Whether You Choose the Challenge to Hike to the Heavens, or a Casual Stroll, Parque National Cajas is a Must Visit!
Aug 25, 2019
It’s Sunday, and this is my 5th day in Cuenca. It’s the first day I’ve seen much of the sun at all, and without any particular reason, I chose today to be the day I would visit Parque Nacional Cajas. Okay, well, so maybe it was because this was the last opportunity I would have because I’m leaving tomorrow. Whatever; It was a good choice.
Before discussing the trip to Cajas, I have to say how nice it has been staying at the Mariscal Inn & Suites. A comfortable, quiet room and a great staff at a reasonable price (less than $20/night) in a great location. No, they aren’t comping me to say nice things. Alright, back to the Cajas Nacional Parque adventure.
Having finished my free breakfast, I ventured out to Terminal Terrestre bus depot in order to catch the 9:15. I recommend you start no later than 10:20 because the park is only open to the first 92 visitors. I was directed to the last booth in the terminal, right of Turno 4, where I paid my $2 fare. After messing up the directions and walking across the street and then back, I bought a water, and then paid the 10 cents to get into the platform area. Anden 25 is where I boarded the bus to Cajas.
The ride up was about an hour. Upon arrival I found the bathrooms located at the visitor center, bought a sandwich (Mixta) for $2, and some peanuts, and then went back to the park’s Visitor Check-In building, where I typed my passport number, name and age into their computer. I asked the attendant how to get up to the highest point and he directed me to Ruta 2 (the Green Route), which would lead down to Ruta 1 for my return. While I didn’t have any problem following the trail once I found the starting point – approximately 1 mile up, and directly off of, the highway, I recommend you download the free app, “Parque Nacional Cajas” for peace of mind. Besides, the app is loaded with a bunch of great information. It contains a section for General Information, Visit Rules, Routes and Trails, Biodiversity, Cultural Resources and much more! The app doesn’t rely on wi-fi or the internet. I also always use AllSport GPS to track distance, time and elevation of my hikes. Of course it doesn’t hurt that I can use it to track my way back if I were to somehow get lost or confused about how to get back.
Details of the trail – Oh, first of all, don’t make my mistake of believing you start and stay on the trail right away. Sure, you can take the trail directly left out of the Visitor Check In Office, for about 3/4 of a mile, but once you see the lake on your left, get off of the trail and onto the highway! I got hung up high above the road with no choice but to turn around to a point low enough to get to the road. Ruta 2 of Parque Nacional Cajas is labelled as “difficult”. I don’t know what the criteria is so let me just tell you what to expect. It’s easy, though probably a little soggy, for the first couple of kilometers on the trail.
After that, the trail heads up. Straight up for a little while. Take your time to ensure you have your footing as the ground can be very slick. It was at this point that I was really thankful I have been in the country, hiking at higher elevations, for the past 20 days. At over 13,600 ft, the air was feeling a bit thin. At one point I bent down to take a picture of a flower. Don’t judge; I’m a biology major and former science teacher! Anyways, upon straightening up I felt a bit light headed. I was determined to reach 14,000ft though and slowly made the climb to the summit.
Before heading down I hung out long enough to down some water and eat the peanuts I bought. I was treated to a short show of a raptor playing in the wind currents coming up the mountain in front of me.
The hike down was tricky. Slick mud on steep mountain sides requires careful stepping. 3.5 hours after setting out I was sitting down on a stool, looking through the window in the restaurant. The Golden Prague IPA 14 was a treat. The fried trout was amazing. Don’t pass up on this treat! I had the pleasure of sitting next to a kind couple from southern California. They, like me, are retired teachers. We spent the next hour talking of travel and education before hiking up to the bus stop on the highway. I opted for a ride from a local for $2, thinking I would get into Cuenca long before the bus.
The ride down is beautiful. We passed through a small town where a local celebration was happening. I caught a glimpse of brightly dressed women dancing in the plaza. The driver, a twenty-something guy, stopped right at the city limits and said it would be another $10 if I wanted him to take me to the bus depot. I declined and hailed a taxi. So it cost me an additional $3, I still made it back in good time.