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!

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Biking Through Ecuador, Day 5: Riobamba to Baños


Today we went from 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) to 2,580 meters (8,465 feet), by bike. That’s an 8,000 foot drop in just about 4 hours. Crazy! Not to mention the temperature change, which I’ll get into in a little bit. We left Riobamba at 7:30 this morning and drove for an hour and a half up the slopes of Chimborazo volcano, the highest volcano in Ecuador at 6,310 meters (20,700 feet), making it the tallest volcano of the earth (not sea level) and the closest to the sun. It was pretty cloudy as we drove up the slopes, but we caught a few glimpses on the way of the volcano’s snowy banks. After reaching the first refuge (which is where climbers spend the night before attempting to summit) at 5,000 meters, though, all we could see were dark, misty clouds that enveloped us as well as Chimborazo’s peak. We had a quick look at the basic, but functional refuge, complete with a dorm room, kitchen, dining area, and fireplace and then C and I bundled up for the 200 meter (650 foot) hike up to the second refuge. Our guide book says, “at an altitude of 5,000m, there’s only a 200m vertical height gain between the refuges, but it can be totally exhausting if you’re not acclimatized.” Luckily C and I were at 13,123 feet on Cotopaxi, but we were still huffing and puffing with every step as we made our way up the gravelly slope toward the snow line and Whymper refuge (named after Edward Whymper, who made the first ascent of Chimborazo in 1880). The clouds were still obscuring the peak as we climbed, and rested, and climbed again, but when we were only about 150 feet from the refuge, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Ecuador’s highest volcano. It was magnificent. With renewed energy and breath, we climbed the last few feet and spent the next half hour or so admiring the snowy slopes of Chimborazo. I had thought that it would be a lot more colder than it was, since Cotopaxi was absolutely freezing, but it really wasn’t too bad. The hike up got our blood pumping and our outer shells kept most of the wind chill away. The clouds began to roll in again, slowly returning Chimborazo to obscurity, so we started heading back down the trail toward the refuge.

Arie greeted us with hot tea and coffee to warm our hands before embarking on a 75 kilometer (46 mile) and 8,465 vertical foot decent by bike to Ambato. Before we left, though, we were graced by the appearance of a fox!

The first part of our ride was extremely windy and cold. We biked down from the refuge on a dirt road, spotting herds of vicuñas (similar to llamas and alpacas) in the open, dusty brown paramo, and trying to keep warm against the blustery wind.

We eventually reached a paved road, but even though it was a slight downward gradient, we still had to pedal hard because of the headwind. This went on for about 18 kilometers until we turned off onto another road that would take us along a spectacular valley road with stunning views of waterfalls, white-water rivers, and tall, jagged canyon walls suffused in green. It was a little slice of heaven. Some of the scenery we encountered rivaled the beauty of many other places that I have traveled to.

At 17 kilometers short of Ambato, we stopped for lunch beside a small hydro-electric dam. We also shed some layers because it wasn’t nearly as cold and windy as it had been up at 16,400 feet! We biked the last few kilometers and then Arie met us again by the side of the road and we hoisted the bikes up to the roof and set off, by car, to Baños where we will spent the next two nights. Baños is situated just beneath the active volcano of Tungurahua, which last erupted in 2006. The woman at the front desk of our hotel informed us when we arrived that there were five blasts last night from Tungurahua. Not sure what the blasts entailed, but I’m hoping that whatever they are, they’re minor…