Arguably the highlight of my Ecuador trip, Cajas National Park has attracted many travelers from Ecuador and around the world. With an altitude of up to 4450 meters above sea level, the weather in Cajas is oftentimes cold, windy, and damp, but a trip to the Cajas National Park offers beautiful highland scenery and the opportunity to see endemic plants and species.
Cajas National Park is a world heritage site and has 786 water concentration sites. With 2.75 lakes per kilometer square, El Cajas has the highest concentration of lakes in the world. The park has over fifty hiking trails, which makes for a wonderful day trip or multiple day treks catered to people of all ages and physical abilities.
Get to Cajas National Park from Cuenca
Cajas National Park is 30 km outside of Cuenca and the bus ride takes a half-hour. You will need to get to the bus terminal and take the bus bound for Guayaquil via Cajas. Please note that not all the buses to Guayaquil will stop at Cajas National Park so be sure to ask around. You don’t need to purchase a ticket in advance, just pay $0.1 platform fee to exit the station and pay $2 on the bus.
The ride to Cajas is beautiful. As the bus travels around the country-side, you will feel the elevation increase and see the Andes mountain range, green pasture fields, and cows eating grass along the way.
Cajas National Park offers free entrance, and visitors need to register their info at the visitor center. The park opens for travelers for camping, and they have a parking lot, bathrooms, an interpreter center, and a restaurant.
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The most visited area for a day trip is Toreadora Lake, formed by melting glaciers. Toreadora Lake is the view you get as soon as you are dropped off by the bus.
From the visitor center, walk a few steps down the stairways to get to the trail-head. You will reach the beginning of the Ruta 1. Most parts of the trail are built on a platform that takes you around the Toreadora Lake, several small alpine lakes, and onto the mountains on the other side. If you are keen on hiking, you can continue a longer hike to Llaviucu refuge. It is possible to spend the night there and return to Cuenca the next day, but I was not prepared for it so I walked around the mountains for a while and headed back to the lake.
Ruta 1 is an easy hike and visitors can get a different view of the lake as well as other small alpine lakes. There were not so many people on the trail so I took it slow and enjoyed the walk.
Walk down to the lake
Walk past the observation platform and there is another unmarked trail taking you to the base of Toreadora Lake. The path to the lake is short but you will pass through the paramo with open grassland where you can find species of herbs and remnants of Polylepis Forest.
Part of the trail was uneven and slippery, and the weather had no indication of being dry and sunny. Surrounded by the mysterious paramo Andes meadows, I saw water up close and observed the panoramic mountaintop vistas.
There is a rock on the lake. It was difficult to climb over, but nearly everyone went to the lakeside and tried.
After walking around the lake and back to the top, I found a local musician filming his music album on the observation platform. There are few benches where you can sit and view the lake from the top. Make sure to stop there first to take pictures before embarking on the hike.
The last part of Cajas National Park was a visit to an interpreter center. It has a museum that exhibits the historical and geographic information of Paramos and Cajas National Park, and plants and birds that do not usually exist elsewhere. I also had lunch at the restaurant there with the large window providing a 180 – degree view of Cajas National Park. After the meal, I walked to the back of the Interpreter Center where I saw the Andes Mountains, beautiful plateaux, and glacier lakes and lagoons interspersed with each other. There was nobody else around that area, and it was a relaxing feeling to have some quiet moments in nature on my own.
Tips for visiting Cajas National Park
A day trip to Cajas can be done on your own, and it is not necessary to join a guided tour if you take Ruta 1.
If you take a longer trek, it is necessary to require a guide as the park features a large plain of pure nature and part of the trail is unmarked.
Apart from hiking, Cajas National Park is a wonderful place for fishing and birdwatching. The best sports fishing place is at Lake Lagartococha, which has the largest water body in the park.
Bring a raincoat and wear warm clothes, as the weather can be cold and changeable.
There are camping grounds for visitors who are keen on multiple day treks, and a refuge at Toreadora for those who want to stay overnight. The refuge has bunk beds, a fireplace, and a kitchen. Be sure to bring your own food and warm clothes.
Bring food and water. Owning to the high altitude, hiking in Cajas National Park requires lots of energy. You will get thirsty, hungry, and exhausted quickly if you are not careful.
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