The day started out nice enough, with a walk up to the terimal terrestre (bus station) in Cuenca and grabbing a ride on a bus headed for Guayaquil. The driver knew where we were headed and stopped at the park entrance to let us off. After getting out the guard at the gate informed us that we probably wanted to head a bit further up the road for our designated trail (number 1). He assured us not to worry, that a car would be on its way soon and we could hitch a ride. Sure enough, after about 5 minutes a black pickup truck came through the gate and the guard asked them if they could take us on further. They waved us over and we hopped in the back of the cab. (Thank God for Spanish lessons in all of this which allowed us to understand what was happening)
The couple that picked us up dropped us off about 15 minutes up the road at what he called "Torreador", which is the lake below this station. We wandered into the station, expecting to have to pay a $4 entrance fee and found that it was actually free and we need only register. We provided our information, received a brief description of where the start of the trail was, and were on our way.
We descended the stairs to the trail head. Immediately upon arriving and as you descend the stairs, you're treated with a fantastic lanscape the likes of which I'd never seen before. The most striking thing is the palette of colors. What comes across as brown and dead in many of the pictures were actually vibrant yellows, deep greens, and many shades of brown. Unfortunately, I'm not sure our photos of the park do anything more than others that we've seen to capture the startling beauty of the park. I can only recommend that you look at the high resolution versions of each image, I've included direct links to the high res for each image in this post.
After descending to the lake we skirted its periphery, crossed an open area dotted with smaller ponds, and then ascended one of the hills. On the other side we were greeted with a forest of "Paper Trees" (Polylepis or "Quinua" as it is known locally). These are trees with bark the peels easily from their trunk that is more delicate than the finest tissue paper, breaking to pieces merely by being handled. They were stunning and you hike straight through a patch of trees that blanket the hillside as you descend to yet another lake.
Unfortunately, by this point in our trek (merely an hour into the 4 hour adventure) it began to rain in earnest. It had misted at the beginning of the trip, something we've come to expect almost constantly in the mountains. However, due the amount of mud, rain, and the terrain at this point, we were forced to put the camera away and focus primarily on the hiking. It continued to rain, often heavily, for the remainder of the trip. Combined with the wind it made for difficult going.
At times the hike was rather daunting. Jordan and I could easily be referred to as "city folk" and hiking is not something with which either of us have much experience. Much of the path was very steep, often times a thick coat of mud interspersed with occasional tufts of grass were all we had for foot holds. The going was slow and we both slipped and fell a number of times.
I'm remiss to have forgotten to take pictures of ourselves after we'd finished, but I'm quite certain we were dirtier than either of had ever been in our lives. Shoes encrusted with thick black mud (Jordan actually lost her shoe at one point to thick, sucking mud), our pants covered to the knees and all over our asses with the black mud, our pants and shoes entirely soaked. We finished the hike feeling wholly exhausted.
As we prepared for our RTW trip we purchased rain jackets that we brought with us to Cajas, our first real use of them. Upon purchasing them Jordan and I both had feelings of foolishness, what was the likelihood of needing such gear? We spent nearly $500 on just these two jackets. This day, they were worth every penny. Our torsos remained largely dry and warm despite beating wind and rain.
Our hands were another story. Towards the end of the hike neither of us were able to properly articulate our exposed hands and it took fully a half day for them to warm through properly. After we arrived back at the station, warming our hands by the fire there, it seemed as if the cold was radiating from inside our hands, the bones still cold long after the skin had warmed.
In the end we enjoyed the hike immensely and I would love to spend more time there, but we were also eager to move on to Peru. It was certainly worth the visit, though perhaps checking the weather report ahead of time would be wise. The trail we took would have been much easier had it been dryer and I have little doubt that we would have finished in half the time it took us. Finally, we'll be ensuring we have proper gear for future adventures.
Nut and Bolts
- Remember not to pay the full bus fare to or from Guayaquil, we paid $2/pp on the way there and $1.50/pp on the way back
- You'll want to be back from your hike by 4pm. While warming ourselves the ranger warned us if we didn't get moving that we might not be able to catch a bus out of the park any later than that
- There are operators that offer guides and group tours, Jordan found them to charge ~$45/pp. I don't see that this would be necessary, Jordan and I are inexperienced and had horrible weather, we made it just fine. We spent $7 total to visit the park, all of it was bus fare.
- Bring food and water, the terrain is rough, the elevation exhausting
- Bring warm clothing including a base layer, gloves, hat, etc. We won't be hiking again without gloves and probably will purchase some kind of clothing to go under our travel pants.
- Path 1 was very well marked, with bits of pink dabbed on rocks or trees all along the route. We took one wrong turn only when following a couple other hikers