One of the things that excited us about living in Cuenca was nearby Cajas National Park. We imagined ourselves heading to the park at least once a month to get out of the city and be surrounded by nature. Well, 6 months passed, but we finally visited Cajas National Park!
Getting to Cajas was kind of a mystery to us at first. We were very hesitant to pay the $50 for a guided tour, and we weren’t sure about paying $25 to have a taxi driver drop us off when we weren’t familiar with the surroundings. We also thought about taking a bus towards Guayaquil and just hopping off in Cajas, but we didn’t have any maps or really know what to expect.
So, when Chad’s parents came to visit, we decided to buck up and pay for a guided tour of Cajas. We were glad we did!
Cajas National Park is about 110 square miles at elevations between 10,100 feet and 14,500 feet above sea level. Our tour took us to two very different areas of the park.
Our first stop was Lake (Laguna) Llaviuco. We took a 30 minute van ride from Cuenca to the eastern side of Cajas National Park in a low cloud forest.
The hike around the lake was very enjoyable. The flat terrain made for easy walking, and our guide talked with us the whole way about the history of the area and the flora and fauna.
As we entered the park, we stopped for some family pictures at this covered bridge over the headwaters of the Tomebamba River.
Cajas National Park provides 60% of Cuenca’s drinking water, and two of Cuenca’s rivers (the Tomebamba and Yanuncay- whose shores we love to run along) originate here and eventually drain into the Amazon.
The road to Laguna Llaviuco dates back to the 1950s when a brewery was built here to use the cold mountain waters to brew beer for Cuenca. The brewery no longer exists, but parts of the building are still standing.
We first spied the brewery from afar.
And then we walked farther and got a closer view.
Serena and Ali are great little hikers, and this time we keep them motivated by collecting interesting (fallen) leaves and rocks we found along the way.
We loved the descriptions of the local plants from our guide.
Chad and I have seen the Angel’s Trumpet around Ecuador and on the Inca Trail in Peru. This plant has hallucinogenic properties, and apparently it can also make people sleepy and forgetful. Our guide told us that his grandparents used to let the kids play with the flowers so they would fall asleep. The parents could then do their work in the fields!
We saw lots of bromeliads and some orchids too.
Here are a couple more pictures of our hike around Lake Llaviuco.
Laguna Toreadora was the second stop on our hiking tour of Cajas National Park. It was much different and colder than our first hike.
We headed above the forest line to this high alpine tundra (páramo) at 3870 meters (12,696 feet!).
Lake Toreadora is just off the main highway between Cuenca and Guayaquil (Ecuador’s largest city). Below is a sign that marks the road that passed through here connecting Cuenca to Guayaquil before modern highway.
There is a monument at the top of the mountain pass to commemorate the many natives that died carrying heavy European goods (like furniture, pianos, and CARS!) from the Guayaquil port to Cuenca, which was very isolated and hard to get to less than 100 years ago.
We weren’t very considerate of our visitors. Nancy and Tom came to Cuenca from Georgia just 3 days before our visit to Cajas, so hiking was no easy undertaking at this elevation of 13,000 feet.
and walked down
and stopped to catch our breath and soak up the beautiful scenery.
Our guide showed us the way and told us about the area we were hiking in.
Plants have to be very hardy to survive at this high, cold climate. Here are a couple of flowers we saw a lot of.
Polylepsis “Paper Tree” Forest
We also hiked above 3300 meters to a Polylepsis “paper tree” forest that remains in the park. These gnarly trees thrive between 3500 and 5000 meters and make great firewood for those living at high elevation. This partially explains why there are not many left in this area.
Here are some other views of the hike at Laguna Toreadora.
When we were done hiking, we headed to one of the restaurants along the highway through Cajas to warm up and devour a lunch of potato soup and super fresh, local trout.
What a tasty end to a wonderful day!