When most of us think of rolling peaks and glittering lakes, our minds probably jump to the Scottish Highlands or the moorlands of New Zealand. What many don’t know is that there is such a fantasy land in Ecuador, just west of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cuenca.
As a lover of all things nature-based, perhaps the biggest draw of Cuenca wasn’t the colonial architecture but the prospect of visiting the nearby Cajas National Park, which lies at over 4,000 metres above sea level. The park stretches a whopping 70,000 acres includes approximately 768 lakes – a truly staggering number!
Less than an hour away from the city by road, this stunning mountainous wilderness is home to lakes, waterfalls, wild llamas, hummingbirds and orchids, offering the perfect escape for anyone craving a break from the city.
Getting to El Cajas National Park Independently
Cajas National Park lies 33 kilometres northwest of Cuenca. It is possible to reach the park independently, without a tour, by taking the bus from Cuenca. However, there are some advantages to taking a tour, which we’ll look at below…
Taking the Bus to El Cajas
For those without their own transport, you can catch the Occidental Bus from Terminal Terrestre in Cuenca, which leaves at 6.15 am or 8.30 am. You can buy your tickets inside the bus station at the Occidental Bus Company stand.
You can also catch the same bus from behind Feria Libre, Cuenca’s largest outdoor market. There’s a morning bus that leaves at either 6.30am or 8.30 am and you can buy a round-trip ticket (Ida y Vuelta) from the green Occidental Bus counter.
It can be difficult to find the stop, so ask around in your best Spanish, or look for anyone wearing hiking gear, a sure sign that they are heading to the park. The ticket costs just $2 US and takes 45 minutes to reach Lago Torreadora.
At Lago Torreadora, there is a visitor’s centre where you must register before entering the park and tell the park ranger what trail you would like to do. There is a small restaurant and public toilets here too.
Getting Back to Cuenca
Getting back from Cajas National Park to Cuenca can be more difficult as there are lots of buses that whizz past the entrance at Lago Torreadora in the direction of the city, but it can be a mystery as to which ones actually stop! You may end up waiting a few minutes or a few hours. Or, if you prefer not to wait, you can hitchhike back to the city, a pastime which is very accepted in Ecuador, and very safe on the most part.
Taxi or Car Hire from Cuenca to El Cajas
Other options to get there and back include a taxi (approx $20 US each way) or hiring a car, which will give you the most freedom to come and go as you please. Cuenca Carshare is the best place to rent a car in Cuenca.
Taking a Cajas National Park Tour
There are many tour agencies based in Cuenca that offer trips to Cajas National Park. They tend to cost around $50-$70 US and include transport, a guide, trek and lunch. The benefit of going with a tour is the knowledge that can be provided by a guide that can really enhance your experience. If you only have one day to explore the park, a guide will make sure you see the highlights and not waste any time going down the wrong path.
I’d also heard that the trails in Cajas National Park are not well marked and that every year tourists get lost and get themselves in big trouble. Not only this, the mist can be a problem, descending rapidly and causing people to lose their way. Not trusting my own navigational skills, especially at an altitude that I’m not used to, I felt that it would be safer for me to go with a trained guide.
So, the hard thing then was deciding who to go with as there are so many companies offering the same Cajas National Park tour. After some extensive web searches, I settled on my tour provider: Cuenca Bestours. Not only did they have excellent reviews but their staff is made up of dedicated tourism graduates, ensuring you get the most knowledgeable and professional guides.
They also put a huge focus on sustainable tourism that really appealed to me. A cost percentage from each trip is donated with the sole purpose of contributing to local communities, which means that you are giving back when you purchase a tour.
Cuenca Best Tours: Our Experience
We were picked up by our bilingual driver and tour guide Andreas early in the morning. After we were joined by the other guests, we made our way to Cajas National Park, which is around a forty-five-minute drive outside of Cuenca. Throughout the journey, Andreas chatted with us and broke the ice with the other guests. After only a few short moments, we were all comparing travel experiences like we had known each other for weeks.
After arriving at the National Park, the tour started with a hike through the cloud forest surrounding one of the lakes located in Cajas. Cajas National Park is cherished by the locals as it is the most important water source in the country. The high quality of the water from Cajas means that even travellers are able to drink straight from the tap in Cuenca, a rarity in Ecuador.
As we hiked, our guide Andreas did everything he could to enhance the experience for us. Ecuador’s answer to David Attenborough, Andreas called to the birds using his own unique whistle as well as playing pre-recordings on his phone. This definitely resulted in us seeing more birds than we would’ve done, had we decided to do the trek independent of a guide.
As we continued the hike, it quickly became apparent that nature is Andreas’ calling and Cajas National Park is his playground. He pointed out medicinal plants, hummingbird nests and let us borrow his binoculars to take in the surroundings.
As we walked, he drew our attention to edible flowers for us to try and we weaved through the forest munching on sweet lemon tasting leaves. Orchids were another speciality of Andreas’ and he pointed out a number of different species, including some so tiny they made my fingernails look giant!
During the latter half of our hike, we were able to see some llamas which we all found hugely exciting. All of the llamas that live in Cajas National Park are the responsibility of dedicated Park Rangers and hunting them is strictly forbidden.
As we reached the end of our lake hike, Andreas pointed out the trout living in the lake and discussed our plans for lunch. Feeling hungry and inspired our conversation, we all opted for grilled trout.
After finishing our hike, we bundled in the car to head up to the Tres Cruces (three crosses) viewpoint. This site marks the continental divide where the drainage basin on one side flows to the Pacific Ocean and the basin on the other side flows into the Atlantic. The ride didn’t take long but since we were ascending to over 4000 metres, I was mighty glad we didn’t have to walk the whole way!
As we trekked up the stairs, the altitude messed with our breathing and we were soon panting as we ascended. As a result of this, the walk to the top took a fair bit longer than expected!
Luckily it was worth it as the views over the surrounding valleys and lakes were nothing short of breathtaking, (see what I did there)? As we marvelled at the vastness of the park, Andreas informed us that every year around ten people die in Cajas after getting lost!
While the common paths are clearly marked, the clouds roll in quickly and it is easy to lose your bearings up high. This results in a number of people becoming enveloped by the mist and struggling to find their way back to civilisation. Whilst this statistic shocked me, it just reiterated how glad I was that I had decided to visit Cajas with a local expert.
The Fairytale Forest
After a comparatively easy skip down the mountain, we headed to the wetlands for another short hike through a forest of Polylepis trees. There is no way to describe this landscape apart from other-worldly. I felt like I had fallen straight into the pages of my favourite fantasy novel and was blown away when I looked up and remembered I was still me, on planet Earth.
We traversed the spongy ground and followed the moorland right up to the base of another lake. It was here that Andreas explained that Puma, Pampas Cats and Moorland Wolves roam these lands at night. Feeling slightly on edge but having been assured that nothing would hurt me, we headed into a nearby Polylepis forest.
The trees that make up these forests are nicknamed ‘paper trees’ because of their propensity to shed their bark in thin wafers. They are an endemic species to the Andes and have protected status under Ecuadorian law. One reason for this is that they are one of the slowest growing trees in the world, some taking more than 100 years to expand just half an inch in diameter!
After weaving through the magical Polylepis forest, we were all exhausted and it was time to scout out some lunch. Andreas drove us to a local restaurant where we were served up the traditional Ecuadorian drink of Canelazo. This is a warm alcoholic drink served in a shot glass and made from sugarcane alcohol, cinnamon and lime. It’s delicious and a great warm-me-up on a cold day!
After sampling this native tipple, we were given our appetiser of potato soup with avocado, cheese and lentils. The main course consisted of grilled pink trout accompanied by fries, rice and salad with a sweet rice pudding for dessert. The whole spread was delicious and we all wolfed it down eagerly, feeling hungry from our earlier walking.
During lunch, Andreas encouraged conversation between all of the visitors and proceeded to ask us about our travel plans. It turns out that Andreas’ wisdom was not just limited to Cajas National Park. A local man who is hugely passionate about his country, Andreas gave us tips about the best places to visit all over Ecuador.
The Verdict: El Cajas National Park
From start to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Cajas National Park. After spending a lot of time in the city of Cuenca, a trip to the countryside was just what the doctor ordered and left me feeling hugely refreshed and at one with nature.
The day was super easy to organise with the pick-up and drop-off being simple, despite the fact that our accommodation was a little tricky to find. Cuenca Bestours took all of the stress of organising away and all that was required of us was to show up and enjoy the day. An easy ask when you have such an efficient company organising everything for you!
Cajas National Park was one of the most incredible landscapes that I have ever seen and this is an impressive feat in its own right. However, my whole experience exploring the National Park was made by the fact we were accompanied by such a charismatic and knowledgeable guide, Andreas.
Through taking a trip with Cuenca Bestours, a good experience was transformed a brilliant one, solely as a result of the professionalism and friendliness of Andreas. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Cuenca Bestours and trust in them fully to deliver a truly unforgettable Ecuadorian experience!