Cajas National Park Hike: Best One Day Trip from Cuenca, Ecuador
A day hike in Cajas National Park is one of the best things you can do while visiting Unesco city Cuenca. Read our hiking guide to get the most of this beautiful place in Ecuador.
What to Do in Cuenca
When we arrived in Cuenca, on the first day we explored the beautiful UNESCO city (the city center is considerably small) and the next day we took a trip to ancient Canari's and Inca's ruins of Ingapirca. We were undecided on what to do in Cuenca on the third day of our stay.
We heard only words of praise for the Cajas National Park, but somehow were not convinced, that the place is worth visiting. The weather forecast didn't look promising, but we desperately needed some exercise, as we spent a few past days on the bus and didn't do much. We decided to take our chances and at 9:15 AM were waiting at the bus station for the bus to Cajas National Park. And boy, we are glad we did.
Cajas National Park
Only about 30 kilometers from Cuenca or an hour ride by bus (surprisingly we didn't stop much along the way) you can find an absolute paradise featuring high valleys, hills, lakes, and this combination makes it a heaven for hiking. There are about 270 lakes and lagoons, and the altitude of the park reaches up to 4450 meters.
The Cajas National Park is also home to a large variety of fauna and flora, and the high grassland ecosystem is dominant in this area.
Hiking in Cajas National Park
The bus dropped us off at the visitor's center, where we registered, though we did not know we need to bring our ID with us (a photocopy will do). Fortunately, the ranger was tolerant (also we remembered our passport numbers), and we did not have to turn back to Cuenca.
We decided to hike number 2, and if you're looking for a great moderately hard half day hike with stunning views, this is your best option, and we highly recommend it to you.
The only catch of this trail is that you have to walk about 1.5km along the main road (Guayaquil direction) with the traffic, which was not heavy though. Approximately after 20 minutes, you will find a small green marker on the roadside, and this is the place, where you turn right.
From this point, we started climbing slowly through the fascinating paramo landscape and made several stops to catch our breath. The scenery was literally breath-taking, and after some time, the trail became steeper and sharply turned uphill. Then we made it to the top, where the other side of the valley open and we could see even more lakes and tarns. We carried on the trail on the ridge.
We didn't meet many people along the way, but despite this fact, we have a funny story to share. Martin wanted to take a picture of me from above, so he went ahead, and I waited on the rock on the lower viewpoint. When he finished, I followed him and when I got to the place where we could view both sides of the valley I came to a very unusual scene: a naked man sitting on the rock and Martin taking picture of him. He turned out to be a guy from Israel who takes his nude photos from all places he visits (he doesn't share them online though). But anyway.
Finally, we reached the highest point Cerro San Luis at the altitude of 4267m and then started to descend back to the lake, and from there we walked straight to visitor's center.
How to Get There
The easiest way to get to the Cajas National Park is by bus. From the bus terminal Terrestre in Cuenca, catch an Occidental bus.
Buses leave every morning at 7:00, 8:00, 9:15 and so on. It's always better to ask at the station as the departure times might change. There was a helpful lady in the info center who speaks English well, and she provided us with all information needed.
The ticket costs $2and bus will drop you off at the visitor's center.
How to Get Back to Cuenca
You can't buy a return ticket at the bus station in Cuenca. There is only one official bus stop in the park on the main road in front of the visitor's center. All you need to do is wave at the bus going in the Cuenca direction, and it will take you back to the bus terminal. The price for the ticket is the same, $2. Buses go quite regularly we waited less than 10 minutes on the bus stop.
Things you should know before hiking in Cajas National Park
In the next part, we will walk you through the things you should know before you go and will share what to expect when hiking in Cajas National Park.
The park lies at high altitude. You will depart from Cuenca (2500m) and arrive at the visitor's center, which is a starting point for most hikes, at 3920m. Proper acclimatization before hiking in the park is essential so you won't have headaches and will enjoy the day at the fullest. Staying hydrated is very important at this altitude as well. Also, some people might get tired faster than others, due to the fact, there is less oxygen to breathe. Walk slowly, take your time, and most importantly, enjoy the beautiful scenery. We spend a few days in Riobamba and acclimatized while biking and hiking Chimborazo.
Weather in Cajas National Park
Remember that the weather in the park is unpredictable and it's better to come prepared - it rains a lot in Cajas National Park. We had sun, blue skies, and dark clouds while in the park for a few hours, and rain and thunderstorm on the way back to Cuenca. Due to high altitude, it's cold, not freezing though, wet, muddy and the clouds often roll over hills.
There are eight well-signed trails at the moment. If in doubt, ask the guy in the visitor's center, he will help you decide, which trail to hike. Some of them are short half-day trails, some are longer which might take the whole day and there are also a few multi-day hikes which require an overnight stay in the park.
We didn't get any paper map, but there is a big map hanging on the office's wall, and you are free to take a photo of it. The trail number 2 was marked with green markers and green paint on the rocks along the way. It's almost impossible to get lost.
Park Rules, Registration, and ID
You should register and present a valid ID upon your check in at the visitor's center. We didn't know about this rule and arrived at the park without any personal documents (it was not a problem at the end, but you never know who will be sitting behind the desk). Registration is required before entering the park also you have to inform the park ranger, which trail you will take and how long you'll approximately stay in the park. You don't need a naturalist guide if your group is smaller than seven people.
It is better to arrive in the park in the morning. Not only the weather is usually more stable than in the afternoon, but there is also a daily limit of the number of visitors, so it is possible that you won't be allowed to enter the park later in the afternoon,
What to pack
Bring sturdy shoes, rain jacket, extra warm layer, and sunscreen. Be prepared for rain at any time. Even though it's required to bring a map and compass, according to the park rules, we didn't find it necessary as all the trails were well-signed.
There is a restaurant at the visitor center, but it's quite overpriced, for example, they ask $10 for typical Ecuadorian menu of the day, so it might be a good idea to bring a snack.
We loved hiking in Cajas NP and would appreciate if you let us know in the comments below, when anything changes, so the article will stay up to date for other readers and hikers.
Cuenca is a popular tourist destination in Ecuador and hotels fill up quickly. You can check hotels availability in Cuenca via our affiliate link. If you make a reservation through our link, we earn a small commission with no additional cost to your price, and you keep us running the blog.