cajas national park

Thinking About A Day Trip To The Cajas? Read This First

[dropcap]Cajas[/dropcap] National Park is a MUST if you are travelling Cuenca or the southern provinces of Ecuador. For me Cajas is a mystical land full of geological mystery. Every time I arrive to Cajas I feel like I’m in a land that could be Narnia. Really, you won’t see anything else like it anywhere. Between the crazy rock formations, many shades of green, and hundreds of lakes, you’ll be left in awe.

To be frank, Cajas is not an “easy” trip per say even from nearby Cuenca. If you’re going without a tour group, you’ll have to navigate the bus system (and possible hitchhiking), hike on poorly marked trails, and deal with very unpredictable weather. Nonetheless, Cajas is more than worth your time and it can be done well. Check out the tips below to be prepared and know what you’re getting yourself into! Cajas is huge, about 29,000 square hectares – aka start exploring!

Cajas was declared an official recreation site in 1977, and an official National Park in 1996. It is run by the “Corporación Municipal Parque Nacional Cajas,” which is managed by the Municipality of Cuenca and ETAPA. The park is huge, about 29,000 square hectares, and ranges in altitude from about 2,800 meters to over 4,400 meters – aka start exploring!

Photo Credit: Kelly Mitchell

 

WHAT TO EXPECT

You should expect to take in the beauty and serene atmosphere of Cajas National Park. But as my dad says, “its better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” Read up to be prepared and know the lay of the land before you trek out to Cajas.

HIGH ALTITUDE

Cajas National Park sits at a very high altitude – ranging from 2,800m to over 4,400m above sea level. My suggestion – don’t hike Cajas on your first days in Cuenca. Give yourself at least a few days to acclimate before heading out. Take it slow and hydrate + nourish your body!

UNPREDICTABLE WEATHER

Cajas is more unpredictable than Cuenca when it comes to weather, and that says a lot. I’ve hiked in a tank top sweating, and I’ve hiked in snow. Be prepared. That’s my greatest advice. Whether you’re going just for the mirador (overlook) or to hike, bring gear for the rain and cold! See below for more suggestions.

POORLY MARKED TRAILS

If you aren’t an experienced hiker, please take precaution before you venture out into the park. You must hire a guide before you go to the park. You will be required to register at the welcome center and the park rangers can help explain the options, but they will not be able to go out with you. They are often out of the trail maps, and encourage you to take a picture of the large trail map (which doesn’t help much). Trails are not well marked, and if you’re not a mildly experienced hiker, it is easy to get turned around.

Photo Credit: Kelly Mitchell

HOW TO GET THERE

BY BUS

To reach Cajas by bus, it is best to take the direct Occidental bus from Feria Libre (6:30am or 8:45am). You can also catch the same Occidental bus at Terminal Terrestre (6:15am or 8:30am – buy your tickets inside the bus station at the Occidental stall located in the corner at the far end of the station, closest to the buses).

Depending on the day, you can also get on any bus going to Guayaquil and ask to get off in Cajas. Recently they have not allowed this, but I think it is the decision of the ticket sales and of the driver.

All buses will let you out at Lago Torreadora, where there is the tourist office to register your entry into the park, public bathrooms, and a restaurant. Bus price from Cuenca is $2 and the ride is about 45 minutes from Feria Libre).

Getting back from Cajas to Cuenca is more challenging than getting there. Ideally, you can hop on any bus heading to Cuenca at the bus stop located at the entry of Lago Torreadora. However, you may find that the busses do not stop for one reason or another. Depending on who you are with and the time of day, you may hitchhike a ride back to Cuenca as well. Hitchhiking is very culturally accepted in Ecuador. Depending on the route you choose you may not end up back at your starting point. Be prepared to be patient for busses or cars to stop if that is the case.

BY CAR

You can drive to Cajas from Cuenca using the main road that takes you between Cuenca and Guayaquil, “La Cuenca Molleturo.” To the most popular tourist areas, it will take you about 1 hour from Cuenca, and 2.5 hours from Guayaquil.

WITH AN ORGANIZED GROUP

If you are looking for a more intense hike, to see more terrain of the park, or to have a knowledgeable guide with you who can explain the biodiversity I highly recommend that you go with an organized tour group. Tour agencies from Cuenca that include transportation, meals, and the guide can charge as much as $50 per person, so it is not ideal for backpackers or travelers on a budget. If you’re willing to get your own transport out there, you can hire a guide for much less.

If you’d like to arrange your trip ahead of time, use the ETAPA Registration website to register your group for a visit to Cajas. Have a question or concern? 2370 127 / 2370 126 or e-mail: [email protected] Please note that groups of 8 or more are required to hike with a certified guide.

There are also organized social groups that have regular trips to Cajas National Park. Check out Club Sangay for their monthly excursions to Cajas and other hiking sites around Cuenca and Ecuador. Trips range in $5-10 per person and include transportation + expert guides. Forewarning, they are all moderate to advanced hikers – the treks will be long and mildly challenging (Learn more about Club Sangay here). There is another new group Caminando con las Estrellas, which is a group of young Ecuadorians that arrange nighttime hikes to Cajas. Check out their Facebook page to see their schedule. Hikers usually meet in Parque Calderon and carpool to the park.

Photo Credit: Kelly Mitchell

WHAT TO BRING

Layers of clothing – be prepared for 40 degrees to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. A tee-shirt, long sleeve, and warm layer such as a fleece or jacket are highly recommended.
Hiking boots (some get away with athletic sneakers, but some of the terrain can be rocky and quite muddy – I highly recommend proper shoes!)
Rain gear – a rain jacket and umbrella
Water and snacks (the visitor center has a restaurant, but if you’re out for a hike be prepared to hydrate and fuel your body!)
Toilet paper and hand sanitizer
Hat, gloves, scarf (yes, some days it is that cold)
TIPS & RECOMMENDATIONS

Go in the morning. Not only is the weather likely to be drier, but the park does have a limited capacity for the number of hikers per day. I have seen people turned away who arrive in the afternoon.
There is absolutely no cell service or 3G once you enter the park.
If you’re interested in rock climbing, buy a copy of the new rock climbing routes book for the Azuay province before you go (available for purchase at the Museo Pumapungo gift shop).
Bring layers and good shoes. Seriously.
Eat the trucha (trout) at one of the restaurants in the park – so fresh – and warm up with a canelazo after your hike!
The altitude is very high, much higher than in Cuenca. Wait at least a couple of days to acclimate to the altitude, and be prepared with food, water, and something sugary before you go.
Have you been to Cajas National Park? Share your experience in the comments!

11 Responses

  1. I went with a tour guide & group recently, and it was terribly muddy and slippery. I was extremely grateful for my hiking poles, and wouldn’t go back to Cajas without them. And don’t go alone: within five minutes of entering the park, an English-only speaker who was hiking alone was headed back on the trail with a broken arm. She was alone, and was lucky it happened close to the trailhead.

  2. I want to compliment Kelly Mitchell on her wonderful article on A DAY TRIP TO THE CAJAS? We enjoyed a few months in Ecuador and spend a day in the Cajas with our friend Jorge Gonzales from Cuenca. For those of you that have not yet experienced it, take her advise seriously. You will be safer and enjoy it more.

    As for myself, I enjoyed it and would do it again. More oxygen would have been good for me. Hiking out in a cold windy rain required many breaks for me. My wife had a better experience with her ability to handle the elevation.

  3. some misinformation here in that it is not necessary to hire a guide, at Torreadora or anywhere else in the park….I have gone many, many times alone, and now I lead small groups to a special place far away from the registration and regulation of Torreadora

    1. Yes, the wording did make it sound like hiring a guide was necessary, “per say,” but rather that was just a poor choice of words that could’ve been found and corrected if anyone proofread these articles. (And I’m blaming GT, not the author.) But as to the rest of your comment, I don’t think that encouraging people to slip off on their own “far away” from the established trails is very responsible either, unless they’re skilled outdoorsmen, in very good condition, and have at least a working knowledge of basic survival skills.

    2. In 1 sentance you say its not necessary to hire a guide and then in the following state that you take people (as a guide) to a “special place” far away from the registration office trips through the Caja’s. Not only is that ill advised, its also illegal. You are not a registered guide here in Ecuador and I doubt very much that you have any of the paperwork that is required to take people on these trips. Its better to go with a registered guide who is familiar with the area, the weather, and what they might expect. Going with a fly-by-night Gringo tour guide can present many problems that I’m certain you aren’t prepared to handle.

  4. Kelly … very good writeup. I agree with your observations/advice and appreciate the emphasis on preparedness for the environs in the Cajas. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the trails and came across ill-prepared and/or lost individuals that were told, by the front-desk person at their hostel or some TA or FB poster, how easy it is and that you just grab the bus, jump out at Toreadora and go. Perhaps, that is true if you stick with the Toreadora circle route but not true if you explore further afoot. Happy Trails !

  5. I appreciate the enthusiam of the author, but why doesn’t GT have anyone proofread or edit the articles before publication? Seriously. Also, if you’ve just arrived at Cuenca’s altitude, you’ll want to wait more than a few days to try hiking the Cajas; more like 2 weeks, ideally. If you’re at all wobbly or have balance issues, keep in mind that even the healthiest among us don’t have the same degree of musclar control or coordination at that altitude; so if you are challeneged in this way and are still determined to go, take a walking stick to use as a third leg. And hitch hike back to Cuenca? Just because it’s culturally accpeted doesn’t make it safe — I wouldn’t try it. If you can’t afford to arrange for proper transportation, don’t go. The author is correct that trails are poorly marked, but you should further understand that it’s extremely easy to get very lost in the Cajas if you decide to head off the established trail and blaze your own. The way the terrain undulates, that lake or ridge or whatever you’re using as a point of reference for finding your way back may suddenly disappear from sight. This happened to friends of mine, and they ended up nearly freezing to death overnight after they became hopelessly lost. So if you’re the adventurous type, add a sub-zero sleeping bag and flashlight to your hiking kit. Oh, and don’t try to pet the llamas.

  6. All the information has been very helpful. We will b visiting Guayaquil in June and wanted to take a tour thrre to Cajas. A bus will b takimg us up and takes abt 3 hiurs we were told. I read its recommended to acclimate in cuencas few days, what if were in guayaquil for a few days prior to visiting Cajas.. would that b enough time to acclimate .?

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