Cuenca, Ecuador: El Cajas National Park
Cuenca is surrounded by mountains. The town sits at an elevation of 8,400ft – but the town itself is surrounded by mountains on all sides. There are only a couple of routes out of the city through the mountains. I almost had an accident passing through El Cajas on our way into town. Contrary to whatever amateur Spanish translators like Lindsay and I thought, Cajas is actually derived from a Quichua word “cassa” meaning “gateway to the snowy mountains” or “caxa” meaning “cold” and NOT the Spanish translation of “boxes”. The correct origin of the name would have been extremely helpful.
El Cajas National Park is the #1 thing to do/activity to do in Cuenca according to TripAdvisor. And because we love TripAdvisor this was a must to do. After no more than two minutes of research online we came to the conclusion that this was super easy (and cheap!) to visit. Catch a bus from the ferria libre, bus up to the Cajas, check in at the counter, do some hiking and/or trekking (is there a difference?) and catch the bus back. We’re seasoned travelers, so this was going to be a walk in the park…
I’m doing just fine. How about the weather…and this traffic, it’s crazy, yes?
I have no clue what it is about the way things work in Ecuador (for all I know this could be entirely our fault and no one else has this experience) but to me it seems like everyone makes things seem so easy. So vague. “Oh yeah, go to the ferria libre and catch the green bus, they will take you to El Cajas.” It’s also kind of funny because if you ask a local a simple question such as “how is it going” you get a bunch of random details and adjectives. In a perfect world people would stick to the real simple script of “I’m doing good, thank you” and go into more details regarding a visit to El Cajas. But it doesn’t work that way.
Bus to El Cajas
Armed with the information that the bus we want are the green buses (not the blue or the red buses) and where to catch the bus (near ferria libre which is a gigantic outdoor…um…flea market) we pop on some clothes (shorts, long sleeve shirts, sandals for me and running shoes for Lindsay), pack a bag with waters and our cameras and set out to the flea market. It’s too far of a walk from our place so we catch a taxi and he drops us off exactly where we need to catch the bus. Which of course is confusing because he points down a side street (i.e…alley) and says that is where we catch the bus. This side street is next to a large, brand-new fully-functioning bus station. Hmmm. But to our chagrin we see a green bus parked in the alley and walk towards it. Shit. It’s empty. We’re really the only people in this alley near the bus besides a small food cart cooking some type of awesome-smelling chicken dish.. This definitely doesn’t seem to be where we get on. Naturally we walk back towards the large and busy bus station and see a line of green buses parked across the street. Eureka! Nope. Premature celebration. Good news there was a guy half sleeping on one of the buses (which were all closed and empty). We ask him, in terrible Spanish, where we catch the bus to El Cajas. And wouldn’t you know it – the dude tells us and points right back to the alley. I will be damned. We walk back and confirm that in fact the bus does board in the alley with a local policewoman. Just as we turn to head down the alley a green bus passes and a young guy with braces propositions us from onboard: “Cajas??!” — “Fuuuucccckkk yeah!!” And just like that, we’re on the bus.
The bus isn’t terrible. An old tour bus with comfortable seating. A little stinky from collecting BO for I don’t know how many years, but otherwise perfect. It’s customary for salespeople to come on the bus and make pitches for products to the captive audience for a few minutes. Honestly. I kind of like it. There is no rhyme or reason for any of the products. We’ve seen jewelry, snacks, coconut water sold in bags tied with a rubber band and an herbal elixir that supposedly cured arthritis, headaches and anything else so long as you took it consistently for a month and mixed it with 1L of water. For a guy who can’t say “no” to anyone ringing my doorbell selling crap you can imagine how difficult it has been to not make a purchase…yet. To-date they have ignored us, I think, because we’re white. The day they put a product in my hand to hold while they tell me all about in a language I do not understand (just like they do with the locals) is the day they make a sale. There is no way I am leaving South America empty handed. I won’t have it any other way.
The realization that we are sort of dumb
The green bus is a local bus which means that people can get on and off just about anywhere between the alley station and it’s final destination somewhere past El Cajas. About an hour later we’ve arrived at El Cajas National Park – yay! We get off the bus. Oh my god. What the fuck is going on? Why on earth is it 40 degrees with gusts of wind? Why is everyone dressed like they had been given an accurate weather forecast? Why are we here…smiling and laughing ….wearing shorts, sandals and a shirt? Why is everyone looking at us and the locals look very amused, confused and concerned? Because we are complete idiots. Remember when I said that we did two minutes of research? I might have been exaggerating. It was closer to 30 seconds. Not good. We are very, very cold and completely unprepared.
Everyone has to check-in at the counter so the parks can monitor how many guests have entered their premises. The gal informs us the shortest path is two hours long and strongly recommended we stay as low and close to the lake as possible to prevent us from getting hypothermia (jk, but she did say stay low and avoid the wind). She then points us in the direction of their small restaurant and suggests we get a coffee before we start. Great idea. It’s why in the beginning part of the hike you will see us holding to-go cups. Hiking with lattes. It’s a new thing. No one else was doing it. We also picked up two very cool winter hats for $9 each at the gift shop. I never thought prior to departing that a to-go coffee and winter hat would save our day at El Cajas National Park. But they did.
Clothing for El Cajas
- the ex-officio boxers you have read me rave about
- pair of golf shorts.
- long sleeve button up shirt (fyi – this is my BEST shirt..as in, my nicest/classiest/dressiest shirt)
- ankle-cut smart wool socks (that i brought in my pocket “just in case”
- Keen strap sandals
Nothing else. It was 40 degrees, slight mist and windy. The ground was wet and we were sad.
El Cajas are really beautiful
We had so much dang fun. Really. El Cajas National Park is gorgeous. The setting is really special with a lake on your right-hand side the entire time, different elevations give you different perspectives of the layers and layers of mountains that you are hiking in. I can only imagine what the scenery would have looked like if the sun was shining with blue skies. The hike was plenty of adventurous for us who had never hiked before and the pictures of us in our winter hats with shorts looking like a couple of weirdos are priceless.
The hike took us just under the two hours they said it would. We couldn’t wait to get back to their restaurant and order another coffee. We were frigid. Our hands must have been no more than 10 minutes away from frostbite (again, a joke – but we could barely move them!). We regrouped, joked about how we ended up like this and then caught the bus back to Cuenca. Back at our place we ended the night sitting in a hot tub at Beth & Larry’s apartment complex sipping a stiff Cuba Libre made with Coke Zero. What a day!
But what about the costs Jeffrey?!?!
Good point, almost forgot. I will even include the timing too.
- Cab to bus station ($2 total, 10min)
- Bus to El Cajas ($2/pp/one-way, 50min)
- Entrance to El Cajas (FREE!)
- 2 hats, 2 lattes, 2 waters & an interesting bag of granola ($25, 3min)
- The hike around the lake at El Cajas (2hr)
- Bus back to Cuenca ($2/pp/one-way, 50min)
- Cab back to apartment ($2.50, 10min)
And that is El Cajas National Park. $37.50, 2 cool winter hats, cold hands and a fun-ass time freezing our butts off in a really cool part of Ecuador.