Before we even arrived in Cuenca, we heard how beautiful El Cajas National Park is. The park is about an hour bus ride away, up in the mountains almost two thousand feet higher than Cuenca. Translation: The air is thin and c-o-l-d. (Cuenca is already over 8000 feet above sea level.) Good thing we bundled up!
We met a local here in Cuenca who pointed out on a map exactly where to get off the bus for a great mountain hike through a meadow and around a lake. I painstakingly pointed it out in Spanish to the bus driver and made sure he knew exactly where we wanted to go. It was a good plan. It only fell apart because they changed drivers without telling us. The long-distances buses in Ecuador are interesting in that the drivers area is completely walled off from the rest of the bus, and there always seem to be curtains drawn over all the windows that would otherwise allow you to see forward. So we ended up being dropped off with all the other hiking tourists at the local visitor’s center.
As we walked down the path to the visitor’s center we came across our first llama idly munching on some plants. We were thrilled. (Shades of things to come, I thought. Read on to see just how many llamas we ran across.) In the visitor’s center, we bumped into a family from San Francisco, and decided to hike together.
Cajas is beautiful, and the sky looks so close you can just reach out and touch it. There are streams and lagoons and interesting mountain plants everywhere. This all serves to camouflage the fact that the trails are barely marked, and barely identifiable. We lost the trail early on, but the dad and son in the family hiking with us wanted to keep pressing forward, so we agreed. Bushwhacking adventurer’s delight! There were many stops for breath-catching in the rarified air, which allowed us to discern each time what looked most like a trail before plowing ahead. After a few hours, Stephanie picked up on some trail markings on the rocks and we were all super excited – we had reconnected with the trail!
It only took a few minutes for us to lose the trail again, however. We found it and lost it several times; losing it more than finding it. Finally, the trail just came to an end at the edge of a rather long drop-off. We could see “a trail,” but it was not the one we wanted. We had been hiking for hours and this trail would take us further away from where we head started. We could also see a road, and decided it was where we needed to go; we just couldn’t tell how to get there. We opted to divide and conquer with me taking the high road over the nearby hills, and Stephanie taking the low road down to the boggy clearing where we would meet. We left it up to our three traveling companions to decide which way to go since there were no trails in either direction. At first they opted to join Stephanie, but when I next saw her, she was on her own. She told me that the route had gotten exceedingly dangerous, and they felt that they ought to turn back. No sooner had she told me when a voice called from the hills I had just descended. It turns out travel companions had tried to turn back, were unable to find the trail, and decided to try their faith in my route after all! They yelled down to us that they were descending behind me. Between hidden streams, boggy, peat-like ground, and llama poop everywhere, this was no easy task.
I waited for them in the aforementioned boggy clearing while Stephanie scouted out the next section of our adventure. We could see the road back to civilization, but we had long lost all semblance of a trail. Once we made it to the road, we began the task of trekking back to the visitor’s center to catch a bus back to Cuenca. Fortunately this part was downhill. Even more fortunately, the buses here are used to random hikers on the road, and the next bus to pass our way picked us up and returned us to town.
I still would have liked to see our original meadow/lake, but I guess that’ll have to wait for our next visit to Cajas. Oh, and total llama count for the day: 1! (Yeah, yeah, Stephanie reminded me the park ranger had said we probably wouldn’t see llamas on the particular “trail” we chose, but the massive amounts of llama poop were so misleading!)