If you are planning a trip to Ecuador, you really should include a visit to this area. It will be one of the highlights of any trip to a country already offering many climbing opportunities. The Cajas area is a wonderfull place, with mountains and lakes offering great landscapes for great hiking and a couple of easy peaks to summit.
Parque Nacional Cajas is situated about 33 km west of Cuenca, in province Azuay in Southern Ecuador. The NP covers 28,544 ha and offers and extraordinary landscape where about 235 lakes interfere with wet grasslands surrounded by cloudcovered peaks. Its largest lake, Lake Luspa covers 77 ha and reaches a máximum depth of 68m.
The park is most often visited as a day visit from Cuenca. You can however, spend the night at the refugio (see below), or camp by one of its many lakes. Several well indicated trails take you across the park past some of the biggest lakes and highest peaks through different landscapes: high grassland, lake grassland, high mountain forest, quinua forests, etc.
Its altitude ranges from 3150 m (in the area called Llaviuco), to Cerro Arquitectos at 4450m, the highest point. The park got its name from the Quichua Word 'caxa' which means 'cold' or from 'cass' which means 'gateway to the snowy mountains'. Another versión links the Word cajas to the geological formations in the shape of 'cajas'(boxes), in which lakes have been formed.
The area produces over 60% of the water consumed in Cuenca and its surrounding towns. Two of the four rivers that run through Cuenca originate in Cajas: the Tomebamba and the Yanuncay, both tributaries to the Amazon river. The PNC was established in June 1977 and is nowadays administrated by the 'Corporation Municipal Parque Nacional Cajas', also known as ETAPA.
For some geological history, it started when about 26 million years ago the Andean Cordillera was created. Much later, some 15 000 years ago, the PNC región experienced a process of glaciations which resulted in a highly irregular surface and in turn permitted a high density of wetlands. The advance and retreat of the ice caps left its geological footprint in the form of the U-shaped glacial valleys typical of the PNC. In addition, the glaciers carved great ravines such as the Mamamarg – Llaviucu area that divides two ecosystems by only 1.3km – high grasslands and forest, respectively, with an altitudinal difference of 520m.
The refugio at Toreadora lake is located 35 km west of the city of Cuenca, some 45 min by bus. So the best way to get to the park is to get to Cuenca first.
Cuenca is Ecuadors third biggest city, and is the capital of the Azuay province in southern Ecuador. Its colonial center has been well preserved and was declared a Unesco site in 1999 making it one of the most beautiful town in the country. Its located at about 2550m altitude, and some 450 km south of Quito. There are buses that take you from Quito to Cuenca in 6-7 hours from the southern bus terminal Quitumbe. However, most people climb Cotopaxi or Chimborazo, or visit Quiotoa volcano on their way south.
Cuenca has a really good tourist office which is located on the main plaza. Two blocks east there are buses going to the bus terminal, from where you can get the bus to PNC. Unfortunately, that road goes through the northern part of PNC. It connects Cuenca-Sayausí-Quinuas-Miguïr-Molleturo-Naranjal, from where the road continues to Guayaquil. It does make it easy to get to the visitors centre.
There are several buses a day to Guayaquil from the Terminal Terrestre (main bus terminal) that drive by the refugio, but the bus driver will let you off (1,5 dollar). You can get off at the first entrance to, at the Llaviucu entrance (1 dollar), from where it's about 40 minutes walking on a cobblestone road to the actual park entrance. Another option is to take the bus from Ferial Libre in Cuenca with the Occidental bus company that goes to Naranjal, every hour from 5am to 7pm.
I got a ride twice on that road, to get to a trailhead from the refugio, so it's quite easy to hitchhike. Just be careful with the big trucks speeding their way down towards Cuenca.
The trail system/red tape
At the visitors centre you will get a topographic map of the park for free. It shows eight 'rutas', and three 'senderos'. So, there are routes (longer) and trails (shorter, viewpoints) you can walk. The map clearly shows the different routes you can walk, eight in total. On the map, there is even a description of each trail with the distance and variations in altitude you will be walking.
There is also a dificulty degree indication from easy to moderate and dificult. However, I'd say none of them are really dificult and the hours needed to complete the trail are a very safe estimation. Each trail has a different colour, which you will find painted on rocks across the park. You can't get lost really. In some places the trails cross each other, and then wooden arrows have been put in place. To protect the flora you are asked to stay on the trail.
It is pretty relaxed hiking in the PNC. You can hike any of the trails on your own, except for trail E, where you have to go with a guide, and be maximum eight people per group. All travel agencies and tour operators are obliged to send their clients into the park with a naturalist guide.
If you are going independently, you are obliged to go with a guide if your group counts eight people or more, to take the map given to you with you, carry a compass or gps and declare the direction you will take.
The entrance fee is 10 dollars for foreigners, 4 dollars for Ecuadorians. There is free entrance on June 5th, the day of the environment.
Camping / The refugio
There is a refugio at Toreadero lake with six beds and matresses, but it can sleep more if necessary and if some people have their sleeping pad with them.
To sleep in the refugio, it's 4 dollars for foreigners, 2 for Ecuadorians. You need to bring your own sleeping bag. There is a kitchen with utensils to cook. The restaurant is open during the day, untill 5pm. Have a look at the explanatory displays with information about the park next to it.
You're supposed to bring your own food to cook, but when I was there the lady in the restaurant sold me rice and chicken to make some food. She can also prepare a sandwich to take with you on the trail for the next day.
I am not aware of camping restrictions, and actually met several people who had been camping by one of the lakes.
At the other entrance to the park, in the Llaviucu area, there is also a ranger station. If necessary it can sleep a few people too, although it is usually not open for accomodation, check in the tourist office or the Toreadora station.
Fauna and Flora
The PNC is a known birdwatchers paradise. 152 different species of birds have been identified within the park. You have a bigger chance to see some of those near the Llaviucu entrance, where trail 7 passes, as this is the most forested part of the PNC.
You'll see plenty of hummingbirds, and if you're lucky you might spot the violet-throated metaltail hummingbird, which is endemic to the PNC. Other birds known to be living in the park are the Andean condor, the great-horned owl, the gray breasted mountain toucan, the powerful woodpecker, turquoise jay, Andean ruddy duck, caranculated caracara, etc. I saw a caracara circling around Avila Huayca when I was standing on the summit, and a beautiful toucan on my way out near the Llaviucu lake.
Among the mammals you might spot the American rabbit (there are plenty of them near the refugio), the common south american fox, white-tailed deer and, closer to the road, the domesticated lama and alpaca.
You'll see plenty of the Quinoa (or Polylepis) tree. It grows above 3300m and is also know as the 'paper tree', because it constantly sheds its bark in thin layers to prevent parasites to grown on its trunk. There is, of course 'paja' (highland grass) everywhere, and also the achupilla flower amonst many others plants.
Climate and when to go
The annual precipation ranges from 829mm (33.16in) to 1,343mm (53,72in). The average annual temperature is 7C (44,6F), maximum 13,2C (55,76F), minimum 4,6C (40,28F).
PNC is situated in the southern Ecuadorian Andes which are subject to the warm humid winds of El Niño. Clouds from the Pacific coast reached the park's highest peak and leave a high humidity by the moss on the rocks, the Quinoa forests and high grasslands.
You can go any time of the year, although I'd avoid the rainier months, so better come roughly December-February and June-August. I got caught in heavy rain one late afternoon, and the next day around noon for about 15 min, in mid-February. The rains are hard to predict, so it is better to always take rain gear and proper hiking boots with you. Also, with the rains the rivers grow, and it might be difficult to cross some areas in the park without getting your feet wet.
Some of the peaks in the PNC can be climbed easily. The ones mentioned here are the most known, and I don't know of any list or so. If you do, please send me a PM, and I'll add them to the page.
Already the green trail takes you to the summit of Cerro San Luis at 4264m. From the summit you have a 360 degrees view. The trail should only take you about three hours. Its one of the more popular trails in the park. Short, with a summit and impressive views.
The orange trail goes up Avilahuaycu mountain with the summit at 4209m. You pass a small laguna at its base. It's a bit of a scramble to get to the summit, but easy still.
The highest point in the park is at Cerro Arquitectos with 4400m. It's in the western part of the park, far from the established trails, although you could certainly get to it. Feel free to add it to this page as a mountain if you've been there.