Only 35km northwest of Cuenca, PARQUE NACIONAL CAJAS is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Ecuador: a wild, primeval landscape of craggy hills and glacier-scoured valleys studded with a breathtaking quantity of lakes (235 at last count), glinting like jewels against the mottled earth and rock surrounding them. Spread over 290 square kilometres of high páramo (3000–4500m), the park offers superb hiking and trout fishing opportunities and – despite sitting on the doorstep of a major city – a tremendous sense of solitude, with visitors kept at bay by the rain and fog that so frequently plague the area. This inhospitable environment harbours more flora and fauna than first impressions might suggest: native quinua trees, with their gnarled and twisted branches, grow alongside the rivers that thread through the park, and many species of shrubs and flowers adapted to harsh climates – such as the orange-flowered chuqiragua – survive on the moorland. There’s also a tract of dense, humid cloudforest, peppered with orchids and bromeliads, on the eastern edge of the park. The park is also home to wildcats, pumas, deer and some spectacled bears, though you’re far more likely to see ducks, rabbits and perhaps some recently reintroduced llamas. Cajas is also rich in birdlife, including woodpeckers, hummingbirds, mountain toucans and Andean condors. Human relics include a scattering of pre-Hispanic ruins, probably of former shelters for those travelling between the sierra and the coast, as well as a four-kilometre restored section of the Ingañán, an old Inca road, conserving much of its original paving.
The best place to start exploring Parque Nacional Cajas is at the Information Centre on the edge of the shimmering Laguna Toreadora, easily reached from Cuenca along the paved highway running through the park on its way to the coast. This is where you register your visit, pay your $10 entrance fee (if you have not already done so at the Quinuas road control 8km closer to Cuenca) and pick up a free 1:70,000 colour map of the park.
Hiking in Parque Nacional Cajas
Hiking in Parque Nacional Cajas
The official map details ten hiking routes across the park, ranging from short hops of an hour or two to end-to-end treks of two or three days. You can supplement this map with 1:50,000 IGM maps covering the area (Cuenca, Chaucha, San Felipe de Molleturo and Chiquintad), but the black-and-white copies can be hard to read.
The most popular day-hike (a combination of route 2 and part of route 1; 5–6hr) starts at the Information Centre, taking you northeast past Laguna Toreadora, through a quinua forest and down southeast past Laguna Totoras and Laguna Patoquinuas. The hike ends back at the highway, some 8km east of the Information Centre, at the Quinuas checkpoint, where you can catch the bus back to Cuenca; ask the warden to show you the path, which is straightforward to follow and quite easy-going.
Alternatively, there’s a good hike (also 5–6hr), which starts 4km further west along the highway from the Information Centre, at the Tres Cruces hill on the left-hand (south) side of the road. At 4160m, the hill straddles the continental divide between waters draining west into the Pacific and east into the Amazon basin – you can scramble up it in about fifteen minutes, for great views over the park. The trail (route 5 on the map) takes you down past a string of three lakes – Negra, Larga and Tagllacocha – bringing you to the Ingañán (paved Inca road) by Laguna Luspa, before heading right (west) back towards the highway.
There are numerous possibilities for multi-day hikes too – consult the park map and IGM maps and ask the warden for guidance. It’s essential to come well prepared: with the possibility of thick fog obscuring visibility, and a tendency for paths to peter out into nowhere, you should bring emergency food and ideally a survival blanket even on short day-hikes, in case you get lost. Although it’s often hot enough to hike in a t-shirt when the sun’s out (usually in the morning), the temperature can quickly drop below freezing in bad weather, and is perishing at night, so take plenty of layers and warm gear, including a hat and gloves. You’ll also need waterproof clothing and sturdy, waterproof boots, preferably with gaiters; if you’re camping make sure your tent is well sealed or you’ll have a wet and miserable time. It’s driest between June and August, but it might rain, hail or snow at any time of the year.