Swamp-like features on a rainy day in Cajas
Trees jutting out into a lake
A rock island in the fog
Flowers growing on a shrub
Up there in the cloudsLocated only about 30 minutes from Cuenca is Cajas National Park, a huge reserve of land containing over 30 lakes, various forests, and tons of peaks to climb. I finally got the chance to go today with one of my students, Gaby, who is a tourism student and knows a lot about the park. Cajas is higher than Cuenca and can get very cold, and is known to only be worthwhile when it's sunny. Unfortunately for us, it was raining and windy today, making the trip a bit of a downer.
We got to Cajas early and I was happy to pay the $1.50 park fee for Ecuadorian citizens with my ID card, instead of the $10 other foreigners have to pay. The rain had stopped coming in hard, but every now and then gusts of light rain would fall down on us or wind would push us back. It was the coldest I've been in Ecuador, and a long time at all for that matter. High up in these Andes mountains, you would have no idea you were in South America.
The grounds were soaked and muddy, making walks on the weakly outlined trails dangerous and difficult. Cajas is so big and open that people sometimes get lost in there, and some tourists have been known to have to spend the night in the park because they got lost too close to sundown. I was glad to be with someone who'd been there dozens of times. Trying to take careful steps so that I didn't slip and damage my camera, it was useless fighting against the mud. It was having its way with us.
Trying to grab onto grass for support I lost my footing and fell on my side, slipping to another part of the trail. I was muddy and my camera was a little dirty, but it was still working, much to my delight. We carried on past a large lake and up an incline. At one point we had to spend 5 minutes figuring out how to get up a steep rock covered in mud, and only after we scaled a narrow section of grass could we continue.
Heading up another incline, my sneakers lost their grip and I slid all the way down the mud hill. A streak could be seen for at least 20 feet. By this point my white/blue sneakers were covered in black mud and my jeans were getting soaked by the feet as we walked over wet shrubs.
Along the way Gaby pointed out different plants and wildlife, telling me to listen for specific bird calls. She knew a lot about the animals in the park and would get very quiet every time we saw a rabbit or bird. Normally you can take some beautiful pictures in the park, but because we were right in the clouds and the fog was just over our heads, I didn't have the opportunity to take many. Gaby lamented that I wasn't even able to see some of the mountains just in front of us because the clouds totally covered them.
We marched on for about an hour or so, complaining about the rain and cold, until we made it to a forest with red trees that shed bark like we shed skin cells. Gaby picked up a piece that had already fallen and peeled away the layers to reveal redder and redder bark. Every couple of steps one of us would slip, until we finally decided the trail was getting too dangerous and started back. One thing I wish I'd invested in beforehand was a cheap pair of boots, now that my shoes were soaked through.
We saw barely anyone else in the park, but crossed paths with 4 other people our age, walking along to music from a cell phone. Stopping for some hot chocolate in a thermos and Ritz crackers, we caught our breath and were happy that the sun was just barely making a dent in the clouds. Along the way back we took a slightly different route and rubbed our hands in the wet grass to clean off the mud from when we'd fallen.
Finally back at the refuge by 1 o'clock, we checked out the little museum and took off. We had to flag down a bus on the side of the road to get back into Cuenca, like so many other people have while I took a bus somewhere in this country. It was a cold and rainy day, my shoes and pants nearly destroyed, but a fun hike. The next free day I have when there's sun, I'll have to go back and do it again.