Cajas National Park is one of Ecuador’s best kept secrets. This Lake District of Ecuador is home to stunning glacial valleys, moors and forests, and a network of pristine mountain lakes. There’s fairytale magic here, like the natural set of a Lord of the Rings movie. But you’ll find no hobbits, instead keep your eyes open for Andean Condors, Spectacled bears, hummingbirds and wild alpaca. For trekers, Cajas national park is an outdoor playground – the perfect place to escape and enjoy nature in it’s purest form.
Keep reading for a complete visitor guide to El Cajas National Park Ecuador. Everything from trip planning tips, to trail recommendations and wildlife sightings.
Cajas national park is a place of water. A network of 786 lakes, lagoons & ponds connected by crystal clear streams. A carpet of sponge-like plants that absorb water, releasing it slowly over weeks and months. Frequent rains and moist clouds ensure the cycle continues.
From water springs life. The moors and cloud forest are teeming with mammals, birds and unusual plants.
Humans also depend on the water from Cajas national park. Straddling the continental divide, every drop of rain that falls to the west of Cajas flows to the Pacific Ocean, every drop to the east drains into the Amazon River. On route to the Amazon, the Tomebamba and Yanuncay rivers flow through picturesque Cuenca city, providing inhabitants with pure drinking water sourced from Cajas.
Cajas National Park ranges from 3,100m (10,170ft) to 4,450m (14,600ft) above sea level in elevation. That is some pretty serious altitude! You’ll feel the thinner air as soon as you arrive. With less oxygen to breathe your lungs will get a great workout, and your heart will beat faster.
We recommend acclimatisation before visiting El Cajas National Park. Ideally try to spend a few days over 2,500m or higher, so that your body is already producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen around your system.
For tips to help avoid altitude sickness, check out our Quito elevation blog.
El Cajas encompasses over 28k hectares of protected national park land. The breathtaking scenery was sculpted by ancient glacial activity, leaving behind a landscape of U-shaped valleys, hills, moraines and glacial lakes. This stretch of the Andes is older and less volcanically active than the Avenue of the Volcanoes further north.
In Cajas National Park you’ll find two striking ecosystems. The higher altitudes consist of tundra-like Andean Paramo – rolling moors of grassland and low shrub. Lower down, cloud forest and perennial high mountain forest follows the ravines near streams.
The name “Cajas” is believed to originate from the local Quichua words “Cassa” (Gateway to the snowy mountains) or “Caxa” (cold), although there are various disputed theories.
What we do know for sure is that Cajas has long been an important natural passage between the coastal and Andean regions of Ecuador. Since pre-inca times there is evidence that roads and trading routes were established, which the Incas further developed under their empire. Within El Cajas national park today there are 28 different archeological sites, proving that there was also some degree of settlement in the area back in those days.
With an average temperature of just 5 degrees Celcius (high 15, low -1), visitors are recommended to dress appropriately before a visit.
Expect four season in one day – a strong sun when it shines, cold wind when it bites, and a high probability of rain most days. It’s a forecast that may sound quite miserable, but in reality helps to create the dark and mysterious atmosphere so befitting of the Cajas forests and lakes.
Cold weather gear like gloves and wooly hat are recommended, as is rain gear and warm layers to keep the cold out. Perhaps even spare dry layers just in case you get soaked. You’ll also need a good pair of walking boots to cover uneven terrain that is sometimes muddy. Sun protection is always a good idea – sun glasses and high factor suncream to avoid burning. Of course hikers will also need to bring along plenty of drinking water and energy snacks to keep you going.
Located just 30km west of Cuenca city, El Cajas national park is quite easy to visit. The most popular option is a day tour for treking, but it’s also possible to camp overnight and fish.
El Cajas opens from 8am through to 16:30pm every day. At time of writing there is no entry fee, but visitors must show a valid ID at the park ranger station. Basic facilities there include bathrooms and a basic café / shop.
To get the most out of a visit we recommend going with a guide. A good naturalist will be able to identify plants and birds, as well as explaining all about the Andean Paramo ecosystem. It's also easy to get lost if fog rolls in, so a knowledgeable guide ensures a safe trip.
For those traveling on a tight Budget, you can also visit Cajas national park by bus. Regular morning departures leave from Cuenca’s Terminal Terrestre bus station. It takes around 1 hour to the drop off at Cajas visitor center. You’ll need to register with the park ranger office, where guides can show you which trails are open. Return buses stop at the same visitor center for the return journey to Cuenca.
If you are planning in spending a few days exploring the Cuenca area then check out our Cuenca highlights 4day tour itinerary. This popular trip includes El Cajas treking, the Inca ruins at Ingapirca and complete tour of Cuenca.
El Cajas has something for all levels of outdoor enthusiast. Some trails start as short as several hundred meters, for visitors who want to see nature but lack the physical ability for long hikes. Longer trails require multi-day exertion and outdoor camping.
Here are some of our favorite trail suggestions for Cajas treking.
1. Uku – an easy path leading 1.7km around Llaviucu lagoon. This route is good for bird watching, and allows fishing from the lake shore.
2. Toreadora – 2.2km around Toreadora Lake on easy terrain from the visitor center.
3. Ilincocha – a shortie but a goodie! This 300 meter path is good for birding and showcases a small Polylepis (Quinoa) high altitude forest.
4. Nature and Human History Trail – for a moderately challenging 4.2km hike, trekers head from Toreadora lagoon, through Polylepis forest at the foot of Cerro San Luis, to Lagunas Unidas and Totoras.
5. Cerro San Luis trail - a more technical 2.2km trail leads to the summit of Cerro San Luis (4,264 m) - a natural lookout with sweaping views on a clear day.
6. The Cajas Inca Trail and larger lagoons – a longer 18km route taking two days with overnight camping.
Other interesting Cajas trails include: Quinuas Valley (8.1 km), Encuentro con las Burines (5.3 km), and the Great Osohuaycu (12.2 km).
The Andean Paramo habitat is exposed and harsh for plantlife, but there is interesting flora to be found if you know where to look.
The dominant plant is a sturdy straw grass which grows pretty much everywhere. Also look out for interesting cushion plants – their spongey consistency is perfect to absorb and store water, which is then slowly released. These plants play a vital role in maintaining humidity in the local ecosystem, and ensure a steady water supply for Cuenca’s rivers. Tiny high altitude flowers add colorful yellows, reds and purples to the green cushion carpet.
Perhaps the most fascinating plant at El Cajas is the Polylepis (Quinoa) – the world’s highest altitude tree. It’s easy to recognise for it’s thin, red-brown, peeling bark, which also gives it the nickname "the paper tree". These trees have heaps of character, with gnarled and twisting branches reminiscent of a haunted fairytale forest. Remarkably the Polylepis can grow above the regular tree line, at altitudes of up to 5000m. But there is a price to pay for occupying such lofty heights; the Polylepis grows painfully slowly, taking 160 years to add just ½ inch in diameter!
Cajas National Park is a dream for bird watchers. Not only is Cajas a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance Site for migratory birds, it is also home to an impressive 157 different bird species.
While the Andean Condor is often the main target for visiting birders, colorful species like parrots, toucans, tanagers and guans can also be spotted.
Of the 24 hummingbird species found in Cajas national park, try to find the giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas) – the largest species on the planet. The pretty violet-throated metaltail (Metalura gorjivioleta) is a rare Cajas endemic.
Lakes and ponds attract Andean ducks, gull divers and mountain gulls. While the azulito altoandino bird and Quinales live in the Polylepis forests.
Although more challenging to spot, Cajas national park is home to 44 mammal species, 17 amphibians and 4 reptiles.
Some of the more common mammal sightings include llama, alpaca, deer, Andean foxes, wild horses and rabbits. More shy and retiring creatures include puma, Andean bears, coatis, weasels, skunks, porcupines, and the endemic Cajas water mouse (Chibchanomys orcesi).
Amphibian life sticks to the protected lakes and open moors. Frogs are more active (and vocal) at night, while lizards and snakes rarely leave the safety of covered ground.
Contact us for a free tour quote – Happy Gringo specialise in custom-made trips right across Ecuador and Peru. We’ll be happy to include treking at El Cajas National Park into a trip itinerary for you.
In conclusion, El Cajas National Park in Ecuador has something for everyone. Breathtaking landscapes sculpted by ancient glaciers. Crystalline lakes teaming with birdlife. Unusual flora and fauna unique to the region. A network of trails for trekers and nature lovers. El Cajas showcases it’s rugged beauty to intrepid visitors – we highly recommend checking it out for yourself!