12th-14th August 2018
I am much more kitted out for this trip than my previous ones. I have a tent, camping stove, sleeping bag, and all the other gear needed to go off-grid, but I have hardly used them so far as they are mostly intended for when I reach Patagonia. Until then, there are only a few opportunities to put them to good use, one of them being Cajas National Park.
So, leaving most of my possessions at a trusty hostel in Cuenca and gathering all I needed for a few days away from civilisation, I hopped on a bus destined for this unique part of the Andes.
When I arrived at the station, I was very surprised when the ranger told me they had a basic kitchen I could use and also that, for no extra cost, I could sleep in one of their bunk beds in the cabin. A part of me was disappointed – and I was tempted to stay in my tent anyway, as I had been excited about using it out for the first time – but, considering the fact Cajas sits on an altitude of 4,000 meters and that, at night, temperatures drop below freezing, I saw no merit in putting myself through discomfort to prove a point.
Once I dropped my things off into the cabin, I put on my coat and began exploring.
Beginning with a stroll around Laguna Toreadora, which was right outside the station, I met a group of Americans along the way and we wandered along a trail. Soon, we found ourselves in a strange, eerie, almost Tolkeinesque forest.
These trees are actually a form of quinua polylepis, which are specially adapted for this terrain, and Cajas’ forests, which only exist in little pockets where the curvatures of the mountains protect them from the brunt of the winds, are among the highest altitude in the world.
But it is not just the forests which are strange about the Cajas; the entire páramo is home to all kinds of unique flora, including shrubs, grasses, fungi and plants. And, with almost eight hundred lagoons dotted across its surreal, green landscape, over 150 species of bird can be spotted here.
After my first day of wandering around some of the smaller trails close to the headquarters, I made myself soup for dinner and got into my sleeping bag early, as the temperature plummeted. The winds made the cabin rattle during the night as I drifted in and out of sleep.
The following morning, I left early. I had already negotiated with the rangers which of Cajas’ many trails I was permitted to go alone and we agreed upon a route which was satisfyingly challenging, and yet well enough marked to have a small chance of getting lost. People do get lost in Cajas, so the rangers are very safety conscious, but they can also be flexible if you have the right attitude and approach them in the correct manner. I found them very accommodating – and I guess that was because I turned up early, had all the right gear, and seemed like I knew what I was doing – but I witnessed a completely different side to them with some of the other people who showed up. A group of youngsters were sternly forbidden to even walk to the nearby lagoon because they came late in the day, dressed in completely wrong attire and generally seeming like they had ventured to the park at a whim. And a pair of girls turned up one evening who actually did have all the right gear with them, but the ranger who was on duty was very rude to them and only let them set their tent up in the car park after a long altercation. He did not offer them to bunk in the cabin or tell them about the communal kitchen either. So my advice for any readers considering going to Cajas; make sure you turn up early and are prepared.
As soon as I left the cabin I saw a wild Andean rabbit, and I stopped to take some photos of it before I made my way towards the trail. I had to walk along the road for a little while, but then I saw the trailhead and turned off, making my way up to the ridgeline of a series of mountains.
Once across, I found myself looking down into the heart of Cajas National Park. The headquarters, road, and all other signs of civilisation were far behind me, and the only sounds were the wind and occasional bird.
The trail snaked between a series of lakes, and then an hour or so later I reached a valley and followed the course of a river as the trail plunged into lower reaches of the plane, with mountains and waterfalls all around me.
At one point I saw a wild fox, but I didn’t manage to get my camera out in time to get a photo of it. I did, however, catch a few snaps of this falcon.
And also, later on, a hummingbird. I saw dozens throughout my time there but this was the only one which stayed still long enough to get a picture.
I arrogantly believed that, as this trail was mostly descending in elevation rather than ascending, it would be easy, but I was mistaken. A lot of it was very boggy and steep. Towards the end of the day, progress became slower as I had to be really careful to not trip. To have an injury in this wilderness could be very unfortunate, as I hadn’t seen another soul all day. I reached laguna Taitachugo later, and had to climb up one last ridge before I descended through a forest into another valley. The climate warmed.
When I finally reached the end of the trail, it was late in the afternoon and I was at a lake filled with birds. This was another campsite and I called into the office there to let them know that I was fine and had finished the trail. Then, I made my way to the road nearby and flagged down a passing bus to the main headquarters.
By the time I reached the cabin back at Laguna Toreadora, it was almost dark and I was tired. I made myself some supper and went straight to bed. I left Cajas the next morning and returned to Cuenca.
For more photos from Cajas National Park, click here.