About thirty kilometers from Cuenca is one of Ecuador's most beautiful nature reserves. The Parque Nacional Cajas has the largest concentration of lakes per square kilometer in the world. It is the water reservoir of Ecuador with a unique flora and fauna. A day of walking in the Parque Nacional Cajas was one of our highlights of Ecuador. We walked only one day in the park, but it is possible to do multi-day walks with the backpack and tent. For this we will have to come back one more time. These are our tips for a nice day trip from Cuenca.
El Cajas National Park is a national park in the highlands of Ecuador. It is located about 30 km west from Cuenca, the capital of the province of Azuay. It’s a paramo, a special ecological system that only exists in the Andes at altitudes between 3100m and 4450m above sea level. The páramo is the ecosystem of the regions above the continuous forest line, yet below the permanent snowline. The landscape offers a tundra vegetation on a jagged landscape of hills and valleys. The vegetation composes mainly of giant rosette plants, shrubs and grasses. According to scientists, páramos may be evolutionary hot spots and among the fastest evolving regions on Earth.
The starting point of the walks is the information center at Laguna Toreadora. From Cuenca you can take the bus to the starting point. The buses leave from two bus stops: Terminal Terreste in the east of the city, or Terminal Feria Grande in the west of the city. The bus company is called Transporte Oriental and there are different bus times, although they can not be exactly trusted. In principle, the buses go all day and drive every hour. You buy a ticket in the terminal at the counter, or you pay in the bus itself. The price is $ 2, although they will try to ask more if you pay in the bus. Keep your foot down and pay only $ 2. The stop Laguna Toreadora is known by the bus driver and often there are several hikers in the bus with the same destination.
The information building of the park is modern with a nice museum and a small restaurant. There are eight outlined walks, two of which leave from the information center.
Route 1 is by far the most popular and one of the most beautiful in the park. Although the route is only 4 kilometers long, the walk takes about 1.5 to 2.5 hours, depending on your pace. The route passes several lakes and through old Quinoa forests.
Route 2 also departs from the information center and is only 2 kilometers long. Yet it is a serious challenge because you climb to 4,200 meters altitude for a beautiful view over the lakes. You do need a bit of luck with the weather because the clouds are often low so route 2 is not always worthwhile.
Two kilometers from the information center starts route 3, which is 10 kilometers long. It is a beautiful route along several lakes and usually you are completely alone. This route does not end at the information center, but a few kilometers lower on the road to Cuenca. From here you can hitchhike or take the bus back to the city.
Opposite the information center is the bus stop where you can take a bus to Cuenca. The bus comes every hour, even though there are no fixed times. The ride also costs $ 2. If you prefer not to wait for the bus, then hitchhiking are a good option. It is very common in Ecuador and often you only have to wait a few cars. The only drawback is that you do not know where they will drop you off in Cuenca.
Cuenca is one of the most touristic cities in Ecuador and there is an oversupply of hostels and hotels. We stayed in the cultural Hostal Anicha, which is located a few blocks from the main square. The hostel is located in the old building of the Ministry of Education. It is a beautiful building with a cosy courtyard. Several artists painted the walls of the hostel, resulting in some beautiful paintings. In the morning you can choose from two types of breakfast: vegetarian (sandwich with egg) or vegan (oatmeal with fresh fruit). An absolute must in Cuenca!
There is a wide range of restaurants, from the cheapest street restaurants to high class gourmet restaurants. Recently, there is a Belgian restaurant in Cuenca where you can eat a delicious lunch for a reasonable price of $ 3.50. The owner of La Belga, Joël, doesn’t want to be the cheapest or best restaurant in Cuenca, but the restaurant with the best price-quality ratio. It’s not Belgian food every day but an international menu. All the menus have soup, a main course, a desert and a drink. We were lucky and had onion soup, vol-au-vent and candied pineapple with potatoes. Of course, an artisan Belgian beer should be part of your menu. It is the perfect end after hiking in the Cajas National Park.
A big part of the Cajas National Park is located at an altitude of 4,000 meters. Because of its special ecosystem it is always humid and often the park is covered in clouds. The wind can be cold and the humid air often makes it extra cold. Warm clothes and a raincoat are absolutely necessary. Some parts of the route are wet and muddy so waterproof shoes aren’t a luxury.
There are a lot of climbs on the routes. Especially route 2 is tough with a steep climb to 4,200 meters. If you are not used to altitude, climbing will be tough. Take it easy because you are quickly out of breath at this altitude. Drinking enough, climbing slowly and a lot of breaks are the golden tips to overcome the altitude.