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, not Ecuador. What many don’t know is that there is such a fantasy land here too, found in El Cajas National Park.
Northwest of the city of Cuenca and perched 4,000 metres above sea level, Parque Nacional Cajas stretches a whopping 70,000 acres! This rugged landscape is home to epic hiking trails, lakes, waterfalls, flora and fauna, offering the perfect escape from the city. If Cajas National Park is on your bucket list, read on for everything you need to know about planning your visit.
Cajas National Park Map & Resources
A Guide to Cajas National Park, Ecuador
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History of Cajas National Park
The name Cajas originates from the Quichua language ‘cassa’. It means ‘gateway to the snowy mountains’. Once an area crossed by trails which were used by merchants during the 19th century, this area has been hugely important to Ecuadorians, both culturally and historically.
Inside the park, they have identified 28 archaeological sites, many of which predate the Inca era. As a result, the park is now an important conservation area and its protection is managed by the local municipality.
Best Time to Visit Cajas National Park
June, July, August and September see the best weather at Cajas National Park. It is hottest (average daily temperature of 15°C) and driest during these months. However, good weather brings more crowds.
Cajas National Park is likely to be busier during the weekend when the locals visit from nearby Cuenca. Christmas, New Year and local public holidays also mean an increase in crowds. We’d recommend avoiding travel to El Cajas during these periods if possible.
If you’re only visiting the park for a short amount of time, it is worth making sure that you arrive early. The weather at this altitude is very changeable and the clouds often roll in during the afternoons. It is also important to consider that there is a daily limit on visitors and this quota could have already been met if you arrive too late.
Things to Do in Cajas National Park, Ecuador
The number one thing to do in Cajas National Park is hike. There are approximately 15 trails through the park and more are being added all the time. They range from short hikes (taking around half an hour) right up to treks which will need to spread over two or even three days.
Visitors are advised not to begin any hike after 4 pm as the weather is more changeable in the afternoons. Never stray from the designated trails – during my visit I was told that 10 people die inside the park every year after getting lost!
While you can find these hikes marked on an app such as AllTrails and maps.me, there is also a visitor’s office where you can ask for more detail about each of the routes. Paper maps are not provided, however, there is now an app associated with the national park. It’s called Parque Nacional Cajas and contains trail information and virtual maps for each of the routes inside the park.
2. Rock Climbing
Rock climbing is a popular pursuit in Cajas National Park and there are a few bolted climbs. It is always advisable to go rock climbing with a local guide, especially in a high-altitude area where the weather can change quickly.
Did you know?
3. Fly Fishing
This is the only type of fishing allowed in Cajas National Park. Use of any other kind of bait when fishing, for example, worms, bread or insects, is prohibited inside the national park.
If you are an outdoorsy sort, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to camp in Cajas National Park. There is a small fee for the privilege of overnighting in the park and visitors will be required to present their itinerary to rangers and download the Parque Nacional Cajas app on arrival.
There are 157 species of birds in Cajas National Park making it a twitcher’s heaven. If you’re out to spot some feathered friends, keep your eyes peeled for Andean condors, grey-breasted mountain toucans, great conebills and tit-like dacnis.
As soon as you see the photos of El Cajas, you’ll understand why so many photographers flock to the area. Inside the park, there are countless lakes, incredible vistas, a plethora of wildlife and exotic flora, including rare orchids.
How to Get to El Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park is often visited on a day trip from Cuenca and lies just 33 kilometres northwest of the city. It is possible to reach the park independently by taking a bus from the terminal terrestre.
Catch the Occidental Bus which leaves regularly throughout the morning. You can buy your tickets inside the bus station at the Occidental Bus Company booth (stand 40). The ticket costs approx. $2USD and the journey takes 45 minutes. Depart at Lago Torreadora.
Here there is a visitor’s centre where you must register before entering the park. You’ll need to share your rough itinerary with the park ranger on arrival so that they can keep track of how many people are in the park each day. There is a small restaurant and public toilets inside the visitor’s centre too.
If you’d rather not take the bus, you could also jump in a taxi to get to El Cajas. A taxi will cost approx. $20USD each way. There is also the option to hire a car, which will give you the freedom to come and go as you please. Cuenca Carshare is the best place to rent a car in Cuenca.
Getting Back to 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 $50-80USD per person and include transport, a guide, a trek and lunch.
The benefit of going on a tour is the knowledge provided by a guide can really enhance your experience. If you only have one day to explore, a guide will make sure you see the highlights and help you to spot exotic flora and fauna.
When it comes to choosing a Cajas National Park tour, make sure you read the reviews and do a little research about their sustainability practices. After some extensive web searches, I settled on Cuenca Bestours for my visit to El Cajas. 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. A cost percentage from each trip is donated to local communities too, which means that you are supporting good causes when you go on a tour.
Tours will usually involve bird spotting, learning about native medicinal plants and hiking. Most tours tend to include a visit to the epic 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. You’ll be ascending to over 4,000 metres so make sure you have allowed yourself some time to acclimatise.
Practical Information for Visiting Cajas National Park
Parque Nacional Cajas opens at 8 am daily and closes at 4.30 pm.
There is currently no entrance fee for visiting Cajas National Park. However, if you wish to camp inside the park overnight, you will need to pay a fee of approximately $4USD per person ($2USD for Ecuadorians).
Cajas National Park Altitude
Cajas National Park sits at an altitude of between 3,100m to 4,450m above sea level – that’s serious stuff! Therefore, if you have this Ecuadorian national park on your bucket list, it is really important to allow yourself some time to acclimatise before you visit.
The best way to do this is to spend a few days at altitude before you journey into Cajas (Cuenca is approximately 2,560 m above sea level so this is a good place to start). Don’t overdo it physically, stay hydrated and avoid drinking too much alcohol.
Cajas National Park Weather
Owing to the high-altitude setting of El Cajas, the weather is very changeable. This means that visitors to the national park will need to prepare for all eventualities! The average temperature at Cajas National Park is around 15°C so it can get pretty chilly!
The dry season in Ecuador traditionally spans from Jun-Sep, however, rainy days are common year-round. You can experience all four seasons in a day so make sure you dress appropriately and bring the right stuff (see below)!
What to Bring to Cajas National Park
- Sturdy footwear
- Waterproof layer
- Hiking clothes
Facilities at Cajas National Park
Inside the national park, there are toilets, a restaurant, a refugio, guard service and parking. There is also a visitor centre which includes an auditorium.
Tips for Visiting Cajas National Park
- Bring Your ID
All visitors to Cajas National Park are required to show their ID when they arrive at the park. This is when you register with a ranger and share your itinerary.
- Allow Yourself Time to Acclimatise
Cajas National Park sits at a very high altitude. Therefore, you will need to allow yourself at least a few days to acclimatise. Altitude sickness can be very dangerous and the best way to prepare is to stay hydrated and allow your body time to adapt to these new conditions.
- Wear Layers
The weather in Cajas National Park is very changeable. Wearing quick-dry hiking clothes that you can layer up is advisable as you’ll be better prepared for a range of weather.
- Download the App
Downloading the Parque Nacional Cajas app is a requirement when signing in to the park. It has all the resources you will likely need during your time in the park, from trail maps to park rules.
- Start Hiking Early
Hikers are always advised to begin trails no later than 4 pm. This is because the trails can be challenging in the dark and after this time, the bad weather is more likely to roll in.
- Stick to the Trails
Every year, a handful of people sadly lose their lives in the national park. Make sure you stick to the designated trails.
- Remember Your Camera
El Cajas is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Ecuador. The exotic bird and wildlife, combined with the colourful flora means you will definitely want your camera. Make sure you have some kind of protection for it if it isn’t waterproof!
- Go on a Tour if Wildlife Spotting Is Your Goal
A range of animals call this park home, from puma to pampas cats and even moorland wolves! If you are hoping to see some rare animals or birds, visiting the park alongside a guide will heighten your chances of spotting wildlife.
Ecuador’s Cajas National Park is a truly remarkable place which should be visited by all hiking and nature enthusiasts. Famous for its high-altitude setting, otherworldly landscape and natural marvels, it is an amazing place which really deserves its spot on your Ecuador itinerary.