It was cold, it hailed, and yea it was still spectacular! It certainly says a lot about a place when your hands are frozen, your socks are wet and still, the good outweighs the uncomfortable. This National Park is a simple hop, skip and a jump from the vibrant city of Cuenca. Cajas is perfect for those looking to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and get out into nature.
Getting to Cajas National Park.
As mentioned previously it is very easy and surprisingly cheap to get to Cajas National Park from Cuenca. You can of course book a tour in advance and travel with a guide but it is not difficult to make the journey on your own using public transportation. For those traveling on a budget, this is an affordable option!
On the day of your trip head over to the Terreste Bus Terminal. For reference, the walk to the bus station from the famous Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception near Calderón Park will take you between 20–30 minutes. You can enjoy a nice brisk walk or take a taxi for $2-5. Once you arrive to the station do not become overwhelmed by the numerous ticket booths. Each booth is labeled. As you walk through the terminal there will be men yelling the names of different destinations…as Brandon and I walked, a gentleman approached us, looked at us inquisitively and said “Cajas?”. We nodded and he kindly directed us towards booth number 11 where we purchased our tickets with the bus company, Occidental. Tickets cost $2 per person and depart every hour to an hour and a half. The journey takes approximately 50 minutes. View the above picture for departure times as of November 2019.
We decided to purchase our return tickets before departing from the station, however, upon reflection, it would have been better to simply buy a one-way ticket to Cajas and purchase the return ticket on the bus ride home. Many buses pass through the park returning to Cuenca; not all of them owned by the same company. You can flag any one of these busses down and pay the fare once you get on the bus. We mistakenly got on a bus that was not owned by Occidental and therefore had to pay an additional $2. On the bright side, $2 seems to be the standard rate and both busses offered comfortable seating (as of November 2019)!
Things To Consider Before Traveling to El Cajas
Choose your path, consider the altitude, and watch the weather!
Before setting out to visit this impressive site I suggest you do some research on which trail you would like to hike. Cajas can easily be enjoyed in a half-day, full-day or even overnight camping for a $4 fee. Don’t waste precious time upon arrival deciding which trail to hike. There are numerous trails to be explored, each varying in degree of difficulty.
Consider your physical ability and how long you have had to acclimate to the altitude. Even if you are an avid hiker the altitude may affect your performance. Brandon and I were surprised that even after a week in Cuenca, which is located at 2,560m, we felt a little woozy as we wandered along the paths of Cajas National Park. Fortunately, neither of us felt sick but we definitely took extra precaution as we clambered over rocks and muddy pathways. Although we chose to hike along a trail deemed as one of the easier paths we quickly learned that everything feels a little harder at 3,900m. Be patient with yourself, stay hydrated, and if you need to stop and rest you can always blame it on the scenery and not the altitude! Visit El Cajas National Park’s website for helpful descriptions of the trails, access to maps of the area and learn a little about the flora and fauna you’ll see during your visit. There is also an amazing app called ‘Parque Nacional Cajas’. Although I never suggest relying solely on your phone for navigation, this app is helpful and can track your progress and assure you are on the correct path even without data. The app also has information on the flora, fauna, and history of the area. If you decide to make this trip without a guide you can use the app to learn more about the sites you will see.
When you arrive it is important to register with the rangers in the hut located at the start of the Laguna Toreadora trail. It may take a little extra time but it is definitely worth it. They will ask you for your passport number, name, country of origin and which trail you plan to hike. In the event of an emergency, they can use this information to find your approximate location in the park. Although the trails aren’t inherently dangerous, the weather changes rapidly in the mountains. To give you an idea, during our short trip we experienced sun, rain, and hail. Luckily it wasn’t foggy but I can only imagine how disorienting it could be if the clouds decided to descend upon the park. Dress appropriately and don’t be fooled by whatever the weather is like in Cuenca that day. It may be sunny and warm in the city while in the mountains it is cold and wet. Bring a rain jacket and extra layers of clothing. Consider bringing an extra pair of socks in case you encounter mud along the path; which we inevitably did. As my dad would say, “wear wool…cotton kills!”.
Depending on the length of visit to El Cajas National Park I’d also suggest bringing snacks. As one who is guilty of becoming hangry, I always promote snacking on every adventure!
What Can You See During a Visit to El Cajas National Park in Ecuador?
Brandon and I chose to hike Route One which takes you around the pristine Lake Toreadora and finishes right back where you started; the ranger hut. Keep in mind that not all of the trails are loops so you may not end back where you started; making it that much more important to do your research ahead of time, grab a trail map and consider which path suits your ability and time frame.
It took us around two hours to complete the loop. Although it is one of the easier paths we were still impressed with views. The path is littered with interesting plants and flowers. Although you may be tempted to keep your sites on the expansive lake, rolling hills and striking mountain peaks, take some time to inspect the grassy floor below you
You may be surprised by the vibrancy of tiny plants scattered along the side of the trail. Despite the altitude and bitter cold, these resilient itty bitty flowers thrive in Cajas and persist through the frost and cold.
During our hike, we also passed through small forests of the Quinua (Polylepis) or “paper trees”. These impressive trees only grow above 3300m and have an eerie twisted and knotted appearance. Their gnarled limbs intertwine and extend over the edge of the lake, adding to the beauty of the park.
The unpredictable weather and muddy trails that resulted in cold hands and soggy clothes did little to dampen our spirits. Maybe it was the altitude making us feel a little tipsy and alternating our perceptions…Or perhaps it was the lushness of our surroundings and the unmistakable magic of the Andes. Regardless of the reason, those visiting the area will not be disappointed with a trip to El Cajas National Park!