Cajas National Park


Well, we didn’t make it to Cajas National Park yesterday, but we did enjoy a day of doing nothing. We’ve been pretty much on the go ever since we arrived in Ecuador with the 9-day bike trip, Galapagos (where we were kept busy from 7am to 5pm most days), and bus, plane and taxi travel, not to mention walking around the towns and cities we’ve visited along the way. So it was nice to have a day where we did nothing! Actually, I’m pretty incapable of doing nothing all day, so I did walk around a bit and spent some time at a great little cafe called Cafe Austria (fresh juices and apple kuchen!) writing emails and such. For dinner C and I went to Cafe Eucalyptus, which is owned by a British and Romanian couple (Cuenca is chock-full of expats) and it was awesome. The best food I’ve had in awhile! We’ll be back tonight…

But today we did make it to Cajas National Park. We had hired a guide yesterday through Apullaca and he picked us up this morning at 8am with rubber boots and rain jackets. It was 45 minute drive into the park and all along the way the views were stunning. We lucked out with no rain and a high cloud cover, so the visibility was great. Our first stop was at a place called Tres Cruces where there were three crosses almost buried in fist-sized rocks. Apparently the crosses are situated on the Inca trail and each cross represents either the sun, the moon, or the mother earth. As the Incas and other Indians traveled along the trail, they would make an offering at whichever ideology they believed in, placing a stone at the bottom of the cross.

From there we climbed a humbling few hundred feet (made difficult by the 12,000 foot altitude) to the top of a lookout that had great views of lakes and ponds below. In addition to its rugged beauty, Cajas National Park is well-known for its plethora of lakes and ponds, many of which supply Cuenca with fresh, clean water.

We descended down the wooden staircase and got back in the car for a short drive to Toreador Lake where Gustavo, our guide, would lead us into the moorland of Cajas National Park. He gave us the option of doing an easier, flatter route, or to head up into the hills for a longer and more exacting hike. C and I chose the longer more exacting hike, of course. We soon found out the need for rubber boots. The ground in Cajas is saturated with water and much of the ‘trail’ is a mud trap. It reminded me of hiking in Alaska! Interestingly, Gustavo informed us that the water comes from underground springs that keep flowing all year round.

After skirting the edge of Toreador Lake for a bit, we entered a paper tree forest. I felt like I entered the Lord of the Rings! The paper trees are native to Cajas and their bark looks like brown paper peeling off the trunks and limbs. They’re also twisted and gnarly, giving the forest a eerie, yet enchanting feel. It was so green, too, with all the moss, ferns, lichens and ground plants.

I was glad that we had decided on going with a guide because the trail we were following looked like an animal path diverging and converging in ten different directions. Not surprisingly, we were told that it’s not too uncommon for hikers to get lost in the park.

We hiked for three hours up and down the hills, learning interesting facts and tidbits from Gustavo and enjoying the dramatic and breathtaking landscape of Cajas National Park. Both C and I were immensely impressed. Just as we were returning to the trailhead and visitor’s center where we started, the sky darkened and I felt raindrops hitting my cheeks. Just like at Chimborazo, we had impeccable timing! Back in the car the raindrops started to fall more heavily and the park was consumed by low, grey mist.

I took a series of black and white photos that I thought turned out really well:

By that time it was 1pm and I was starving. We stopped at a restaurant/hotel just outside of Cajas called Dos Chorreras – or two waterfalls – because it faces a hillside with two white cascades trickling down. The restaurant normally serves trucha (trout), but had a vegetarian option as well, which was decent (I’ll have to try making yucca fries when I get home!). The adjoining hotel is a beautiful lodge made of wood and stone with several fireplaces and large windows. Unfortunately, it’s about $200 a night 😦 Gustavo said that a lot of honeymooners head there for a getaway.

Then it was back to Cuenca in the late afternoon and after a shower, I returned to Cafe Austria for a beet, carrot, apple, and ginger juice and kept my head turned away from the apple kuchen.

Tomorrow we leave the lovely colonial Cuenca for Guayaquil. C flies out to Baja where he’ll start a new rotation on the Sea Bird and I’ll head south the Vilcabamba and Madre Tierra!

In Cuenca and Back on a Bike



Cuenca is such a great city! Tons of beautiful churches and green parks. Last night, after C and I arrived in town after a four hour bus ride from Guayaquil, we explored the cobblestone streets of Cuena and admired its old colonial building, remnants of Spanish colonizations in the mid-1500’s. We had a late afternoon snack of hummus (yay!) and then a light dinner at Raymipampa. I’ve been craving salads and luckily they had a great lettuce, bean, and avocado option for me! The hotel we’re staying at – Macondo – is on the outskirts of the center of town, which is fine with me because it’s quiet at night. The hotel reminds me a lot of the place we stayed at in San Jose (Aranjuez) because it’s an old converted house centered around an open courtyard.

In the morning we ate breakfast with some other travelers and had a leisurely start to the day. The plan was to walk around Cuenca some more, but other than that our agenda was open. We found our way to a giant indoor food market with vendors selling everything from fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, cooked legumes and almost anything else you can think of, including fresh carrot and apple juice! Except for a juice and some bananas, we didn’t buy anything, but vowed to return later to stock up on a few mangos and avocados.

Our next destination was the Museo del Banco Central. Now, I’m not a museum person, but we spent about an hour walking through the exhibits showcasing the history and archaeology of indigenous populations. By that time I had had enough of museums for a week, so we continued on our way. We stopped in at a local travel agency and inquired about bikes to rent. We were in luck because they had two brand new bikes for only $8 for half a day. C and I said we would return after lunch and take them for a spin. For lunch I was eager to try a restaurant called Nectar, which is %100 vegan. The inside was really cute with wooden tables and nice decor. The menu was a set lunch, so we sat down and waited to be served. We had broccoli soup topped with popcorn (per the Ecuadorian way), fresh tree tomato juice (also an Ecuadorian special), a mix of potatoes in some sort of gravy, cabbage, beets, and a small salad. For dessert, it was some sort of sweet barley (I think) pudding. It was good, but not exceptional.

After lunch, we returned to the hotel to change into biking gear, and then returned to the tour office. Our speedily devised route was to bike up to the Mirador de Turi, a lookout point about 4km outside of town and then continue on 8km to a small town called Baños (not the one we visited on Arie’s bike trip) where there are several thermal hot springs. The bike up to the top of the lookout was somewhat challenging (we’re at 8,000 feet here), but felt great after being at sea level for a week and a half. I’ve wondered several times these last few weeks about how frequent and rapid elevation changes affects your body and mind…

After snapping a few photos of Cuenca from above, we coasted back down the hill and pedaled on to Baños. According to our guide book, the best place for a soak is at Hosteria Durán, so that’s where we went. We payed the fee and brought our bikes inside the gate where we were could see the large thermal pool occupied by several bathers and a small building up on a hill that housed the steam room. We opted for the steam room first, which felt great, and then headed down to the swimming pool filled with warm volcanic waters. It felt fantastic! We soaked for awhile before returning to the steam room and then settling down into wicker chairs for a cup of tea (me) and coffee (C).

It started to drizzle a bit, but nothing too depressing and as we bundled up and rolled out of the parking lot, we could barely tell that it was raining. Luckily, the ride back into town was mostly downhill because I felt pretty rubbery from all that warm water. We sort of zig-zagged back into the city without a direct route, but we did find a nice gravel path that ran alongside the River Tomebamba that splits Cuenca in two. The light was fading as we brought the bikes back to the tour office and since it’s a 10 minute walk back to the hotel, we opted to stay downtown for dinner despite the mud on our faces and clothes.

Tomorrow, depending on the weather, we’re hoping to do some hiking in Cajas National Park, dubbed “one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Ecuador” by our Rough Guides guide book. Can’t wait!