‘Hang on a second,’ I said to Carmen.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, impatient to keep going down the walking track.
I pointed to where the trail curved back up to the starting point at the head of the small lake we had just walked around. ‘Those are the tour people we saw near the start. They’re already going back.’
‘No way!’ she laughed. ‘They pay $50 to walk around lake? Rip-off!’
Exploring Cajas National Park
We turned back to the trail and kept going, deeper and deeper in the rolling hills and valleys of the Cajas National Park.
Cajas is one of Ecuador’s most famous hiking and rock climbing spots and a trip there is a must-do if you go to Cuenca, the regional capital of Azuay province and Ecuador’s cultural mecca. We had been staying in Cuenca for nine weeks and every Cuencano and gringo friend we made bugged us about visiting it. “When will you go?” they’d ask. “Soon, soon,” was always our promise.
We’re keen hikers so it would have been a glaring omission if we missed out, so on our very last weekend in Cuenca we finally made the effort. So we got up early and caught the public bus from the ‘Terminal Terrestre’ for $6 each.
Contrast this with the US$50 some of our friends each forked over to get a private bus to Cajas for a hike with lunch included. By all accounts they drove there, walked around a lake, ate fish and rice and got back on the bus. It didn’t sound like a $50 day to us at all so we were determined to do our own thing.
And when we saw the poor return on investment the tour hikers were getting with our own eyes, we knew we’d made the right decision.
We told the bus driver that we wanted to get off at Laguna Toredora and his assistant dutifully shook me awake from a quick doze as the destination came into view.
Soaring hills and valleys criss-crossed with hiking trails, lakes and sheer cliffs. The air was crisp and cold and the sun peeked out every now and then from the grey clouds above. Paradise for hiking boots and walking sticks and the eternal battle between layers and sweat.
We paid the fare, jumped off and went down the trail head to where a bus-load of hiking tour people were waiting for their guide to get his act together. We bombed past them and set off, blissfully alone, the shimmering lake on our right and the incredible noise of the highway on our left.
‘How’s the serenity,’ I joked.
Hiking into peace and quiet
But as we got deeper and deeper into Cajas, the traffic noise faded until all was beautifully silent and tranquil.
At the far end of the circular walk trail around the lake there is a sign leading to a longer trail and we took it, knifing up a steep pass until we came into another valley where a thicket of what looked like Australian paperbark trees swallowed us.
The hiking trails in Cajas are marked, but you have to find the markers! There is a lot of rain so sometimes the trails aren’t very clear and you can end up doing a fair bit of bush bashing and dead reckoning.
We got lost once, bumming around in some massive caves that looked like they had been used by humans for the past few thousand years. They were fascinating and I was kind of glad to be lost near them; at least we’d have shelter if it all went to to pot!
We found the trail again and emerged into a wide valley covered in long grass that looked like a prehistoric African savanna. The hills curved down and away into deep lakes covered with reeds and brambles and we followed the path down and down to a stream where a little bridge had been placed.
Carmen and I chatted endlessly – blog plans, business plans, books, travel, food and fun – sharing the joy of walking without aim and being out of reach of anyone else. I think that’s why we love hiking so much. It’s a chance to recharge your batteries while expending them at the same time, the perfect mix of physical and spiritual… it is for us anyway!
We hiked for about five hours in total and when the time came to make the final ascent to the starting point we were utterly ravenous. I could have eaten anything, even a bucket of mushrooms and snails (the two foods I hate most). So imagine our relief when we got to the park restaurant and tucked into freshly caught trout, veggies and fries.
Plus they had piping hot coffee – bliss!
The hike we did around Cajas wasn’t especially challenging, just long and requiring a bit of lateral thinking at times.
The real challenge for us lay in getting out of there!
Leaving the park behind
If you take a tour, the one advantage you have over independent hikers is transport. You are driven to and from the park in a private bus. We, on the other hand, had to wait in the freezing cold in a miserable looking bus shelter covered in graffiti from past hikers complaining about the cold. ‘Macca and John froze their arses off here 2012,’ said one. ‘So did Jules and Mel,’ said another. I asked Carmen if she had a pen…
We passed the time by stomping our feet, adding layers of clothing and marvelling at the Formula 1 speed that Ecuador’s drivers seem to think is a good idea to use around the blind, hard-angle corner just down the road from the bus stop.
We saw half a dozen semi-trailer trucks overtake other trucks on the corner and one truck slip sideways as it went around. It was mental – but thrilling.
The highlight of the road action was a beat up old Hyundai with no windshield driven by a bloke wearing a motorcycle helmet. I thought that was a pretty clever adaptation.
I once had a car with a busted starter engine so I used to park it on hills and let it roll so I could do a second gear drop-in start. Nice to see a kindred spirit.
Right before the bus came a huge American fellow named Steve came up the path wearing only a t-shirt on his torso – he was an oil rig worker so I suppose he’s used to harsh conditions! We got chatting to him on the bus ride back and got on so well that we invited him to have some drinks with us at our friend’s place the next night.
It was his last night in Cuenca and he had an early start the next day so he said maybe, but the next evening he rocked up and we ended up drinking and eating and laughing until till the wee hours!
As I fell into a well-earned sleep that weekend I was still aching a little from the hike but the spectacular scenery that I shared with my beautiful wife and the new friend we made was a very fair exchange.
My only regret is that I didn’t go to Cajas sooner. Oh well, I may just have to back one day…
What you need to know:
How to get there: We took a cab to the main bus station in Cuenca which is called Terminal Terrestre. The cabbies have to use the meter now so it shouldn’t be more than $2 if you are in the central area of the city. If the bus says ‘Cajas’ on the front get on and let the driver know where you want to get off
When to go: The locals have a rule – whatever the weather is like in Cuenca it will be the same in Cajas, only stronger! So if it’s raining in the city then it’ll be pouring in Cajas. Cuenca’s weather is pretty good all year round so just pick a nice day in Cuenca to go – pack a raincoat just in case though!
Cost: Cajas is free – so are all of Ecuador’s National Parks. We paid $4 to get the bus one way and the same on the way back. Tours usually hover around $50 and include transport, a guide and lunch. Our restaurant meal came to $25 for two fresh trout dishes with all the trimmings and lots of coffee and tea.