By Carolina Segarra
In 2013, UNESCO established the El Cajas Massif Biosphere Reserve which is situated directly in Cajas National Park, located just west of the city of Cuenca. It is a humid woodland made up of around 786 bodies of water with various sizes, flora, fauna, and a picturesque landscape surrounded by mountains in every direction.
The lake-filled woodland of Cajas is a unique site to see and explore, which is why it is one of the most highly recommended places to visit in Ecuador. There are so many things to do including hiking through the pre-drawn passages, sharing a cup of warm coffee while gazing at the frost-tipped mountains, or even fishing for your dinner in the man-made lakes and enjoying it on the spot! Before we get to that though, I want to tell you a bit more about this beautiful place.
Cajas has an area of 28,544 hectares, and is located in the province of Azuay just outside of Cuenca. It sits at a height of 3,160 to 4,450 meters above sea level and is characterized as cold but humid with unpredictable rains, there are also days when a dim sun will keep you warm. Cajas fauna is varied, including over 600 species of vascular plants, 43 mammals, and 157 birds, which include 24 species of hummingbirds, 17 different amphibians, and 4 species of reptiles. Its vegetation is extensive and covers the entire forest, you can find straw, romerillo, chuquiragua, achupallas, clubmosses, ferns, tulips, paper or quinoa trees, puma maqui, valerian, and orchids, among other species.
Entrance to the park is free and just requires that you fill out an entry form provided by a park ranger. Normally rangers will provide a short tour of the park where they provide you with historical facts and show you how to identify different types of flora and fauna. There is also a small restaurant and museum that is free to check out and space to camp in the park overnight, for a cost between $4 and $10. If you do plan to camp in the park make sure you bring your own tent, warm clothes and a semi-heavy sleeping bag. Night time can get a bit chilly!
Among the many attractions in Cajas, the Llaviuco Lagoon is a must see! The lagoon can be accessed by vehicle up until the entrance to the ranger's cabin, from here you will have to walk a short distance, on fairly easy terrain, to the lagoon. Once you reach the lagoon you can enjoy bird watching, and if you are lucky you may even see some deer.
Another essential place to visit in Cajas is Hosteria Dos Chorreras. This restaurant and cozy hotel is well-known and offers a unique dining experience. In the man-made lagoons located just outside the restaurant, guests are invited to fish for trout and then hand their catch off to chefs who will prepare it for dinner. If you’re feeling adventurous you can book a night or two in the hotel, try out horseback riding, go on an excursion, ride bikes and more! Prices for these activities range from $8 to $24 and all come with an experience guide. As for the rooms, you can choose between cabins, single rooms, or even a room with a jacuzzi, from $80 per person, per night. The rooms have a rustic feel and the hotel features a cozy living room with a warm fireplace, perfect for enjoying a delicious hot chocolate.
Another traditional food option would undoubtedly be Casa Vieja, this restaurant is located a few meters past the entrance to Cajas. At this restaurant you can find typical food such as garlic trout, fried trout, fried corn with cheese, chicken broth, and a good Canelazo for the cold. Plates start from $6 and the food is usually delivered in a timely manner, although it can get a bit busy at times because it is so popular! Driving a few minutes past Casa Vieja, you will find the sanctuary of the Virgen del Cajas. This religious landmark is a peaceful sanctuary located among the hills of Cajas. Before reaching the sanctuary there are small food stands featuring typical food from the Ecuadorian highlands. Additionally, if you are up for an adventure you can hike up the nearby mountain, taking in the beauty of the lagoons, and appreciating the extensive countryside full of streams.
Visiting Cajas is a mandatory stop in Ecuador. There are various hiking paths for all levels of hikers, lagoons to fish in, and endless areas to explore. We do highly recommend that you explore the area with an experienced hiker though because it is easy to get lost and turned around in the vastness of the park. We also suggest dressing warmly, especially if you decide to camp there.
Cajas National Park will undoubtedly envelop you in its beauty, in its soft chirping of the birds, in the sweet sound caused by the water colliding on stones, in the reddish soil that forms when the skin of the paper tree is shed, Cajas is a national emblem. We hope that you enjoy all that it has to offer you.