From short, half day visits to multi-day treks, Cajas National Park is a playground for budding Andean adventurers.
Getting to Cajas can be a little baffling for the uninitiated, as for some reason there are a few unusual rumors circulating around Cuenca’s hostels. Even the guidebooks seem to disagree, despite the fact it’s actually very easy to reach the park.
The simplest way to get to Cajas is to take a bus from the Terminal Terrestre in Cuenca’s north east. This will almost certainly be the bus terminal you’d have been dropped off at if you arrived in Cuenca by a long distance bus from Quito or Guayaquil. The company “Occidental” has regular buses to Cajas from around 0800 until 1600 most days from this terminal. However, their office is a little difficult to find. Look for the tiny, lime green hole in the wall huddled in a corner at the end of the bus departure bay closest to the food court. It’s a bit weird, as you actually have to head out to the area where the buses leave. The Occidental buses themselves leave from the far end of the departure bay. The bit that confuses some travelers (myself included) is that many people around Cuenca advise catching the bus from the Terminal del Sur. This isn’t the best idea, as the same bus from the main Terminal Terrestre actually loops around to Terminal del Sur before heading to Cuenca, meaning anyone who lines up at the Terminal del Sur risks not getting a seat. Don’t pay attention to other suggestions such as taking a bus from the Mercado bus stop, as the bus from the main Terminal Terrestre is simply the best option. In any case, the trip from Cuenca to the park itself takes between one to two hours, depending on traffic. The bus will drop you off at the Toreadora ranger station, in the north of the park. From here you have two options: a short walk, or an epic trek?
From the Toreadora station, there is a relaxed walk around a nearby lake. It’s very well marked, and the rangers can point you to the trailhead. It’s a great half day option for anyone hoping for a few hours of sampling the Andean wilderness, before returning to the comfort of Cuenca the same day. There are plenty of buses passing the ranger station until around 1600-1700, so you’ll have plenty of time to do the entire Toreadora circuit as a day trip from Cuenca.
Cajas has a reputation for chewing up and spitting out hikers, though that’s mostly because it’s so regularly attempted by relatively inexperienced visitors. For the well seasoned, well prepared hiker, the park is a bountiful oyster of opportunity. Start your preparation at the Instituto Geografico Militrar (IGM) in Quito (or possibly Guayaquil), which sells topographic maps of the entire park (bring a copy of your passport or cedula). The most useful maps are Chiquintad, Cuenca, Chaucha and San Felipe de Molleturo (all in 1:50,000). If 1:50,000 sounds a bit big, you can always try hitting up Tatoo Adventure Gear, which occasionally has smaller scales. I combined the IGM topos with a bunch of maps I downloaded from http://parque-nacional-cajas.org/tracks.html. The maps from that website were slightly more detailed than their IGM counterparts, and included trails fairly close to those currently maintained by the park rangers. With both the IGM maps and a few from the website listed above, you’ll find it pretty hard to get lost.
My Recommended Hike
I would strongly recommend a through-hike from Toreadora to Laguna Llaviuco. This two day hike begins on Sendero 6 (Burines-Osohuaycu), but tranfers to Sendero 7 (the Inca Trail) at a large marker just south of Laguna Burin Grande. Both these trails appear on the maps at parque-nacional-cajas.org, with some minor variations (the park rangers will happily mark these deviations on your maps). The Sendero 6 trailhead is well marked by a massive sign on the side of the highway, around 30 minutes down the road by foot east of the Toreadora ranger station. From the trailhead, the path is wonderfully easy to follow. Just keep looking out for the splatters of paint every few hundred meters and you’ll know you’re on the right track. The transfer point is also unmissable – a great big sign in the middle of the paramo that you should run into after around three to four hours.
The only one point that can be difficult is a turn about half-way along the shore of Laguna Taitachugo, where the modern Sendero 7 diverges from the ancient Inca Trail by winding up a steep incline. This is one of the few uphill grinds this trail has to offer, as the majority of the Sendero 6-7 route is a breezy downhill cruise. The shores of Laguna Taitachugo also offer a few good camp sites, including one just near a marker pointing out where Sendero 7 begins its uphill ascent. This point is also the last good spot to camp within a few hours. Be sure to pack a strong insect repellent, as the midges there are relentless monsters that will eat you alive. From Laguna Taitachugo, it’s a few hours to the park exit at Laguna Llaviuco. Once you reach the well marked exit point, you have one more hour of walking to the highway, where there are regular buses to Cuenca (45 minutes) until around 1600.
A Few Pointers
1. Know your capability. If you aren’t a relatively experienced, fit hiker, then stick to the Toreadora circuit and leave the deep park for another day.
2. Speak to the park rangers before you head out. Go over the minutae of your trip with them, and listen very carefully to their advice. They know what they’re talking about.
3. Like any high altitude hike, be prepared for ever-changing weather. Expect sudden dives in temperature, whipping rain, ankle deep mud and blazing, high UV sun. Bring layers of warm, waterproof clothing and solid boots. Check and double check your gear beforehand.
4. Take it easy on the final descent on Sendero 7, otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time face down in the mud. Crawl along the bridges, and consider bringing rubber boots for the super deep mud. Trust me, you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there.
5. Fires aren’t allowed in the park, so bring a stove. Odds are you’ll see burned out firepits near some campsites, but don’t be a loser and do the same.
6. Don’t expect company. Outside the Toreadora circuit, you’ll be unlikely to see another human face for your entire hike.
7. Know when to turn back. Even Cajas’ extremely well marked trails can become pretty hard to follow when fog reduces visibility to just a few meters. If you think you’re in over your head, then play it smart and head back. The Toreadora ranger station has a few bunks where you can spent the night for a few dollars if things don’t go according to plan.
8. Savour Cajas. This is some prime Andean hiking, and will be one of the high points of your time in Ecuador.