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.