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Parque Nacional Cajas

Written on: Tuesday October 2nd, 2007

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador

Author: Julie

Hola!

Today we ventured out to see Parque Nacional Cajas, located approximately 30 kilometres outside of Cuenca. We had seen a preview of the park a few days earlier on the bus from Guayaquil and the little glimpse was enough for us to want to see more. Our guide met us at our hotel and walked us to our van that would take us to the park. We were to be a group of 9 people that day that would be discovering the wonders of the Cajas. First we picked up Deb and her husband from Saskatchewan, then Burthold and Mika from Germany, then 4 people from Britain (their names escape me now).

As we wended our way through the mountain road towards the park entrance, our guide Juan gave us a running lecture on the city of Cuenca, the park, and the close relationship between the two. Cuenca is crossed by 3 rivers which flow from the park and all three are an important source of drinking water for the city. It is one of only a handful of cities in South America that can claim to have drinking water safe to drink from the tap. The drinking water systems have been designed to handle a population growth from the current 350,000 to 750,000 projected for 2035. How did they achieve this? They have a forward-thinking plan. By taping into the water system of Cajas National Park, they are able to fulfill the city?s water needs at the same time controlling the source of water coming in and out. The park was founded in the 80s and was administered by a federal ministry until an agreement was signed in 1994 to hand over the administration of the park to ETAPA ? the electrical and drinking water company of Cuenca. This company is responsible for the administration of the park and it has the following mandates: 1) ensure the park ecosystem is protected, 2) ensure the fauna of the park is protected, 3) ensure the water table and rivers that flows out of the park and into Cuenca are protected, and 4) provide a means of ecotourism to the park. If at any time the first 3 mandates are in danger due to tourism activities, the park will be closed. Also, they have a network of recovery basins that filters the water before it is returned to the source river. The water is almost as clean going out of the city as it was coming in. It is a huge source of pride for the citizens of Cuenca.

Cajas National Park is 35,000 hectars and boasts about 235 lakes, many stocked with rainbow trout from fish farms located outside the park. The fish farms were created in the ?60s in cooperation with a Canadian government initiative. These aren?t just any rainbow trout, they are Canadian! There use to be a form of cat fish but it died off in the ?50s due to over-fishing. Cajas means ?boxes? in Spanish and the name is given due to all the lakes looking like little boxes. During the last ice age, glaciers grooved the ground and left huge holes where the water has collected over the years. The park is located between 2500m and 4200m and due to this rise in altitude has 5 very different eco-zones. We would be seeing 3 during our walk: Paramo (alpine valleys and grasses), old growth forest, and the cloud forest.

We arrived at the ranger hut an hour after leaving town. As we stepped out of the car, we were hit by the cold, damp wind. We had been warned to dress warmly and we were glad we had taken the suggestion to heart. I was wearing 3 layers plus my windproof rain jacket and I could still feel the cold. Out came the mitts and toque and we were ready for our walk. Our first destination was before us: LAguna Toreador. A postcard perfect vista with mountains, rolling alpine valleys, and the namesake lagoon. It was a great start!

As we walked along the path, Juan described the various flora before us including one very strange bromeliad. It flowered only after 10 years, by growing a long stalk, with little blue flowers at the top. Once flowering was done, the plant would self-combust. Seriously, it slowly burns itself from the inside till there nothing left but a charred husk on the ground. We saw the plant in various stages and felt the charred remains of one plant: it was all ash. It was very strange. Next we saw a little blue flower that closes up at the touch. Another plant we saw actually turned water into a sucrose gelly. Juan explained that scientifically there are now 4 accepted states water can have: gas, liquid, ice, and sucrose water. These little plants were the only ones that could transform the water into the 4th state. My mind is still trying to wrap itself around that one! We continued up and down, around little lakes, each with its own little defining characteristic: this one had reeds, this one had a form of algae, this one had fish, etc. We then walked into a strange forest. Most of the trees were over 100 years old and had a bark like softly peeling paper. Some of the trees were shaped like ovals and less like a circle. Others had bright colored moss growing on them and all of them grew twisted and gnarled, like a forest in a faerie tale. Everything was green, moss grew everywhere and on everything. This forest used to blanket most of the Andeans but has been reduced to only spare patches here and there due to farming and logging. It was sad to think that such a special place didn?t really exist anymore except in protected areas. We descended out of the forest and back into the alpine paramo: the rolling alpine valleys with long grasses. We discovered that most of the ground is one big sponge and were literally walking on vast expanses of water, passed down from one lake to another until it flowed into 2 rivers which crossed Cuenca. No wonder they wanted to protect this! Every turn we took would take my breath away. It was a never ending panorama that was a feast to our eyes. I could hear others as well as myself continuously saying ?Oh my god, that?s amazing!?. We sounded like a broken record, but that?s all we could find to say every 5 minutes. I?m surprised no one fell over as we all walked around with our cameras glued to our faces. Kevin and I alone took over 500 photos, but don?t worry we managed to only share with you the best 100.

After 3 hours of walking, we arrived to our waiting van. Before getting in, Juan wanted to show us one more thing. An old trail called the ?Panama Hat Trail?. This trail was used in the 1800s and early 1900s, before the advent of roads and motorized vehicles, as a link with the coast 400kms away. The trail was used to bring the palm fibers from the coast needed for the Montecristi hats (aka Panama Hats) and then to transport the completed hats to the coast to be shipped to Panama and the world.

We were driven to a touristic restaurant at the outskirts of the park. The restaurant is surrounded by fish farms and as you can guess our lunch was rainbow trout. It was served fried with a salad of palm hearts and huge serving of rice. It was fantastic. No one left a thing on their plates. As we walked out, we saw a fountain with some of the trout in it. I stopped for a few moments and said ?Thanks, I just had your brother and he was delicious!? Hahaha!

Our next stop was into the cloud forest of the park, located at 2500m. We walked a loop around a lake. At the edge of the lake, there is an old abandoned German brewery. We were told it was abandoned during the 2nd world war, when the owners were shipped to the United States for their own protection. We walked into another world, when we crossed into the shadows of the canopy. Sound from the lake became distant and we could hear the call of many birds. Every tree was covered in moss, and many had bromeliads attached to them at the strangest angles. How these plants can manage to attach and survive is a mystery to me. I was fascinated but the little ones, that seemed to be holding on with just a small pin sized root. Along with the bromeliads were beautiful, fragile orchids. We walked slowly, stopping often to see the birds that called to us from the canopy. Usually we were unsuccessful at getting a glimpse, although a few with binoculars were able to see a couple of toucans. Next we walked on long bridge that wrapped around the lake edge. The brewery standing silently on the other shore. At the end of the walkway, we saw llamas and alpacas. I was so excited, to me this is the image that represents the Andean mountains the most. They were munching away on the long grasses that grew in the deep v-valley at the end of the lake. They didn?t seem to be interested in us much, except for one that kept bending down to take a bit of grass, to quickly bring his head up again. He had a Mohawk of wool between his ears that made him seem a little rocker, a little cross-eyed. He was adorable. We continued on and left him to his meal. We passed the brewery building. In the past it would have been a stunning, we could tell the stonework was intricate and of the most beautiful range of oranges and pink. Kevin stole away inside to get some pictures. Everything was gone but someone had been using it as storage for terracotta roofing tiles. Up the driveway towards our parked van we walked. One of the british women identified many plants that were native to Britain. The owners must have imported and planted them when the brewery was functionining. We could imagine what it looked like with its ornamental grasses and cultured roses. Now, it?s been retaken by nature and only a plant here and there has managed to survive.

Our tour ended, we were tired and exhilarated by everything we had seen. We could have gone to all of these places on our own, but the addition of Juan made all the difference. The amount of information he provided was outstanding and we later found out that he?s considered one of the best national park guides in Ecuador. He has a deep passion for Cajas and for the city of Cuenca that he shared with us. We now felt like Cuenca wasn?t just a city we were visiting but a living, breathing, growing city with a great future and a stunning park for the citizens to enjoy and share with the rest of us. You can?t get that out of a travel book or the occasional information sign along a trail.

 

 

From Christine on Oct 8th, 2007

Awesome pics! A geographer's dream trip!