Before leaving Cuenca Mark and I resolved to do something outdoorsy, and with El Cajas National Park just 30km west of and up through the hills that hug the city, I’d’ve never forgiven myself for not going. We may have deliberated at length, tried to come up with reasons why it was OK to skip it, but in the end I am happy to report that we pushed through snot noses and weak legs (I was succumbing to the ‘flu) and took on the inhumane 5am wake-up call to visit this little known patch of wetland wilderness in the Ecuadorian Andes.
We found out how to get there the same way everyone else does: the Google machine. These are pretty reliable directions:
- Use a Transporte Occidental bus that leaves from Ricardo Darque street off Avenida de las Américas (a taxi took us there)
- We arrived in time for the 7am bus, were told we could only leave at 8:30am, cursed our stars, then managed to get on a 7:30am bus after all (unsure what happened); only $2 per person. It’s a pretty gorgeous ride up through the outskirts of Cuenca.
- The conductor understood where we wanted to go – ask for the Toreadora gate (the one at the top). They’ll tell you where to disembark.
We’d heard rumours that there were no maps at the park and although the tourism office in Cuenca assured as that we’d get printouts at the gate, in the end those rumours were true. The pleasant ladies at the reception desk insisted that I take a photograph of the map in the office. Some rumours also suggested that you have to have a licensed guide for this park, but as long as you promise to stick to the easy red route (Ruta 1) you’ll be OK.
Rumour also had it that the park entrance fee is$10 – steep but not too much for a national park. On this particular day, this particular rumour was false – entrance was free. Apparently this is part of the Ecuadorian government’s efforts to stimulate visits to national parks other than the Galapagos.
Cuenca is 2 500m above sea level, but El Cajas starts at 3 100 and goes up to 4 450m. The altitude made itself known in the form of struggling lungs (did I mention I had a cold?), near-freezing temperatures (jackets and gloves were dug out) and face-numbing clouds of mist that gave the landscape a sinister look.
Sinister maybe, but stunning nonetheless. Another true rumour is the fact that the trail markers are not only very few and far between but also very hard to spot. We were pretty much always unsure of where we were going and we stopped often to check the map on my camera which really only served as an indication of which general direction to go. As always in these conditions, there’s nothing better than imagining you’re on a very important mission in Mordor. I mean, if a hobbit can do it …
You never do know what awaits on these kinds of hikes – that’s the appeal isn’t it? – and we feared the worst: getting lost, having to walk uphill the whole time, running out of food or water. None of that happened … OK, we did go the wrong way at first – right instead of left – but retraced our steps quickly once we agreed that someone had made a mistake.
It was quiet up there despite the ever-visible highway. We sat in contented silence eating our lunch at breakfast – cheese cut with a credit card – and took many breaks along the water’s edge, eyeing the blue patches in the otherwise grey sky and watching the strange velvety grass sway in the wind. Through a small wet forest and past reed-covered wetlands – this is a “Ramsar Wetland of International Importance” – walking up past streams that bubble down in the opposite direction.
The end arrived sooner than we thought it would, and before things got anywhere near strenuous we made it back onto the road. The gate guards were very helpful in showing us where we had to wait for the bus back to Cuenca, but before we boarded we sat down for delicious fresh river trout (sustainably caught!), just $6 for a three-course meal and beers (even more affordable since the park was free) while gazing across one of the many gorgeous lakes that spring eternal here.