Cajas National Park

About a 45 minute bus ride from Cuenca is a stunning national park called Parque Nacional Cajas. We got up at 6am to catch an early bus. On the way to the bus, it seemed our only breakfast option would be sweet pastries. But then, while waiting for the bus, we found a lady on the street corner selling plates Arroz con Pollo. Perfect! 

To get to Cajas, we boarded a bus headed to Guayaquil (Cajas is on the way & they will drop you off there for a fare of $2 per person, each way). The bus dropped us off in the park at Laguna Toreadora, which has an information center. The lady inside was helpful. When we told her we wanted to do a long day hike, she recommended Route 1 & Route 2 (the most popular hikes in the park). 

We ended up doing all of Route 1 & Route 2, plus a bonus detour on Route 3 (for which we’ll blame on a llama encounter…more on that later). All of the hiking we did was at 12,000’+ elevation and up, so it made it a little more challenging. You really feel the lack of oxygen on the uphill climbs, when your heart is pounding so hard and you can’t seem to fully catch your breath. Even if you are in shape, it makes you feel really out of shape. To put it in perspective, we spent 5.5 hours hiking and only went 7.5 miles.
We started on Route 2, this hike takes you up San Luis (the mountain behind me in this picture). 

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at the information center, san luis in the background


The route is well marked the entire way.

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For long stretches of the hike, we are surrounded by or walking on a spongy carpet of succulent plants. 

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a flat stretch of hiking before the climb begins

 Route 1

 

is only a couple miles long, but it is steep. We slowly make our way to the top of San Luis. 

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pausing to catch our breath, as if that is possible


After the steep climb, we reach the top of the ridge! We are rewarded with stunning panoramic views.

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on the ridge!


We hike along the ups and downs of the ridge, soaking in the views. 

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what’s a little more climbing?

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navigating the rocks

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stunning views

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posing for a picture

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coming down from his chosen viewpoint

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hiking along the ridge


The Lonely Planet describes Cajas as a “golden-green moorlike páramo (mountainous Andean grasslands) dotted with hundreds of chilly lakes that shine like jewels against a rough, otherworldly countryside.” I’d say the description is spot on. 

It’s fascinating that plants and flowers survive at this altitude. There were many different kinds, here’s a sample…

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alpine flower

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alpine plant


Getting back down San Luis proved just as challenging as the cling up. It’s so steep, there sections where crawling down backward, clinged to the ground is clearly safer than attempting to walk. 

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clinging to the side of the mountain on the way down

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more lake views as we descend


Once we reach the bottom, we take a break for lunch at the lake. 

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our lunch spot

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empanadas for lunch


After lunch, we start Route 1. Before long, we are hiking through forests of Polylepis trees. This type of tree has adapted to grow at higher elevations than almost any other tree in the world, making the forests we are walking through some of the highest on earth. It almost makes you forget that you are at 12,000 feet elevation. 
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at the start of route 1

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forests of Polylepis trees

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braided like a pretzel

We hike through a lush valley, following the stream bed. 
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lush valley

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many stream crossings on this hike

Then, we spot a llama ahead! I’ve never seen a wild llama before. I don’t know much about llamas except I know they are normally domesticated, so hoping that means this one isn’t going to get aggressive. If they were something to take caution for, we would have been warned at the information center, right?
We stay on the trail as we pass by. As we get closer, I realize how big he is – about 6 feet tall and probably 300-400 pounds. He’s looking at us out of the corner of his eye, but doesn’t seem to be bothered by us. We continue on the trail. 

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wild llama

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sticking to the trail

About 20 minutes later, we stop to figure out which way to go. As we look back to where we came from, off in the distance, we see the llama suddenly start charging straight toward us. I had no idea llamas could run that fast. I ask Jay what we should do. Before he can answer, the llama comes to a screeching halt not far from us and takes a dump. Hmm…now what? The llama is looking the other way, so we decide to cut across the valley to pick up the trail on the other side. We hike for quite some time, then realize we are no longer on Route 1, when we come across blue Route 3 signage. Oops. Our picture of the map is really hard to read, and we aren’t sure where Route 3 leads, so we decide to play it safe back track to Route 1. Although this means we’ll likely encounter the unpredictable llama again, it still seems like our best bet. 
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back on route 1

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stream crossings always make me a little nervous

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more picture perfect views

We take Route 1 back to the information center. The final stretch is a long uphill. As soon as we get to the information center, we can hear a bus honking on the highway. Knowing that’s probably a bus back to Cuenca, we sprint up to the highway and make it just in time to catch the bus. What a day!

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7 responses to “Cajas National Park

  1. Wow! What an awesome day of hiking. I would not even attempt it. Did you find out uf the llama would have attacked you? Thanks for sharing photis and details of your experience.

  2. wow… You guys are so adventurous. Praying for safe HIKING. Your photos are great. Looking forward to the next post already.

  3. I sure enjoyed reading about your hiking today. Just worn out reading and absolutely could not imagine trying to accomplish what you guys did. Get a good night’s rest. Love, Grandma

  4. Yikes, that lama was huge, glad you made a fast getaway! What beautiful flowers & foliage on your hike. Getting back down looked scary to me…glad you were careful & made it through the day safe & sound!

  5. Thanks for the update….wouldn’t be quite as exciting an adventure without Llama stories to share hun? Glad you’re a good and fast runner! The rest of us probably wouldn’t have faired as well! What’s the weather like? Looks about perfect. Looking forward to your next update.

  6. Love reading everyone’s comments. We found out that wild llama are rare, as they are usually domesticated. Apparently, when they get upset the first thing they do is spit on you. We probably had nothing to be afraid of, but for me, any wild animal several times your size is something to be cautious of.

    The weather has been really nice so far…70’s and sunny. The sun is intense at this altitude, so it feels a lot warmer. Based on the weather forecasts we checked before leaving, we had expected cooler temps and lots of rain. Thrilled that the weather has been nicer than expected.

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