22 Feb Cajas National Park: A Great Day Trip from Cuenca, Ecuador
Cajas National Park is a UNESCO-protected site just outside of Cuenca, Ecuador. Because of its location near the equator and directly on top of the Continental Divide, this may be the only place at such a high altitude (13-14,000 ft) where it never snows!
Getting to Cajas (and Costs)
To explore this unique region, you can either take a day trip or stay overnight. For our first visit, we opted for a guided day trip, organized by our host mother and a teacher at a Spanish language school in town. Typically, a package tour with a guide will cost $50 per person. Since our group split a school bus and the cost of a “freelance” guide, our trip came out to $20 per person.
An international crowd: 4 Ecuadorians, 2 Venezuelans, 1 lady from Sweden, 1 from Finland, 1 from Luxembourg, and 3 of us from the States
For independent travelers, you can catch a Cooperativa Transporte Occidental bus from Terminal Terrestre or Feria Libre for $2 (I believe they are heading to Guayaquil or another town in that direction). Ask to get off at La Toreadora, where the ranger station is. There, you’ll register (bring an ID) and have a chance to use the bathroom or buy a snack. (Our readers have informed us that the $10 park entrance fee for foreigners no longer seems to be in effect.)
On the way back, you can flag down any bus that passes heading down to Cuenca. The only trick is that the buses don’t like to stop with all the curves, so if you end up hiking to another section of the highway, you may have to relocate to a more favorable stopping point in order to catch a bus.
What to Pack For Your Cajas Hike
Due to the altitude, it gets surprisingly chilly in the park. At the same time, if the sun is out and you’re walking up hill at elevation, you will be sweating in no time! Supposedly rain is also common, especially in the afternoons. If you’re traveling without a guide, it wouldn’t be hard to get lost on some of the trails. So all that is to say: be prepared!
Here’s what you should bring:
- Lots of water
- Hat (for sun protection and warmth)
- Sturdy shoes that can handle a little mud or water
- Layered clothing
- Rain jacket
If traveling on your own, make sure to get a map from the ranger station and/or use a good offline map on your smartphone (Ulmon CityMaps2Go comes recommended for having most of the trails around Ecuador).
Our guide, Javier, took us on a 6-7k hike from the ranger station to a pull-out point down the highway. We arrived around 9:30 in the morning and finished in the early afternoon, so it took 4 or 5 hours with several breaks.
In yellow is where I think we went on this trail map, starting from the ranger station (house icon)
Although the hike was not particularly strenuous, having arrived in Ecuador just one week before, our hearts were pounding easily due to the elevation change.
Despite its dry appearance, Cajas is actually full of life. Here are some interesting facts we learned from our guide:
- There are 157 kinds of birds found in Cajas National Park
- The vegetation holds as much water as the 270 lakes in the park
- Cajas is an important water source for the surrounding area, including Cuenca
- The park’s name comes from a language that no longer exists and it means “cold”
On one of our snack breaks, we recruited our fellow travelers to join us in a Jumping Jedd photo. You can see more of them here!
An interesting part of the hike was passing through this paper tree forest, called quinua (no relation to the quinoa grain).
The end of our hike opened up in a grassy field that eventually led us back to the highway. Markings like the one on this rock can help you follow the trails through the park.
There is a small restaurant available at the ranger station. Our group opted instead to visit one of the popular trout restaurants found along the highway, Las Ollas del Cajas.
Although much more expensive than a typical almuerzo (set lunch) in Cuenca, the trout was delicious and came with soup and a complimentary canelazo – a traditional drink that’s served hot, strong, and sweet – for $6.50.
If you have time for a day trip from Cuenca and want to do something active, we would definitely recommend a hike in Cajas National Park. We certainly hope to return and explore more of the trails in the future.
Have you been to Cajas? Please share your personal recommendations in the comments below.
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