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Ecuador: El Cajas National Park

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El Cajas National Park | Ecuador | Americas

[Visited: December 2011]

On our drive from Guayaquil to Cuenca, we passed El Cajas in the early morning, and were at once struck by the stark beauty of the mountains, the lagoons, and the clouds hovering over the mountain tops. At once, we decided to come back here. Early next morning, we took a bus towards the west, and were supposed to arrive at the entrance gate well ahead of their official opening time. However, our bus broke down on the long climb out of the old city; after waiting for more than half an hour, we did not believe the promises of the driver anymore,and decided to go walking. A light drizzle greeted us outside, and a car stopped immediately, offering us a ride. We declined: after all, we had come here to hike. When we reached the office, it was open, and to our surprise, the entrance feee had actually gone down 80% - a rare case. The female guard advised us to go for a short hike and then come back for shelter, but we were in for a long day in nature, and the elements.

Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Landscape in El Cajas with mountains and lagoons

We walked down to the Toreadora lagoon, and enjoyed an easy walk around it. It was a nice introduction to the straw grass, soo-called paper trees (polyepis), small brightly coloured flowers, and also llamas roaming the mountains. When we reached a turnoff, we decided to disobey the guard of the park, and turned left to start another hike. The sign read Muy Difícil, and to make things even more interesting, it now really started to rain. WE clambered up a hill totally covered in straw grass, and I was not sure at all there was a trail, or if we were just following some general direction. At times, the earth under our soles was very muddy, and I discovered that my once waterproof hiking boots had lost their capacity to keep any water out: my feet were soaked. While before, it had seemed that the clouds were lifting, the skies towards the east, where the weather was coming from, now looked totally closed. Still, the views were great, also because of the rags of clouds sailing across the rugged landscape. Below us, we saw several lagoons right in the middle of the brownish landscape, and more clouds climbing the mountain slopes, on our way to us. Before we expected it, we reached the end of the trail and hit the highway to Guayaquil. We decided to follow the highway a little, and take yet another, much longer trail cutting right through the northern part of El Cajas.

Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Waterfall running down the steep rocks of a mountain in El Cajas

So it was that we took a right turn, and started following an easily recognizable trail that was going up. Ahead of us, we spotted one person, apparently carrying a heavy load. The name El Cajas probably comes from Quechua, meaning Port to Snowy Mountains, and although the high-altitude mountains do not normally get snow, they of course are the mountains to cross to reach the Andes. For now, the trail ahead seemed to be leading us straight into the clouds. Along the way, we picked up many small plastic wrappers of candy; we now finally entered remote territory and could not hear the traffic on the highway anymore. One lagoon seemed even more beautiful than the other, while the trail continued to climb until we reached the highest point at around 4150m. A small chat with the local carrying a heavy load of clothes to a mountain village still three hours away made us realize that for some, this very trail was their link to the outside world. We had a short break at the turnoff, and to our joy, we saw the clouds lifting, allowing for some sunshine to give a totally new look of the El Cajas scenery. Patches of bright sunlight were falling on the grassy mountain slopes, giving it a yellowish glow, and making the lagoons reflect the bright light. From here, it was mostly downhill, and hiking was sheer pleasure. Sticking to a developing tradition, I dipped into one of the lagoons; the water was cold, but drying in the humid, cold air with wind - the sun had disappeared now - proved colder. We walked through a landscape of puya bromeliads, straw grass, waterfalls coming down steep rocky slopes, surrounded by what seemed an endless chain of mountains. Fantastic scenery that was to accompany us to the very end of the hike, when we suddenly hit the highway to Cuenca again. The day was drawing to an end, and it proved very easy to hitch a ride back to the old colonial city.

Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Mountain trail leading through the straw grass of a valley in El Cajas
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Grass-covered mountains of El Cajas in sunlight and shadow
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Grass on the shore of this lagoon surrounded by mountains
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Late afternoon sun falling on a mountain in El Cajas
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Forest climbing against a mountain on the shore of a lagoon in El Cajas
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Bright light reflecting off a straw grass covered mountain in El Cajas
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Typical El Cajas landscape with lagoon and mountains
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Lagoons, mountains, and clouds are a common sight in El Cajas
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Straw grass with puya bromeliads covering a hill in El Cajas
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Clouds climbing the mountains of El Cajas with lagoon in the foreground
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Mountain trail in El Cajas leading to over 4.000m altitude
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Typical landscape of El Cajas with plant, and lake in the background
Picture of El Cajas National Park (Ecuador): Typical vegetation often found on small rocks in El Cajas

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