When visiting Cuenca, Ecuador a day of hiking in Cajas National Park is a must-do. Being less than an hour outside of Cuenca, it’s an easy day trip you can do by yourself. No need for an expensive tour or guide.
How to get there.
Easy. Take the bus. Buses leave from Cuenca’s main bus terminal on a regular basis. Most buses heading to Guayaquil will go this way. Just ask anybody in the terminal for buses to Cajas and they will point you in the right direction. Buses leave from platform 6 on a fairly regular basis. I took the 7 am bus and arrived at the Cajas visitor center just before 8 am. The fare is just $2.00 each way.
There are earlier buses that you could take, but the park technically doesn’t open until 8am. You need to register with your passport at the ranger station when you arrive. For me, just knowing my passport number was enough and there was no need to carry my actual passport with me.
It’s always a good idea to get there early as they have a limit on visitors every day. I’m not sure of the reason, but this huge park has a limit of 92 visitors per day. Luckily the day I visited, there was room for 91 more! Also you have a much better chance of decent weather in the morning. Of course, at this altitude, nothing is guaranteed.
What to take and wear.
- Layers of warm clothing – I started the day with clear blue skies but at the top, it was cloudy, windy, and cold. You just never know what kind of weather you will get when hiking in Cajas National Park. Gloves were very nice to have.
- Good hiking shoes – It’s definitely not the toughest trail I’ve done in Ecuador, but it was one of the wettest. Most of the trail is dry but there are quite a few wet spots that you don’t always expect
- Food & water – Although there is a restaurant at the visitors center, it was not open the day I visited. Update – on my next few trips to the park the restaurant was open and is a beautiful spot for lunch or a warm drink. They also have a small but well-stocked store for snacks and clothing.
- Phone with maps.me – The trail I took is fairly well signposted once you get started. The park ranger preferred to show me the trail on maps.me instead of printing a paper map. There is no phone service in the park so having offline maps to use is very helpful.
Which trail to hike.
The park rangers at the visitor center are very helpful. Depending on your ability and how much time you have they will recommend a trail for you. For me, he recommended Route/Ruta 3 which was around 5 hours. It took me a little longer due to a lot of photography and a few snack breaks. When you are out in a place this beautiful by yourself, why rush?
Trail 3 started about a 20-30 minute walk along the main road towards Guayaquil. There is not a lot of traffic on the road so it was fine. The start of the trail was not actually signposted but the ranger showed me the start of it on maps.me so it was easy to find.
Please note that I did the trail in reverse from the sign pictured above.
Hiking in Cajas National Park is very different from any other hikes I did in Ecuador. Apart from the altitude, it feels more like you are hiking in Scotland. The scenery and the weather resemble the mountains in the Scottish highlands in my opinion. If only there was as much oxygen here!
Once off the main road and on the trail, it is a fairly steady climb along a wide trail for about 1 1/2hours . You will be rewarded with great views of the many lakes below you. The beauty of doing the trail in reverse is that you have more descent than actual climbing. The bus did some of the work for you. The trail finishes back on the main road but close to the parks checkpoint about 6km before the visitors center.
After a breathless climb to 4136m, you will reach a spectacular viewpoint overlooking Lake Fondococha, This is a great spot for your Instagram pics and maybe a short rest. You will be happy to know that it is mostly downhill from here. You have also survived the coldest point on the trail, it just gets warmer the further you descend.
A short distance past the viewpoint you will see a trail on your right heading down the other side of the lake. This is where the downhill starts and it becomes a fun hiking trail. You will encounter all types of terrain and even a few small river crossings.
Although it is mostly downhill from here, it is still about a 3 hour hike back to the road. I had nowhere to be that afternoon so just took my time and enjoyed the magnificent scenery and silence.
You will find plenty of places to sit, rest, eat and just admire the view.
There is no shortage of lakes to see in when hiking in Cajas National Park, but the scenery around you is constantly changing. The lower you get, the more interesting the plant life becomes, and a few cool trees too.
There are very few trees on the trail, but those that are, are pretty cool.
Lower down the trail you will lose sight of the lakes and start heading for the road in the distance. At this point you will be conflicted whether to follow the park signs or maps.me. Maps.me shows a different trail back to the park checkpoint. Parks signs tell you that this is private property and to go a different way. I chose to obey the park signs and it was a good trail back to the road.
You may be wondering why you haven’t seen any other people in my pictures? Well that’s because I didn’t see any all day until I was within a short distance of the road again. And then it was just a couple of local farmers on horseback. I am constantly amazed at how many beautiful places I have been to in Ecuador without any other tourists. Thank you COVID-19!
The trail drops you back on the main road with a short downhill walk back to the parks checkpoint. On this walk you will see the private property that the other trail would lead you through and realize that you made the right decision.
At the checkpoint is a small sheltered bus stop where you sit and wait for the next bus back to Cuenca. I only had to wait about 10 minutes for my ride back to the city.
What a great day hiking, and so close to the city. I will surely have to come back another day soon and check out some of the other trails in the park.
If you enjoyed this post please make sure to check out the next few posts of my trips to Cajas National Park.