A common day-trip from Cuenca is to visit Cajas National Park – it only takes around an hour from the bus station in Cuenca, but it’s like another world! 🙂 The park is high-altitude grassland – more formally known as páramo. This type of ecosystem is found above the treeline, but below the snowline in tropical areas near the equator.
It is characterised by lots of lakes, lots of rain, and a kind of ‘moor-like tundra’ appearance. At times it looked a bit like Scotland – which is quite a surprising thing in Ecuador! But appearances can be deceptive, and the animal and plant species are entirely different. This type of ecosystem is only found in very high mountains in tropical areas – in this case, at around 4000m above sea-level.
There are a quite few different trails in the park, but the most common one for day trips is called ‘route 1’. Confusingly, there seems to be different ideas about what ‘route 1’ actually is – because ‘route 1’ is made up of parts of other trails with different names. Anyway, route 1 is a circular walk starting and ending at the visitor centre, and taking in lots of the great scenery.
The route is around 8km, and so doesn’t take too long to get around. We were slowed down a lot because we kept taking photos, and stopped for lunch and snacks 🙂 – but we were still finished by the early afternoon. There are a few hills on the walk, but the elevation is pretty much around 4000m above sea-level for the whole walk. It occured to us that we hadn’t really done a long walk at this height before – but we had had a lot of time to acclimatise, so the thin air didn’t feel too bad.
The main advice given for walking in this park, is to make sure that you are finished by around 3pm – otherwise there is a VERY HIGH chance that you are going to get totally soaked – it rains heavily pretty much EVERY afternoon (and often all day as well). We had pretty good weather, with spots of sun, and only a bit of light rain. It was mostly grey and overcast, but we were not going to complain – as that counts as GOOD weather around here!
The walk was incredibly scenic – one of our favourites – partly because it was so different from other walks that we had done on the trip.
The landscape was entirely without trees – EXCEPT, suddenly there was a forest!? How could this be? It seems that there is a tree called ‘queñua’ or ‘quinua’ (NOT to be confused with quinoa the grain….) that can grow in this harsh environment. It was quite surreal to be suddenly making our way through a small forest – which ended just as abruptly as it had begun. These trees are apparently in the rose family?!
Although the walk was quite short and it rained a bit – it was truly an exceptional walk. It was also very peaceful and we saw hardly any other walkers. This walk would likely make it into our top ten best walks of the trip! (But the committee for voting on the best walks has been disbanded, as it was getting too ‘hard’… 🙂 )