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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.