Less than an hour by bus from the seductive colonial city of Cuenca is the primeval travel wonder of Cajas National Park. Numerous paths criss-cross the majestic, but bleak Ecuadorean wilderness that has striking similarities to the west of Scotland. The routes are numbered but signage is extremely limited making hiking in this park without a detailed map or economical local guide difficult.
I’d never planned to walk in Cajas but Cuenca’s Foundation Day meant everything in this colonial masterpiece had cerrado signs dangling from their doors and most buses weren’t running. Teaming up with a lively French woman, Bernadette and finding a guide, Juan, we set out for a day of hiking.
One excellent hike starts at Tres Cruces. With staggering views over the park from a height of over 4,000 metres above sea level, the geological history of the park becomes clearer. From a misty Andean backdrop, glaciers have gouged a primeval landscape of austere green-tinged valleys pockmarked with a glittering array of small sparkling lakes, small gnarled forests and dark volcanic rocky outcrops.
The lakes are called “box lakes” that being one explanation for where the park obtained its name, cajas being Spanish for boxes. Another variation describes that caxas is Quechuan (the local Indian language and that spoken by the Incas) for cold.
Here, the hill-line or continental divide is significant as all water that falls on the west of the mountains runs into the Pacific Ocean and all water that falls east of the hills journeys over 1000 miles via the Amazon basin before emptying into the Atlantic.
This harsh environment supports a surprising amount of life. Overhead, a rare condor patrols his dominion cruising the currents of rarefied air that lift off the jagged peaks. Small colourful wildflowers and plants litter the pathways. Among the hardy grasses and rocky ground, Indian Paintbrush dots the landscape in scarlets spots while the chuquiragua is highlighted by orange flowers, both thriving in this harsh climate.
Small forests of twisted polylepis and quinua trees sit high above the general tree-line and create a diversion from the treeless higher valleys. Like entering middle earth and presenting a maze like an obstacle course, these knotted trees twist and turn blocking the path and catching daypacks at every opportunity. The branches of the polylepis trees have strange reddish multi-layer papery bark that flakes off in sheets and are unique to the Andes. Small birds dart easily between the foliage picking at the leaves and insects.
Despite being so close and so easily accessed from Cuenca, Cajas National Park offers wonderful hiking and a tremendous sense of solitude and wilderness. With breathtaking Andean backdrops, walking the unforgiving landscape in ever-changing weather and high altitudes gives a sense of elation and pride when settling back into colonial Cuenca. And to think, if it wasn’t for a public holiday, I’d have missed this Ecuadorian travel wonder.