As a child I would often go to national parks in California with my family who enjoyed the wonders of nature. From the dry Mojave deserts and large rock formations of Joshua Tree to the towering redwoods if Sequoia National Park and the massive yet dignified waterfalls of Yosemite, a respect and admiration for nature was inculcated in me from an early age. It has been years since I’ve returned to many of these places, in part due to the business of university and in part due to wanting to see more of the natural world and yet these places hold an important place in who I am today.
As one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, Ecuador has no shortage of natural beauty and many of its national parks revolve around volcanoes, the Amazon and of course Galapagos. But today we will talk about Cajas National Park, located near the picturesque city of Cuenca. The name Cajas likely comes from the Quechua word cassa (gateway to snowy mountains) or caxa (place of cold) but either way the name fits. The vegetation is a mixture of short Andean grasses and tundra-like shrubbery, a unique mixture in what is known as a páramo (alpine tundra ecosystem).
My first glimpse into Cajas was as we passed through on our way to Cuenca; as we descended we were greeted by jagged mountain peaks, blue lakes dotting the landscape, heavy fog and rain. Up ahead a group of three llamas stood firm in the middle of the road, causing a traffic jam until finally they ran off into the surrounding hills. From up on the road a landscape of peaks, lakes and fog went on seemingly forever; it was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in a long time and indeed one of the best in Ecuador.
At an altitude of 3,100 to 4,450 meters (10,080 to 14,600 feet) Cajas is extremely high and very cold in the Andean night where temperatures can drop below freezing and even during the day temperatures are rarely ever hot. Often clouds coming in from the Pacific will lead to fog-like conditions and further contribute to the cold. The park is home not just to the cold though but a slew of creatures from llamas to pumas, foxes to giant hummingbirds and even some of Ecuador’s 80 remaining Andean condors. Many creatures are only found in Cajas and nowhere else, therefore it is a critical ecosystem and an important water source for the city of Cuenca since Cajas’ rivers directly flow into the city.
My friend and Peace Corps site-mate Molly is one of the reasons why a group of us decided to hike Cajas because that is how she wanted to celebrate her birthday. Unfortunately we started our hike late when rain had already started and only a few hours were left of daylight, crucial for hiking in the Andes. Despite the rain and cold we continued forward, along the way stopping to admire the pristine crystal clear waters of rivers and lakes as well as the flora and fauna that we encountered. After about an hour we encountered one of Ecuador’s polylepis forests; these weirdly twisting intertwined trees with tiny green leaves and thin paper-like red bark once covered large parts of the Andes. Forests like these are a few relics of a bygone era when indigenous people used them for both medicine and fuel yet the silent stillness and dark, ominous shadows cast by these collection of trees is enough to make anyone imagine back to the days where such things as fairies and forest spirits were thought to exist.
For our friend Annie who fell in mud a few times, the day was not a good one but soon the sun would come out, only helping to enhance the natural beauty of the lakes and lagoons of the region. After walking for quite a long time we decided to rest. Here a nice Ecuadorian family shared their fruits and snacks with the unprepared Americans. It was a beautiful place to rest on a small hill overlooking the surrounding lakes now sparkling due to the setting sun. Eventually we got back on the road and towards Cuenca once again but the hike was one of the most beautiful that I’ve done thus far.