Cajas National Park is situated a short 18 miles outside of Cuenca, Ecuador but it feels like you’re on a different planet. While in the middle of the mountain range at 12,000 feet, everything around is green and brown and every square inch is covered by trees, grass, and exotic flowers. We were surprised to see so many varieties of plant life at such a high altitude. It’s a place unlike anything we’ve experienced. The national park has 786 lagoons/lakes/marshes and is therefore one of the highest lake concentrations in the world. It is also home to a wide variety of flora and fauna – there are 44 mammal species within the park, 8 exclusive to Ecuador and 2 specific to the park itself. We were not lucky enough to see any of the mammals, but we enjoyed seeing the lush brush, bright flowers, and fascinating tree forests. The park has 572 vascular plant species, 19 of which only grow in the park!
Our bus dropped us of in front of the visitor center by Lake Toreadora. There’s a very informative exhibit about the park and all of the flora and fauna as well as a very hard to photograph map. I did my best below.
We started by walking around Laguna Toreadora. There were few people walking around the lake and it was beautiful, peaceful scene.
On the opposite side of the visitor’s center we took the first path up, marked with pink signs and the number 1 towards Laguna Unidas and path 3. The mountains stretched as far as the eye can see and the views were stunning.
After about half a mile the trail turned into the paper tree forest. The trees had red bark that was falling of them like sheets of paper. The forest was so thick, we had to duck under the stretching branches and trunks to stay on the trail.
After the paper tree forest, we got to Lake Unidas. Instead of following the trail on the right after the bridge we turned left to get to trail 3, also knows as Padrul. The views continued to astonish.
Towards the end of the trail we reached a fence that marked the end of park. It was a bit confusing because there was a break in the fence for the trail, but also signs that said private property. On the map, the Padrul trail continued. We decided to play it safe and turn right at the fence and follow the park trail signs. After another half mile we arrived at the fence again, and the trail continued through it. Our interpretation was that it was okay to be on the trail, but not to wander outside of the fenced area.
We ended our hike back on the highway. We only had to wait 15 minutes to flag down a bus to get back to Cuenca.
Getting There and Back
One of the harder things about doing Cajas solo was figuring out how to get there. Based on my online research, the best bet was taking a bus from Cooperativa Transporte Occidental with the schedule I found here.
As often happens, the internet doesn’t reflect reality. Here’s the stand we found… it’s a restaurant.
Luckily, their sister company, Emtrocc Interpovincial was right next door and they still have buses to Cajas, just on a slightly different schedule. We took the 9:15 bus which cost $2 per person plus a $0.10 per person station fee. Here is the schedule to Cajas:
On the way back, we stood on the side of the road and flagged down a bus going back to Cuenca. We only had to wait 15 minutes and the bus was $2, but it took us to a different bus station, but still within Cuenca.
From our online research, we wanted to do the trail that’s described as Laguna Toreadora – Laguna Unidas – el Virgen and was the one that Intentional Travelers did with a guide. We didn’t quite stay on it because we turned at the fence.
Route 1 to Route 3
Resources – Blogs
- Unofficial Parque Nacional Cajas website – Maps and more
- Dissent Sans Frontiers – How to Tackle Ecuador’s Cajas National Park
- Always on The Way Travel – Cajas National Park Day Trip – self guided day trip, route 1
- Peach and Bones – A Day Hike in Cajas National Park – self guided through route 2 also known as Cerro San Luis
- Intentional Travelers – Cajas National Park A Great Day Trip from Cuenca, Ecuador – Guided day trip through Laguna Toreadora – Laguna Unidas – el Virgen
- Long Haul Trekkers – Cajas Hiking Tour Cuenca, Ecuador – Guided day trip through Laguna Toreadora – Laguna Unidas – el Virgen
- Souls of My Shoes – Fabulous Hiking in Euadors Cajas National Park and a Warning – multi day trip where the hikers got lost, good warning story
- Official Website of Cajas – not very helpful
- Park Brochure in Spanish (no map)
Resources – Apps
TopoMaps+ has the trails in the app that can be saved for offline use.