July 12, 2014: Saturday
When we woke up that day, I initially thought we would be taking the bus to Parque Nacional Cajas but Juan decided against it and instead, drove us all the way there. Isn’t he the bestest host ever?!!
Here’s our view from the car while approaching the park. Seeing the mountains made my heart skip a beat!
Before dropping us off the visitor centre gate, Juan took us to Tres Cruces (4167m) to have a look of the entire park from a viewing deck.
Cool fact: Cajas National Park straddles the continental divide. Rivers are either draining in the east to Atlantic Ocean or west to Pacific Ocean. I read Tres Cruces is that exact point.
Located 30 km west of Cuenca, Parque Nacional Cajas has a total land area of 28,544 hectares and elevation between 3100m and 4450m above sea level. It is home to many ecosystems such as Páramo (Andean grassland vegetation), cloud forest, mountain forest, etc. Aside from the craggy hills, the park is also speckled with 200+ lakes formed by glaciers thousands of years ago, the largest being Lago Luspa. Sixty percent of water consumed by Cuenca and its neighboring towns come from Parque Nacional Cajas.
We registered our names and route taken in the Visitor Centre. They have a stringent policy of encoding visitors’ data in their computers, ditching the old school way of signing one’s name on a logbook. Hence, there was no need for us to write down our names and other info on the ticket they have provided (maybe they could do with wristbands next time or as simple as hand stamps to save paper?).
Contrary to what I previously read and researched, we did not pay the $10 entrance fee to the park. Not sure if this was a glitch on their part but I can’t say I wasn’t ecstatic. 😀
The park officers tried to explain more about the trails, how we should go about them as best as they could with their limited English. The park is MASSIVE. It’s too easy to get lost if you’re not too careful. I know, we got lost ourselves a couple of times!
But first, Lago Toreadora from the lookout point. This lake, with its calm water, is so mesmerizing to look at. Everywhere you turn your head are series of peaks waiting to be climbed and explored. If you have the time before starting your hike, you can walk around the lake to admire it up close.
Despite the coldness, I couldn’t wait to begin our hike. Fluffy, white clouds hung in the blue sky, perfect for a day hike. Unfortunately, these tropical kids did not expect the strong gust of chilly wind that Cajas is known for. Imagine us (and I’m not proud of this), two ill-prepared Filipinos, hiking on a trail that’s pretty much exposed from beginning to end (average annual temperature 7°C). I still shiver whenever I remember that day. 😐
I remember this moment like it was yesterday. Here I was posing and smiling for the camera when in reality I can’t feel my face any longer, smiling was too much of an effort. I couldn’t feel my fingers I was afraid it might fall off anytime! But when the wind’s not blowing, feelings return and all is well again in the world.
The Cheese didn’t have a proper windbreaker since he left his loaned jacket in Manila (ugh). We left our fleece jackets because we didn’t think it would be necessary for a day hike! That was a real blunder on our part so if you plan to visit Cajas, please bring warm clothing!
There are various hiking trails in Cajas ranging from 2-hour easy stroll to two-day hikes, eight of which are clearly marked. We took the Rosa trail or Route 1, a short and moderate hike around Laguna Toreadora. The trail paths are clear coupled by trail markers and guideposts along the way, especially in confusing areas. According to our map, this trail can be completed in 3.5 hours.
We started our hike by descending on the lake’s edge following a clear path, eventually leaving the recreation zone for paths to begin the recreation zone for routes.
The path is relatively easy with sceneries that will make you stop every five minutes or so. Photos do not do it justice, all you’re left with is your brain to process the beauty to be stashed somewhere in your memory library.
Since El Cajas supports tundra vegetation, most plants that thrive here are short shrubs, grasses, and quinua trees. Quinua (Polyleps sp.) trees are the only wood trees that can grow above 3,500 masl in Cajas. It is also called paper trees because it shed paper-thin size barks that prevent parasites from growing on its trunk.
We caught up with a few fellow hikers in this area. There was an Argentinian couple who asked for their photos to be taken to which I happily obliged.
If it weren’t for the green moss on the floor, it would have felt like we wandered in a sepia world.
Coming out of the quinua forest we came upon a small clearing where we spotted this guidepost informing us of a cave nearby. We went down to explore the cave, but there’s nothing much to see. If you’re a birder though, this site is great for spotting some birds.
From the clearing, I caught sight of a rock marked with bright pink paint serving as a trail sign. As long as we could spot a streak of pink in and around our path, we know we’re on the right track.
Us two trudged for the most part of the hike alone. Our last encounter with other humans was in quinua forest so meeting this father and son along the way was a welcome change. The kid was so cute!
This is the part where we sort of, umm, got lost. It’s difficult to find the proper trail when it involved crossing streams. Trail signs were sporadically placed, everywhere you turn your head all you could see is just grass grass and more grasses! We tried to follow one route and from there, see where we would end up. When the shrubs got too dense than what I believed was normal I was convinced that we were heading in the wrong direction.
We retraced our steps where, thankfully, we ran into two teens (one was fishing, one was sitting down). Donde sendero? I asked the older one. Izquierda o derecho? He stretched his arm and pointed us to what we hoped to be the right direction (it was).
After that small incident, we became wary of our every step. Always scouting for the pink streaks along the way before making any hasty turn.
This spiky-leafed plant here called Puya is part of the bromeliad family native in the Andes Mountains.
We made it past Lake Totora! The name totora comes from the totora plant, a semi-aquatic plant that grows up to 4m tall (exactly the same material houses of Uros people are made of!).
When we got past Totora Lake, we saw more people around. Most were fishing, some going around in the forested area clad in their wellies. We also spotted llamas from afar. The hills in this area were striped with trails that seemed to vanish when you try to follow only to reappear in a few minutes. But the sight of rocks patched with pink streaks provided us comfort and confidence.
Imagine my relief when we came upon a hill overlooking the refuge/visitor centre! It was getting colder by the minute and looming dark clouds on the horizon were not helping our spirits either. With renewed energy, we continued our walk.
We arrived in the refuge/visitor centre at exactly 1 in the afternoon, overjoyed for the warmth. We completed the trail route in 3 hours! Not bad eh?
Naturally, a series of selfies and camwhoring ensued.
Note the stark contrast from before we started our hike to when we finished. Blue skies no more eep. The temperature from hereon drastically changed leaving us with shaking lips, chattering teeth, and freezing bones.
After taking enough photos to have decent options with later, we headed out into the road to wait for a bus that would ferry us back to Cuenca. Here I am throwing a big smile at the camera despite the miserable cold :))
We were prepared to wait at least 30 minutes for the Guayaquil bus to come, fortunately we didn’t have to. A bus pulled in front of us 10 minutes later. Although it was a standing room only, we took it anyway. Who knows when the next bus will come. It was pleasantly warm inside, which was great, but after an hour of traveling, sweats began to form under my baselayer. It was getting warmer inside. Lol.
Bus fare to the bus terminal was $2 per person (remember, a dollar for every hour traveled). We got seated after an hour and a half, almost near our destination but we didn’t really mind.
We took a cab home to find a half-empty house as Señora Vazquez and Juan were still out buying something special for lunch. We played with fluffy Felipe while waiting for them. He is so cute!
Bale this was our reward for completing a trail route in Cajas: cuy! A lot of you may scoff (like many Americans we’ve met) with the idea of eating a guinea pig but in Ecuador and the rest of the Andean region, cuy has been a staple food even before the Spanish came to the continent and introduced other meat sources for protein.
The South American guinea pig is slightly bigger (rabbit-sized) than the guinea pigs you see in pet stores in North America. Cuy is not only part of the gastronomic culture of Ecuador as it is also used in spiritual practices and healing ceremonies. Besides, eating cuy is not an everyday thing since it is not exactly cheap! I read somewhere that to be treated with cuy in Ecuador is considered an honor since eating it is reserved for special occasions or meal served for special guests only. Okay, now I feel extra honored!
So, the lingering question now is what does a guinea pig tastes like? Well, like most things in this world, it tastes like chicken! It was a bit greasy but the meat was tender and tasty. Don’t hesitate to try it when you get to this side of the world!
After that very interesting lunch, Juan asked us if we still wanted to go out but we politely declined seeing as we still needed to pack our things. That night, we would be leaving Cuenca for Mancora, Peru. Different country, different currency, new adventures awaiting us.
After packing, we fell asleep though. LOL. We woke up and went down just in time for the battle for third between Brazil and Netherlands began. Looking at Rio in the screen brought me so much kilig! Waley. After the match, Señora Vazquez fed us three (Señor, JC, and I) with so much popcorn, bread, and hot choco on the side, our bellies were practically bursting.
Juan arrived around 7 in the evening and handed us souvenirs from Cuenca. OMG lang hindi ko kinaya. Who does that? Juan! Waah.
This was the second (of the many) goodbyes we had to endure and it was fast becoming my least favorite part of the trip. Señora gave us bonnets that she knitted herself. Aww.
Taking these souvenir photos to remember them by was funny and emotional at the same time. I felt their genuine sincerity and happiness in hosting us and it’s not everyday you meet a family like that. Estamos muy agradecidos!
At 8pm, Juan drove us to the bus terminal. Even went as far as accompanying us to the little office where we would wait for our bus number to be called. We said our goodbyes and thank yous to each other, reminding him that if he ever finds himself in the Philippines to just give us a holler. And that’s how we left Cuenca folks, with heavy hearts. But alas, such is the life of a backpacker.
Up next: we’re crossing the border to Peru! Uh oh.
How to get to Cajas National Park:
The park can be reached by car in 45 minutes. However, you can catch a bus from Cuenca’s main bus terminal to Guayaquil and let the driver know to drop you off in Visitor’s Center gate.
Important things to remember:
It is imperative to acclimatize first before hiking to prevent altitude sickness like what I experienced while hiking Ruku Pichincha in Quito. If coming from a lower elevation, wait two days to adjust before tackling the trails. Bring warm clothing, rain jacket, snacks, and water. Weather in Cajas varies a great deal, one moment it’s all sunshine and warmth, the next it’s dark clouds and rain! There is a restaurant in the park but everything is overpriced, I highly suggest to bring your own food. Lastly, don’t be cocky, register in the Visitor’s Office.