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).
The route is well marked the entire way.
For long stretches of the hike, we are surrounded by or walking on a spongy carpet of succulent plants.
is only a couple miles long, but it is steep. We slowly make our way to the top of San Luis.
After the steep climb, we reach the top of the ridge! We are rewarded with stunning panoramic views.
We hike along the ups and downs of the ridge, soaking in the views.
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…
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.
Once we reach the bottom, we take a break for lunch at the lake.
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. We hike through a lush valley, following the stream bed. 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. 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. 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!