Ecuador's Parque Nacional Cajas (Cajas National Park) features over 150 square miles of flora and fauna on a rolling tundra that's ideal for hikers, rock-climbers, birdwatchers, campers, and nature-lovers of all stripes.
Cajas National Park is nearly 20 miles northwest from of the city of Cuenca, where the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site because of its historical architecture.
But up here, at nearly 3000 feet above sea level in the Occidental Mountain Range of the Ecuadorian South Andes, nature still prevails.
El Cajas is a network of mountains, lakes, and winding hiking trails like the one surrounding Zorrocucho Llaviucu — an impressive body of water with towering vistas of the surrounding jagged mountains as well as occasional views of wildlife like the blue-beaked Andean Ruddy-Duck.
The name Cajas is derived from a Quichua word that translates to gateway to the snowy mountains and may be derived from the Spanish word for boxes.
At Cajas National Park, it rains up to 4.5 feet a year. The climate is cold but humid, with low atmospheric pressure that helps contribute to the region’s highly fertile soil.
The history of the region goes back 16 million years, when the land mass was first formed. 15,000 years ago, melting glaciers created what are now glacial valleys that divide the area of Llaviucu into the differing ecosystems of high grasslands and forest.
Llaviucu also boasts its fair share of llamas and alpacas who hang out around an abandoned brewery. The animals act as a visual reminder of just how pristine and untouched El Cajas really is, even with “newer” additions like the camelids and the dilapidated brewery, which actually has a charm of its own, too.
To get to the Cajas National Park, take the Transporte Occidental in the South Terminal at the Feria Libre area to La Toreadora refuge, or take an hourly bus marked Cuenca-Guayaquil through Cajas from the Land Terminal. To get back, take any bus marked Cuenca.