Monthly Archives: August 2010

Cajas Bits and Pieces

  • Cajas is a really accessible, not often visited expanse of mountain, moorland and lakes.  Unusually for Ecuador, it was formed by glaciers and doesn’t have any volcanoes.

    Reflection in lake

    Lakes, Moors and Mountains in Cajas

  • Cajas either comes from the Spanish word cajas for boxes – referring to the shape of the mountains.  Or maybe it comes from the local Quechua word cassa meaning gateway to the snowy mountain.  Cajas is crossed with trails used by travelers, and smugglers, going from the coast to Cuenca and beyond – so take your pick!
  • There are around 270 lakes of all shapes and sizes.  It has one of the highest density of lakes anywhere – so, lots of water then.
  • It’s incredibly easy to get out there.  There are two entry roads to Cajas. In the north, the main road to Guayaquil goes through the park.  The far less travelled southern entrance is near the village of Soldados.  The fist, and lowest, entrance to the park is only 20-30 mins from Cuenca center.
  • Park authorities maintain a network of trails.  Most visitors take the short trails of 30-60mins around lakes with easy access to the road.  Other trails last a few hours to a few days.  Once you get away from the main access points, you are very unlikely to see anyone.


    Trails are Color Coded

  • The park does not have people living or farming within its boundaries, though some people have cattle or horses on the outskirts.  This means: clean water and no dogs – yeah!
  • If you are looking for the more human aspect and have the time, try the southern route – unmarked trails, community tourism, local museums, hot springs.  Local guide Stefan likes fishing – go on, tickle a trout!
  • A worthwhile day trip, and good for children, is to visit two of the highlighted lakes: one higher up and other lower down – this will give you a good overall look at the park and some different , but beautiful, scenery.
  • Cajas is owned by the local water authority and supplies 60% of the water for Cuenca – so, yes, it rains.  Try August to January for a better bet at clearer skies.  This might be why Cuenca has the cleanest water in South America.
  • Even a bird ignoramus like me can get into spotting the huge variety of birds in Cajas.  On entry you are given a handy color leaflet,  so have a go!  There are 157 bird species here, it is an Area of World Importance for Bird Conservation.  There are too many types of hummingbird to name but the metal tail is endemic to the park. There is the Andean ruddy duck, Condor, parrots and falcons.    You get the idea…  there’s a lot of birds.
  • There’s also a lot of frogs – that’s the clicking noise you can hear, many endemic such as the black, green and Azuay harlequin frogs.  If you like frogs and the like, a good place to see them is the Amaru Zoo in the city center.
  • There is rock climbing near Laguna Tordeadora and trout fishing everywhere –(though the word on the trails is that the fish are bigger in the southern section).


  • Laguana Llaviucu for toddlers and bird watching

    Long reed lake

    Laguna Llaviucu

  • Trail to Cerro Avila Huaycu if you like scrambling and fabulous 360 views

    Views from Aliva Hyacu

    Looking Down Along the Main Road From Aliva Hyacu

Interestingly named creatures living in Cajas:

  • scaly naped parakeet,
  • sparkling violetear (a hummingbird),
  • tawny rumped tyrannulet( very small dictator with a brown bum??),
  • spectacled lizard

    Bark of tree that looks like paper

    How the Paper Tree Got Its Name


28 Hours Alone in Cajas

Just an hour away from the busy, culturally rich city of Cuenca is a whole other world.   In Cajas National Park you can immerse yourself in nature in this seldom visited landscape;  as I did recently.

I miss-set my alarm clock so it was a later start than expected.  On the bus were the usual woolly-hatted locals.  I was particularly impressed by the woman in front, she had a fabulous  and totally impractical bright pink hat usually worn to weddings, on top of her much more workaday woolly pink one.  She was trying to negotiate a good price to buy a horse from her neighbor; lots of good humored banter disguising a serious business deal.   I have taken this local bus that goes to the communities around Cajas National Park many times and it is always the same – a few people with fishing poles, but everyone else seems to come from the same village and know each other intimately.  The morning bus becomes a kind of village reunion.

Lake view at start of trail

Start of Trail

So there I was, next to the main road to the biggest city in Ecuador.  Nobody at all in site, a big lorry far off in the distance, and I was pretty much guaranteed of not seeing anyone else for the next 28 hours.

At 8 am at 3, 800m there was still frost on the ground as I wobbled my way over rickety bridges and climbed up into the more open paramo (moorland).  I could still see the road but the only noise was the stream below and the birds.      The path winds its way around the edge of the mountain for the first 20 minutes and then gets a little confusing where it meets up with a trail to another lake.  I soon saw the large lake I needed to skirt to the left of.  In a dip there was a beautiful clear river and some shady wooded areas.  This is clearly a preferred camping spot.  Shame it was too soon for a break.  Nice shelter, good valley views and clear water – perfect.

Bridge over stream

A Typical Bridge

Hmm now I know I want to go to the right of that mountain but f I can just sort out the real trail from the ones these pesky llamas make…The trouble with llamas is they are excellent at making trails but they just don’t go where us humans would like.  After a second breakfast, with coffee, under an impressively overhanging rock and next to my own mini lake, I set off to the ‘pass’.  One thing about Cajas is that the passes are not the huge up and downhill struggles I’m used to in Peru – it’s a gentle amble up a few hundred meters and then, there you are, in the next valley without even noticing it.

The next valley was truly breathtaking – if you like your landscapes mountainous and empty.  Nothing and nobody for miles, just craggy peaks all around, the odd spiky puya looming weirdly, and of course streams, waterfalls and lakes dotting the valley.

Bruin Valley

Bruin Valley

It was a real highlight of the trek to walk through that wide open valley, the sun came out, the sky was blue, the birds were flitting around, nice clear and easy path through the Burin Valley.   A sign indicated that the main road, if I wanted to bail out, was only 2 hours away.

At the far end of the valley is the recommended campsite as well as the Taitachugo Lake and some small Inca ruins .    I found a nice spongy bit to stretch out and take in the sun,  wondering if anyone would be fishing near the lake.  I decided to go on a bit to the far end of the lake, as it was only 2pm.  Mostly it was good fine walking with about a 20 minute section of both avoiding mud puddles, and of getting my pack caught in the branches of trees .  There the trail began to wind up but looking down I saw a unusually flat spot by the edge of the lake,  just big enough for a tent.

It was a lovely spot to watch the sun go down, the lake and the changing colors of the mountains around.

Sundown on lake

My Dinnertime View

It was raining when I woke up.  The famous Cajas fog had descended and I couldn’t see even a few feet in front of me.  I stuck it out, having a leisurely breakfast and listening to comedy on the ipod until, by 8am,  I was able to see the whole valley again.

View of lake in morning

My Breakfast View

There was a short and easy uphill before the descent into the next valley.  An amazing aspect of Cajas are the diverse environments because of the range of altitudes.  This descent into the Llaviucu represents a huge change in ecosystems in just a few hundred meters. Instead of vast open paramo, you are suddenly in thick, green, and unfortunately muddy cloud forest.   It was a tough descent with a pack, slippery mud and steep trails.  But a double joy to get to the valley floor – here the trees are more spread out but weird and fairy-glen like, with green moss and the stream that gradually turns in to a thundering river.  I hoped the pictures would do justice to the eeriness of the place.

As the trees thinned out, I was on familiar territory.  I have been to Laguna Llaviucu numerous times with my family.  It’s a great place for small children, who love hopping and jumping on the boardwalk around this reed lake.  Its also an easy place to spot llamas, ducks and last week we saw a Masked Trogon!  True to form, a group of children, maybe 8 year olds, were being taken around by their teachers.

There’s a guard station here as well as a refugio and the ruins of an old brewery, and access back to Cuenca.   Just 30 minutes later, I was back in the city.   The steep downhill had tired me out but all in all I was very satisfied with my day and a half away from it all.