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El Cajas National Park

El Cajas National Park and Reserve (Parque Nacional El Cajas) is a starkly beautiful wilderness of valleys, lakes, highland vistas and rock formations that consists of 29,000 hectares (70,000 ac) of páramo (grassy highland generally unfit for cultivation). Located close to Cuenca, El Cajas is a great place to head for a day of hiking or trout fishing.

The park is known for its glacial-fed lakes (there are more than 250) and for the diversity of its wildlife, which includes spectacled bears, pumas, gray-breasted mountain toucans and Andean condors. In the mid-1990s, wild llamas were also reintroduced to the El Cajas.

Head up into the volcanic terrain and you'll also be able to find hairy puya bromeliads, paper (polylepis) trees, and quinua trees, a tiny species that can survive higher than any other. The best time to go is during the August to September dry season.

On an excursion through the park, you might also stumble across the remains of a major Inca highway, which used to run through the area, or one of the many tambos (waystations) that the Incas built at strategic points around El Cajas.

On your visit to the park, stop first at the information center next to Laguna Toreadora. There, you'll be given a basic map of the park and major hiking routes. There are several trails of interest, most of which are medium in terms of difficulty level. If you're going on a multi-day hike, make sure to bring emergency supplies, supplemental maps of the region and enough clothing to keep you warm through the below-freezing temperatures that often occur at night. Note that fog and rain are common in El Cajas National Park, so pack accordingly. There are several tour operators in Cuenca who offer guided day tours to El Cajas National Park and Reserve. Admission to the park itself is free.

To get to the park independently, head to the South Terminal and catch one of the Transporte Occidental buses. Buses leave for El Cajas daily at 5:30 a.m., 6:15 a.m., 7 a.m., 10:20 a.m., noon, 1:30 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. It costs $1.25 each way. You can also take any Guayaquil-bound bus via El Cajas from the main bus terminal, which leave approximately every hour, but you will be charged the entire fare to Guayaquil ($8). To get back to Cuenca, just flag down any Cuenca-bound bus on the highway in front of the park entrance.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
15 Jan 2013

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