El Cajas National Park in Ecuador is a high-altitude area near Cuencas. The park is famed for its hundreds of lakes, its abundant wildlife, and its evergreen cloud forests. The dramatic landscapes and winding walking trails make this a hotspot for fans of the great outdoors.
As one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth, Ecuador is a paradise for people of most different tastes. Gourmets, adventurers, history geeks, eco-travellers, and, of course, nature lovers can all find things in Ecuador to feed their passions.
To the delight of those who love to explore nature, the country offers 11 national parks, 14 reserves, and 10 wildlife refuges. They are all worth a visit, but there’s one, in particular, that is so stunning that it just has to be on your Ecuador bucket list. I am talking, of course, about El Cajas National Park.
A national park since 1996, El Cajas is located around 30 km away from the famous city of Cuenca, or 183 km from Guayaquil. This latter is about a 2.5-hour drive on the car.
El Cajas is situated very high in the Andean mountains. The altitude varies from 3100m to 4450m above sea level, which is much higher than Quito, Ecuador’s capital and second highest capital in the world after La Paz, Bolivia.
If you rent a car to go up the Andes to visit El Cajas, keep in mind that you have to ascend slowly and descend even more so. Otherwise, you can get soroche: altitude sickness. I made a mistake of speeding up and my ears were blocked for three weeks after the trip. The best way to deal with altitude sickness is to eat some chocolate and to ask for a cup of canelazo – a sugary alcoholic beverage traditional for the Andean highlands of Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia.
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El Cajas National Park is a place full of stunning views of lakes and lagoons. In total there are some 270 lakes in the whole territory of the park. These are grave, tranquil lakes of glacial origin. They have crystal clear, mirror-like water that creates an enchanting atmosphere to the whole place. Beautiful grasslands sprawl as far as the eye can see and merge in brown and gold colours with sprinkles of white, yellow, and pink.
If you happen to drive to El Cajas from Guayaquil, which is hot and humid, you will be amazed to see how the landscape changes from tropical to tundra. With every kilometre that you move upward into the Andes, the palm trees, tropical flowers, and bright colours are replaced by mossy forests. Trees get cosily wrapped in clouds and seem to be half asleep. In fact, it feels like nature itself is dozing to the music sounds of the mountain brooks and rivers.
When you get above 3000 meters, you can find yourself in Polylepis forest, which is considered to be one of a kind in the whole world. Its trees, also known as “paper trees”, are 8 to 10 meters high, ancient, and have tangled branches, which gives an impression that you’re being in some fairy-tale written by the Brothers Grimm.
There are a number of activities you can enjoy in El Cajas National Park. This is a popular place for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and more. Below are a few suggestions for the top things to do around El Cajas.
El Cajas National Park is a perfect place for birdwatching. This region is home to a number of rare birds, some of which are endangered. There’s the famous South American condor, of which there are only around 80 left throughout Ecuador. The park is also home to the largest hummingbird in the world. Book a birdwatching tour with a local expert for the best chance of seeing these exotic birds!
In El Cajas you can also spot many different animals, including wild cats, rabbits, water mice, porcupines, weasels, skunks, and opossums. You may even be lucky enough to see a puma, which can be pretty exciting! You can book wildlife tours, or just set off hiking and see what you can spot!
It’s prohibited to fish in the rivers, because El Cajas is a protected area, but there are several fishing spots around the park. These usually charge a few dollars per kilo of the fish you catch. You cast the line with the most plain fishing rod that exists out there (basically a stick with fishing line), and can also buy some bread rolls to use as bait. But what I decided to do instead was to dig for worms myself. I found quite a few and was proud to see that my efforts were repaid later when I caught my first ever trout.
While you are in El Cajas National Park, a great suggestion would be to visit Ecuador’s indigenous town Guavidula. This is a great chance to learn something different about South America. Guavidula was not only a home to a little community of indigenous people, it also served as a pass-through spot that stood in the middle of a road connecting the mountain and the coastal areas of Ecuador, la Sierra and la Costa.
There were only about 100 people living in Guavidula and trying to earn a living by working in a local mine, la mina Encantada, that was believed to have gold but instead only had pyrite – also known as “fool’s gold”. Due to such unsuccessful gold mining, Guavidula gradually decreased in population until its last inhabitant left the town in 1920 in search of a better life. Now, the village is a historical museum that represents indigenous Ecuador at the beginning of the last century.
If you’re looking for some luxury travel experience, Hosteria Dos Chorreras is a perfect place to stay. Situated in the very heart of El Cajas National Park, it has the most spectacular views. This hotel also has the feel of a wildlife refuge. There are deer peacefully nibbling grass just within an arm’s reach, black swans gracefully swimming in the river, horses, a waterfall paving its way through the hotel, and gorgeous mountains sinking into the clouds.
You can also opt for something a bit cheaper and less extravagant. Or, if you are staying in Cuenca you don’t necessarily have to find a hotel in El Cajas anyway. The city is so close to the park that most people just choose to make day trips.
Since the national park is located high in the mountains, it can get quite cold up there. So dress like an onion, with a lot of layers! Several light layers are better than just a thick one as the air between the layers stays warm, too, and therefore works as a heat shield.
Sometimes, however, when the sun comes out, the weather can get surprisingly hot. Again, being dressed in layers helps as it’s easier to strip off some clothes when necessary. Be prepared for weather that constantly changes, sometimes completely out of the blue.
As mentioned earlier, altitude sickness can be a real pain at El Cajas National Park. So be sure to ascend as slowly as you can, and take it easy as you do.
Try to reduce physical activities, such as biking and hiking, during your very first day in El Cajas. Otherwise, you will put yourself at risk of getting so dizzy and weak that you’ll have to stay motionless in bed with an oxygen balloon next to you and tubes in your mouth and nose. Not a pleasant experience, let me tell you that.
Hello there, I’m Olga! I was born and raised in post-soviet Latvia and now I live in Ecuador as an expat. In my blog, The Russian Abroad, I write about my travel experiences around Ecuador and the whole world.
Have you been to El Cajas National Park in Ecuador? Scroll down to leave a comment with your own tips or favourite spots!