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Hiking up to a wild craggy peak early on a clear, sunny day in Parque Nacional El Cajas it is possible to view an amazing panorama of glistening lakes and untamed páramo grass, often with not another soul in sight.

 

Approximately 30 kilometers west of Cuenca, spread across 29,000 hectares, the Cajas National Park is simply breathtaking. The glacial park topography is bleak and wild. Littered among the jagged peaks and weathered valleys are more than 250 stunning cerulean lakes. At an altitude between 3,300-4,500 meters, the ecology of the park is firmly within the páramo region, where beautiful orange-flowered chuquiragua plants flourish among a variety of greenery, including the páramo grasses, lupin and quinua trees. In this inhospitable environment, the fauna is remarkably diverse, with hummingbirds, Andean gulls, ducks, woodpeckers and condors, living alongside wildcats, deer and llamas. In contrast to the austere eastern side, the western side, of the park is concentrated with thick cloud forest. The weather can be hostile, dominated by biting winds, rain, fog and even snow on occasion. When set against the equally unforgiving landscape, the harsh climate adds to the sense of immense solitude that the area inspires.

 

Despite its intimidating appearance, the scenery within the Cajas National park is truly outstanding. Opportunities for hiking in such a beautiful, yet austere and isolated environment are few and far between. Three to six hour hikes are the most common, but it is also possible to spend several days trekking throughout the park. The anticipation of extreme weather whilst already enduring the biting wind inspires an undeniable spirit of adventure. Navigating up the rocky landscape against the gusting winds, makes for a tough-going hike in several spots. In some areas the hillsides are so steep that grasping the lush páramo grasses is the only way to keep from slipping and tumbling downwards at great speed. Sliding down the slopes may not be such a great disaster as soft spongy vegetation grows around the swampy lakes below. While hiking is by far the most popular pursuit in the park, other active options include camping, trout fishing, or praying for miracles to the Virgen de Cajas, who allegedly appeared in the park some years ago.

 

For those choosing to explore the park on foot, guided walks are highly recommended ÔÇô getting lost in this remote, brutal wilderness is not advisable. Another advantage to hiring a knowledgeable guide is that they can help in identifying some of the more timid wildlife that exists here. Hunting these shy animals involves stooping in silence, while perfecting the fine art of not-batting-an-eyelid. Crouched behind the isolated outcrops of peculiarly knotted trees that form mini-forests throughout the park, contemplating the awe-inspiring atmosphere while waiting for animals to make an appearance is incredible. Although the park is teeming with wildlife it is sometimes difficult to believe.

 

Having braved the severe weather that the park can bestow, hikers feel an enormous sense of elation after conquering this strenuous hike. The perfect ending to this challenging trek is to indulge in a hard-earned feast of fresh trout or piping hot chicken stew at one of the quiet, family-run hostelries nearby.



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