[dropcap]Cajas[/dropcap] National Park is a MUST if you are travelling Cuenca or the southern provinces of Ecuador. For me Cajas is a mystical land full of geological mystery. Every time I arrive to Cajas I feel like I’m in a land that could be Narnia. Really, you won’t see anything else like it anywhere. Between the crazy rock formations, many shades of green, and hundreds of lakes, you’ll be left in awe.
To be frank, Cajas is not an “easy” trip per say even from nearby Cuenca. If you’re going without a tour group, you’ll have to navigate the bus system (and possible hitchhiking), hike on poorly marked trails, and deal with very unpredictable weather. Nonetheless, Cajas is more than worth your time and it can be done well. Check out the tips below to be prepared and know what you’re getting yourself into! Cajas is huge, about 29,000 square hectares – aka start exploring!
Cajas was declared an official recreation site in 1977, and an official National Park in 1996. It is run by the “Corporación Municipal Parque Nacional Cajas,” which is managed by the Municipality of Cuenca and ETAPA. The park is huge, about 29,000 square hectares, and ranges in altitude from about 2,800 meters to over 4,400 meters – aka start exploring!
WHAT TO EXPECT
You should expect to take in the beauty and serene atmosphere of Cajas National Park. But as my dad says, “its better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” Read up to be prepared and know the lay of the land before you trek out to Cajas.
Cajas National Park sits at a very high altitude – ranging from 2,800m to over 4,400m above sea level. My suggestion – don’t hike Cajas on your first days in Cuenca. Give yourself at least a few days to acclimate before heading out. Take it slow and hydrate + nourish your body!
Cajas is more unpredictable than Cuenca when it comes to weather, and that says a lot. I’ve hiked in a tank top sweating, and I’ve hiked in snow. Be prepared. That’s my greatest advice. Whether you’re going just for the mirador (overlook) or to hike, bring gear for the rain and cold! See below for more suggestions.
POORLY MARKED TRAILS
If you aren’t an experienced hiker, please take precaution before you venture out into the park. You must hire a guide before you go to the park. You will be required to register at the welcome center and the park rangers can help explain the options, but they will not be able to go out with you. They are often out of the trail maps, and encourage you to take a picture of the large trail map (which doesn’t help much). Trails are not well marked, and if you’re not a mildly experienced hiker, it is easy to get turned around.
HOW TO GET THERE
To reach Cajas by bus, it is best to take the direct Occidental bus from Feria Libre (6:30am or 8:45am). You can also catch the same Occidental bus at Terminal Terrestre (6:15am or 8:30am – buy your tickets inside the bus station at the Occidental stall located in the corner at the far end of the station, closest to the buses).
Depending on the day, you can also get on any bus going to Guayaquil and ask to get off in Cajas. Recently they have not allowed this, but I think it is the decision of the ticket sales and of the driver.
All buses will let you out at Lago Torreadora, where there is the tourist office to register your entry into the park, public bathrooms, and a restaurant. Bus price from Cuenca is $2 and the ride is about 45 minutes from Feria Libre).
Getting back from Cajas to Cuenca is more challenging than getting there. Ideally, you can hop on any bus heading to Cuenca at the bus stop located at the entry of Lago Torreadora. However, you may find that the busses do not stop for one reason or another. Depending on who you are with and the time of day, you may hitchhike a ride back to Cuenca as well. Hitchhiking is very culturally accepted in Ecuador. Depending on the route you choose you may not end up back at your starting point. Be prepared to be patient for busses or cars to stop if that is the case.
You can drive to Cajas from Cuenca using the main road that takes you between Cuenca and Guayaquil, “La Cuenca Molleturo.” To the most popular tourist areas, it will take you about 1 hour from Cuenca, and 2.5 hours from Guayaquil.
WITH AN ORGANIZED GROUP
If you are looking for a more intense hike, to see more terrain of the park, or to have a knowledgeable guide with you who can explain the biodiversity I highly recommend that you go with an organized tour group. Tour agencies from Cuenca that include transportation, meals, and the guide can charge as much as $50 per person, so it is not ideal for backpackers or travelers on a budget. If you’re willing to get your own transport out there, you can hire a guide for much less.
If you’d like to arrange your trip ahead of time, use the ETAPA Registration website to register your group for a visit to Cajas. Have a question or concern? 2370 127 / 2370 126 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that groups of 8 or more are required to hike with a certified guide.
There are also organized social groups that have regular trips to Cajas National Park. Check out Club Sangay for their monthly excursions to Cajas and other hiking sites around Cuenca and Ecuador. Trips range in $5-10 per person and include transportation + expert guides. Forewarning, they are all moderate to advanced hikers – the treks will be long and mildly challenging (Learn more about Club Sangay here). There is another new group Caminando con las Estrellas, which is a group of young Ecuadorians that arrange nighttime hikes to Cajas. Check out their Facebook page to see their schedule. Hikers usually meet in Parque Calderon and carpool to the park.
WHAT TO BRING
Layers of clothing – be prepared for 40 degrees to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. A tee-shirt, long sleeve, and warm layer such as a fleece or jacket are highly recommended.
Hiking boots (some get away with athletic sneakers, but some of the terrain can be rocky and quite muddy – I highly recommend proper shoes!)
Rain gear – a rain jacket and umbrella
Water and snacks (the visitor center has a restaurant, but if you’re out for a hike be prepared to hydrate and fuel your body!)
Toilet paper and hand sanitizer
Hat, gloves, scarf (yes, some days it is that cold)
TIPS & RECOMMENDATIONS
Go in the morning. Not only is the weather likely to be drier, but the park does have a limited capacity for the number of hikers per day. I have seen people turned away who arrive in the afternoon.
There is absolutely no cell service or 3G once you enter the park.
If you’re interested in rock climbing, buy a copy of the new rock climbing routes book for the Azuay province before you go (available for purchase at the Museo Pumapungo gift shop).
Bring layers and good shoes. Seriously.
Eat the trucha (trout) at one of the restaurants in the park – so fresh – and warm up with a canelazo after your hike!
The altitude is very high, much higher than in Cuenca. Wait at least a couple of days to acclimate to the altitude, and be prepared with food, water, and something sugary before you go.
Have you been to Cajas National Park? Share your experience in the comments!