Cajas National Park

Anchored in the Andean heights of Ecuador, the Cajas National Park (CNP) stands as a must-visit destination for nature lovers and the relentless adventurer. With its vast network of crystalline lagoons, extensive páramos, and a biodiversity that defies imagination, this park offers a perfect setting to disconnect and immerse oneself in dreamlike landscapes. From the silent flight of condors to the whisper of the Andean winds, every step in Cajas is an invitation to explore and marvel. Get ready to dive into an adventure where nature writes the rules.

Introduction to Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park, Ecuador
Cajas National Park stands as an emblem of biodiversity and natural beauty in Ecuador. Located in the Azuay province, near Cuenca, this park is a sanctuary of wildlife, interconnected lagoons, and geological formations dating back to ancient times. With its relatively easy access from Cuenca, Cajas becomes a perfect getaway for those seeking adventure and serenity amidst nature.

General data of the park’s protected area

  • Administration: Ministry of the Environment.
  • Protection status: National park.
  • Creation date: June 6, 1977.
  • Official Creation Record: Interministerial Agreement No. 203 of 06/06/1977, Official Registry No. 371 of 04/07/1977.
  • Official Modification Record: Official Registry No. 69 of November 20, 1979; Official Registry No. 02 of January 17, 2003.
  • Visitors: 52,990 (2014).
  • Area: 29,389.37 hectares.

Geographical Location

Cajas National Park is located in Ecuador, in the Azuay province. It is part of the páramo ecoregion of the northern Andes and the montane forests of the northwestern Andes. The nearest city to the park is Cuenca. Its geographical coordinates are 2°50’46″S latitude and 79°13’13″W longitude.

History of Cajas in Ecuador

Historical Data

The history of Cajas in Ecuador dates back to ancestral times, where the Cañaris, between the years 500 to 1450, formed a federative alliance in the region. These native peoples worshipped the moon, the lagoons, and the mountains, considering the territories that now make up the national park as sacred places. The presence of the Cañaris left a deep spiritual imprint on this land, marking the beginning of an intimate connection between nature and local communities.
The arrival of the Incas brought significant changes. Conquering the region, they established Tomebamba as a royal city, located in what is now Cuenca.

Cajas Páramo

Panoramic view of the Cajas Paramo in Ecuador
The Inca Trail, a strategic route, traversed the park, connecting Tomebamba with the Tambo de Paredones in Molleturo and serving as a vital route between the highlands and the Coast. Today, remnants of this historic route can still be observed, witnessing ancient journeys and trade.

The importance of this area did not go unnoticed by illustrious figures like Alexander von Humboldt, who explored and described the area in 1878, thus contributing to the scientific and cultural knowledge of the area.

In more recent times, in 1969, the construction of the Cuenca-Molleturo-Naranjal road began, a project that finally materialized in 1988, marking a new chapter in the accessibility and development of the region. However, it was on July 4, 1977, when the area was officially designated as a recreation space. Subsequently, on May 11, 1996, the status of the place evolved into that of a national park, with an extension of 29,000 hectares, thus recognizing its ecological and cultural value.

In 2022, the park was designated a Ramsar site as a Wetland of International Importance.

In 2013, UNESCO established the El Cajas Massif Biosphere Reserve, including Cajas National Park as one of its core areas.

Geography, Geology, and Climate

Geology

Cajas National Park is located in the Western range of the Andes and extends southward to the Portete knot. The altitude above 3000 meters and the climatic conditions favor the accumulation of organic carbon in the soil, influenced by the ashes of the volcanoes in northern Ecuador. Although the eruptions date back to the Quaternary period, ancient eruptions in the Ecuadorian Andes shaped the landscape and hydrology of the region. The park’s topography is irregular, with mountainous elevations, steep slopes, glacial lakes, and "U"-shaped valleys.
Cerro Arquitectos, with an altitude of 4445 meters, is one of the highest points in the park and is not snow-covered due to its equatorial location. The last glaciation determined the park’s hydrographic system, with glacial origin lagoons and wetlands. Drainage, both parallel and radial, is influenced by faults from ancient volcanic activity in the southern zone of the country, producing rougher physiographic features south of the Cañar River.

Geomorphology

Cajas National Park in Ecuador is located to the west of the Cuenca-Azogues basin, showing evidence of glacial modeling in the Pleistocene. It is a Pleistocene formation with older glacial deposits at about 2,600 meters above sea level.

Predominant Climates and Best Times to Visit

The climate in the area varies significantly. During the summer, in August and January, temperatures range between 12°C and 18°C during the day and around 8°C at night. In winter, temperatures can fluctuate between -2°C and 10°C, with annual rainfall between 1200 mm and 2000 mm, with frequent rainfall. The months of July to September usually experience heavy snowfalls, with temperatures below zero.

Terrain Description

The park encompasses a wide range of elevations, ranging from 3,100 to 4,450 meters above sea level, creating a diverse landscape of valleys, mountains, and over 230 glacial lakes. The rugged topography offers spectacular Andean views and is home to a variety of ecosystems, from wet páramos to cloud forests.

Biodiversity

Flora: Endemic Species and Predominant Vegetation

The flora of Cajas is remarkable, with a large number of endemic plants and species adapted to life at extreme altitudes. Visitors can admire extensive fields of bunchgrass, polylepis forests (the highest forests in the world), and a variety of orchids and bromeliads that add color and life to the landscape.
Puya clava-herculis
The area protected by the Ecuadorian government harbors diverse vegetation formations, such as high montane cloud forests, high montane evergreen forests, and herbaceous páramos, with the latter being the transit and tourism zone. At the eastern boundary of the park lies a sub-Andean rainforest, mainly composed of tree species and shrubs with a great diversity of orchids, ferns, and mosses. The formation of Polylepis forests is noteworthy, known as qiwuña or ‘paper tree’, which can reach heights of 8 to 10 meters and grows on the edge of lagoons or streams, as well as in rocky places; it is the only tree species found above 4000 meters above sea level. Abundant timber species are found at the western boundary of the park.

Fauna: Characteristic Animals and Species Sightings

Regarding fauna, the park is home to an impressive variety of wildlife, including the Andean condor, the spectacled bear, and a multitude of bird and mammal species that make Cajas a paradise for birdwatchers and nature lovers.
Llamas (Lama glama) in Ecuador
The area offers a variety of fauna characteristic of the Ecuadorian páramos, highlighting mammals such as white-tailed deer, spectacled bears, pumas, jaguarundis, páramo deer, páramo rabbits, Andean tapirs, foxes, bats, and the presence of the páramo wolf has been recorded. Additionally, llamas have been reintroduced to the area. The Cajas water mouse is an endemic species of the park. Other species such as the agouti, the opossum, the Andean weasel, the hog-nosed skunk, the paca, the augur, the dwarf red deer, and the tapir can also be found.

Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas)
Cajas National Park is home to 152 bird species, including hawks, thrushes, condors, tufted ducks, mountain toucans, curiquingas, chuquiraguas, hawks, among others. Eight of these bird species are considered threatened. Notable species include the caracara, condor, Andean toucan, ducks, and hummingbirds.

Similar to the El Ángel Ecological Reserve to the north, it is recognized and widely visited for trout fishing. Trout were introduced into rivers and lagoons in the mid-1940s to promote sport fishing. Subsequently, favorable conditions were created for the development of aquaculture in the area, mainly in cultivation pools.

The total number of species recorded in Cajas National Park represents 10.3% of the total species recorded in Ecuador.

Main Attractions and Recommended Activities

From guided excursions that explore the biodiversity of the park to sport fishing and bird watching activities, Cajas offers a wide range of experiences for all tastes. Landscape photography in this unique environment is undoubtedly an unmissable activity to capture the unparalleled beauty of the park.

Highlighted Lakes and Lagoons

Lakes of Cajas National Park in Ecuador
Among the more than 230 lagoons, the Laguna Toreadora, La Laguna Llaviuco, and the Laguna de Quinoas stand out, each offering unique landscapes and opportunities for activities such as trout fishing, kayaking, and landscape photography.

Laguna Toreadora

Laguna Toreadora is one of the most outstanding in Cajas National Park. It offers an impressive landscape surrounded by mountains and páramo vegetation. It is an ideal place for activities such as trout fishing, kayaking, and landscape photography.

Laguna Llaviuco

Laguna Llaviuco is another natural gem of the park. Its surroundings offer a unique experience, with mountains reflected in its crystalline waters and abundant vegetation. It is a perfect place to enjoy tranquility and outdoor activities.

Laguna de Quinoas

Laguna de Quinoas is one of the most beautiful in Cajas National Park. Its calm waters and natural surroundings provide a serene and relaxing atmosphere. It is a popular spot for trout fishing, as well as bird watching and nature photography.

Laguna de Lagartococha

Laguna de Lagartococha is an ideal spot for sport fishing and camping enthusiasts. Its shores offer the opportunity for camping and enjoying nature. Additionally, near this lagoon is the Cave of the Dead, a curious formation that has witnessed past stories.

Toreadora and Llaviucu Lagoons

Toreadora and Llaviucu Lagoons are accessible via the Cuenca-Molleturo road. These bodies of water provide breathtaking views of the páramo and are surrounded by quinoa forests, creating dreamlike landscapes. From Laguna Toreadora, it is even possible to hike to Laguna de Illincocha.

Taitachungo (Mamamag) Lagoon

Starting from Toreadora, there are trails leading to Taitachungo Lagoon, also known as Mamamag. From this point, you can explore a section of the Inca Trail that leads to the Luspa cave. In Mamamag, remains of pre-Inca constructions have been discovered, suggesting that it was an important transit site to the coast.

Trekking and Hiking Trails

The park boasts an extensive network of trails, varying in difficulty from short, family-friendly walks to multi-day treks that challenge even the most experienced hikers. The trails offer panoramic views of the park and close encounters with its diverse flora and fauna.
These are walks that can be done in easily accessible areas by car or auto to the trailhead. They are routes that usually do not require more than a day and have the necessary infrastructure for a comfortable visit and recreation areas along the way.

Qhapaq Ñan Route

This ancient route, known as Qhapaq Ñan, traverses Cajas National Park and served as a connection between the Sierra and the Coast. It started in Tomebamba (present-day Cuenca) and ended at the Paredones de Molleturo. The latter are pre-Hispanic vestiges indicating the presence of ancient civilizations such as the Cañaris and Incas.

Lagartococha Lagoon Route

This route takes you to the beautiful Lagartococha Lagoon, where you can camp and enjoy sport fishing. Additionally, you can visit the Cave of the Dead, located near the lagoon.

Toreadora and Llaviucu Lagoons Route

This route allows you to explore the charming Toreadora and Llaviucu Lagoons. You will enjoy paramo landscapes and quinoa forests, creating impressive views. From Toreadora Lagoon, you can also walk to Illincocha Lagoon.

Avilahuayco Route

Avilahuayco offers a spectacular panoramic view from its summit, where you can appreciate the beauty of the "cajas" dominating the region.

Loma de Tres Cruces Route

Loma de Tres Cruces, García Moreno Path

This route takes you to one of the highest parts of the park, where the watershed between the Amazon and Pacific basins is located. From here, you can enjoy impressive views and explore the García Moreno Trail.

Taitachungo (Mamamag) Lagoon Route

Starting from Toreadora Lagoon, this route takes you to Taitachungo (Mamamag) Lagoon. Here, you can follow a section of the Inca Trail to the Luspa Cave and explore remains of pre-Inca constructions.

Avilahuayco

Avilahuayco is a natural viewpoint located on an elevation in the park. From its summit, you can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of "the cajas" and its surroundings. It’s a perfect spot to contemplate the beauty of the landscape.

Loma de Tres Cruces

Loma de Tres Cruces is one of the highest areas of the park and marks the watershed between those flowing towards the Amazon and those flowing towards the Pacific. The García Moreno Trail passes through this area, named after stories of travelers who attempted to spend the night but succumbed to the intense cold of the night.

Guided Tours

Authorized professionals by the administration of Cajas National Park offer educational activities for individuals, families, organized groups, and students interested in learning about the natural resources of the protected area.

Sport Fishing

It is a recreational activity where fishing is practiced for entertainment, capturing only small amounts of fish under the regulations established by the park administration.

Rock Climbing

This activity requires experience and special equipment as it involves ascending rock walls of different levels within the park.

Birdwatching

It is an activity focused on bird observation to study their characteristics and behaviors. Sightings are made during tours that typically last around 5 hours and are particularly popular among foreign visitors.

Inca Trail and Archaeological Ruins

In addition to its nature, Cajas offers points of interest such as the Inca Trail and archaeological ruins that speak of the pre-Columbian cultures that inhabited the region. These sites add a rich layer of history and culture to the natural exploration experience.

How to Get There and Practical Information for Visiting Cajas

To plan your visit, it is important to consider visiting hours, entrance fees, and to contact the park’s tourist services for reservations and guides. An unforgettable adventure awaits all who decide to explore the mighty Cajas National Park.

Vehicle Access Routes

The main vehicle access route to Cajas National Park is the Colectora Cuenca-Puerto Inca (E582) road, also known as the Cuenca-Sayausí-Molleturo road. This route passes through the Surocucho Control in a journey of approximately 16 km, equivalent to about 30 minutes of travel. Continuing on this same road, you reach the shores of ‘La Toreadora’ lagoon, where the Administrative Center and the Information Center of the park are located. Following the road towards Molleturo, in the northern sector of Cajas, the road winds between several major and minor lagoons.

For those wishing to access the park from the coast, the same Colectora Cuenca-Puerto Inca (E582) road or the Molleturo-Cuenca road is used, following a route opposite to the one described above.

The most visited lagoon in the park is Toreadora, located approximately forty kilometers from the city of Cuenca. Signage is available in the area to facilitate its location. On the other hand, to reach Llaviucu lagoon, you must take the Cuenca-Sayausí-Molleturo exit and take the entrance road on the left, about 7.5 km from the Sayausí "Y" intersection, which is clearly marked. By taking this road, you will travel approximately three kilometers of paved road until you reach the park’s control point.

It is important to note that the part of the park crossed by the Cuenca-Molleturo road corresponds to the northeastern edge of the park; the extension of the park is distributed towards the south and west of the area, and access to deeper points is difficult and not recommended due to the complex vegetative systems covering the area.

By Bus

If you prefer to travel by bus from Quito or Guayaquil, the first step is to reach Cuenca. From these cities, there are frequent buses to Cuenca every day. Once in Cuenca, you can take a bus tour that will take you to Cajas National Park, passing through a beautiful Polilepys forest and a viewpoint with views of the lagoons.

To reach the park from Cuenca by bus, you can head to the south station of the city, where the Occidental Transport company has daily departures to the La Toreadora entrance of Cajas National Park. Departure times are at 7:00, 8:45, 10:30, 12:20, 13:30, and 14:45 hours. There are also buses available from the land terminal at the following times: 8:30, 10:20, 12:00, 14:00, and 14:30 hours. The cost of the journey is $2.

To return to Cuenca from the park, simply take any bus departing from the park exit towards the city.

What to Wear

It is essential to come prepared with appropriate clothing for the variable climate, hiking footwear, and camping equipment if planning to stay overnight in the park. Additionally, visitors are urged to follow conservation guidelines to protect the fragile ecosystem of Cajas.

Available Services

To ensure a comfortable and safe visit, the park has information centers, specialized tour guides, designated camping areas, and detailed recommendations on how to enjoy the park responsibly.


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