The Cajas National Park has a rich in scenery, biodiversity, and recreational opportunities, mainly trekking and hiking.
It is mostly high Andean moorlands with scattered jagged peaks and over 200 lakes and lagoons of glacier origin.
Two of the rivers that run through the City of Cuenca the Tomebamba and Yanuncay, are born in El Cajas.
Its cold atmosphere gives a sense of solitude, where mosses, lichens and ferns cling tightly to the rocks, and patches of primary forest are tucked in the crevices of rugged terrain.
The hardy vegetation, most of it with strong hairy leaves, includes small quinua trees and the polylepis or paper tree.
The Cajas National Park animals are elusive, but you may get a glimpse of the wild llamas that were re-introduced to the park in the late 1990s, rabbits and white-tailed deer.
The bird list is long featuring the largest hummingbird, mountain toucans and ducks.
The total area of the park is 70,000 acres and it is located 29 km west of Cuenca.
This national park became very famous since the appearance of the Virgin (Virgen del Cajas). Many people like to go there to ask for miracles and pray.
Approximately 125 species of birds have been found here. Among them, we can mention: The Condor, the Violet-tailed Metaltail, sword-billed, shining sunbeam, sparkling violet-ear and the veridean metal-tail.
In the lakes, you can also find Andean gulls, yellow-billed pintails and the speckled teal. Additionally, this is an easily accessible plateau and high elevation forest park and is also the main source of drinking water in Cuenca.
If you have a good orientation, as well as an experienced hiker, you will cross the park in two days. Be sure to take appropriate clothing.
One excellent hike starts at Tres Cruces. With staggering views over the park from a height of over 4,000 metres above sea level, the geological history of the Cajas National Park becomes clearer.
From a misty Andean backdrop, glaciers have gouged a primeval landscape of austere green-tinged valleys pockmarked with a glittering array of small sparkling lakes, small gnarled forests and dark volcanic rocky outcrops.
There is no permanent snow, but it is cold at night and it can hail or rain. Hiking is possible all year round, but it is advisable that you go from August to January, since you can expect clear days and strong winds.
The average temperature at night can go down to -8 degrees Celsius with occasional mist. From February to July, temperatures are higher with more fog, snow and rain.
From August to January is considered to be the driest months of the year.
After 13:00, it can get very cloudy, cool and wet. For this reason, it is better to travel in the morning.
The main entrance to the Cajas National Park is about 40 minutes from Cuenca on the road to Miguir, where a fee of US$10 is charged.
If you want to go by bus it takes around 1 1/2 hours to reach the Laguna Toreadora (Toreadora lake).
The lakes are called box lakes that being one explanation for where the park obtained its name, cajas being Spanish for boxes.
Another variation describes that caxas is Quechuan (the local Indian language and that spoken by the Incas) for cold.
Here, the hill-line or continental divide is significant as all water that falls on the west of the mountains runs into the Pacific Ocean.
Aand all water that falls east of the hills journeys over 1000 miles via the Amazon rain forest before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.
Small forests of twisted polylepis and quinua trees sit high above the general tree-line and create a diversion from the treeless higher valleys.
Like entering middle Earth and presenting a maze like an obstacle course, these knotted trees twist and turn blocking the path and catching daypacks at every opportunity.
The branches of the polylepis trees have strange reddish multi-layer papery bark that flakes off in sheets and are unique to the Andes Mountains.
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Despite being so close and so easily accessed from Cuenca city, the Cajas National Park offers wonderful hiking and a tremendous sense of solitude and wilderness.
With breathtaking Andean backdrops, walking the unforgiving landscape in ever-changing weather and high altitudes gives a sense of elation and pride when settling back into colonial Cuenca.
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