Friday, March 5, 2010

Walking the Andean Wilds (Cajas National Park , Ecuador)

Less than an hour by bus from the seductive colonial city of Cuenca is the primeval travel wonder of Cajas National Park. Numerous paths criss-cross the majestic, but bleak Ecuadorean wilderness that has striking similarities to the west of Scotland. The routes are numbered but signage is extremely limited making hiking in this park without a detailed map or economical local guide difficult.

I’d never planned to walk in Cajas but Cuenca’s Foundation Day meant everything in this colonial masterpiece had cerrado signs dangling from their doors and most buses weren’t running. Teaming up with a lively French woman, Bernadette and finding a guide, Juan, we set out for a day of hiking.

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 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.

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.

Many of the 200 plus swampy lakes have evocative names though I couldn’t see any resemblance between the shimmering Lake Toreadora and the famed image of a Spanish bullfighter.

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 and all water that falls east of the hills journeys over 1000 miles via the Amazon basin before emptying into the Atlantic.

This harsh environment supports a surprising amount of life. Overhead, a rare condor patrols his dominion cruising the currents of rarefied air that lift off the jagged peaks. Small colourful wildflowers and plants litter the pathways. Among the hardy grasses and rocky ground, Indian Paintbrush dots the landscape in scarlets spots while the chuquiragua is highlighted by orange flowers, both thriving in this harsh climate.

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. Small birds dart easily between the foliage picking at the leaves and insects.

The day’s walking can be broken with a superb lunch of steamed trout from the park in a well-priced restaurant called Dos Chorreras, perched on a small lake and with a sweeping panorama of the park.

Despite being so close and so easily accessed from Cuenca, 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. And to think, if it wasn’t for a public holiday, I’d have missed this Ecuadorian travel wonder.


Marilyn Terrell said...

Fascinating story about a place I've never heard of-- thanks!

Lifecruiser Travel Blog said...

You finds the most interesting places! Yes, it does look like Scotland a bit. Which happens to be one of our favorites countries, so this look awesome to us!

Donna Hull said...

I agree with Marilyn, this is a fascinating description of a National Park in Ecuador that I didn't know about until now. Very nice post.

Mark H said...

@marilyn: I hadn't head of it either till I got to Cuenca.

@lifecruiser: Very Scottish indeed with the mist, wild grasses and small lakes.

@donna: Thank you.

BarbaraW said...

"austere green-tinged valleys pockmarked with a glittering array of small sparkling lakes, small gnarled forests and dark volcanic rocky outcrops" What wonderful imagery! If only we could all write like that! Wonderful. Made me want to fly right off.

Heather on her travels said...

That sounds wonderful, I love hiking and I saw a bit of this Andean upland area in Ecuador near the town of Riobamba, a litle further north from this park. I loved Ecuador for the fact that in a relatively small country (for Sout America) there was so much variety of landscape.

Mark H said...

@BarbaraW: Thank you for your kind words.

@heather: Ecuador enchanted me as well with its landscapes and historic colonial cities.

Sherry Ott said...

How lovely and a place I've never heard of. Sometimes unplanned adventures can be the most rewarding. I really love the polylepis trees - the red bark is beautiful!

Mark H said...

@sherry: the papery trees were eye-catching along with the whole harsh Scotland-like setting.

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