On our way to Cuenca from Guayaquil the bus passed through the Cajas National Park. Due to the variety of altitudes, this park is one of the most biodiverse parks in Ecuador. The altitude in the park ranges from 3000m to 4500m and so it spans a variety of ecosystems. Driving through the cloud forest was definitely the highlight of our bus ride. We loved watching the clouds descend as we climbed the mountain. The flora went from tropical forest to cloud forest, then gave way to the paper tree forest. We then climbed so high we were in the tundra which is characterized by its lack of trees, there are only shrubs, grasses and a huge variety of mosses and lichens. As we passed through the park I knew that I wanted to return to explore.
When we arrived in Cuenca I started researching how to get back to Cajas. There’s always the option of going with a tour company, but at $60 per person, it’s not a good choice for a family of 4 on a budget. The budget traveler takes a bus from the main bus terminal heading back to Guayaquil and gets off at the national park. That seemed easy enough, and only $2 per person, so I packed us a lunch and we headed to the bus station. The thing you don’t realize when you have a car to go anywhere you want to go, is that taking the bus takes about 2-3 times as long as a car ride. So what could have been a 40 minute car ride took 1.5 hours. It was still well worth the time, it’s all part of the adventure.
The bus driver’s assistant let us know when to get off the bus, which left us at the information center next to Lake Toreadora. The first thing we saw as we entered the park by foot was a wild llama standing majestically on a rock. Wild llamas were reintroduced to the park in the 1990s. I had to explain to the little boys that we couldn’t pet these llamas.
We started at the information center where we watched a video and investigated at all the displays on the flora, fauna, and geology of the park. We learned that there are more than 270 glacier fed lakes and lagoons throughout the park and that most of Cuenca’s drinking water originates from these glacial waters.
I, of course, had big plans for an epic hike. After we ate our sandwiches we set off for the trail around the lake. I figured that since we had been in Cuenca over a week with no altitude sickness issues we would have no problems hiking, but apparently our bodies find there to be a big difference between Cuenca’s 2500m and 4000m above sea level. I quickly realized that the long meandering hike I had envisioned was not going to happen. We had a great time nontheless.
We’ve been a fan of mosses and lichens for some time and always look for them on our hikes. There were a huge variety here, they were all over the rocks and covering the ground like carpet in some places. In some areas the ground felt so spongy, like the fake rubbery floor they put under some playgrounds in the U.S. My kids love hiking barefoot and the mosses were just calling to the kids to take their shoes off. They soon realized that not all the mosses were soft, some were spiky, so we put our shoes back on and continued down the trail. We took frequent breaks due to the altitude and little people. Although we only went about a third of the way around the lake we still had a great time running, playing, and exploring. After living in a city apartment for a week we really needed some time immersed in nature. Hopefully we’ll get to some more natural places in the area before we leave Cuenca.