While there are many things to do in Cuenca, the highlight for me was hiking Cajas National Park and exploring the park on a tour with Apullacta Tours.
What to do in Cuenca?
Like you, I did not know of all the amazing things to do in Cuenca Ecuador, or how beautiful the UNESCO Heritage site of Cuenca, Ecuador and the surrounding area was. I arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador after traveling for almost 20 hours. After two buses, two flights, and a sketchy taxi ride I made it to Cuenca, Ecuador from San Pedro De Atacama, Chile. I arrived tired, and with little to know research about what there was to do in Cuenca, Ecuador.
My friend had been before and told me it was beautiful so I decided why not make it my first stop on this leg of my adventure in Ecuador. I was flabbergasted at the beauty of the city, my hostel, and the comfort level I felt exploring Cuenca.
When I looked at things to do in Cuenca, I knew my first stop after taking the backpacker’s obligatory free walking tour, was to go hiking on a day trip from Cuenca, Ecuador to Cajas National Park.
Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park may not be as well-known as Ecuador’s other famous national parks, such as the Galapagos, and the Cubayano Reserve in the Amazon. But the park covers an impressive 28,000 hectres (69,200 acres), and reaches impressive heights with altitudes ranging from 3,160 -4,450 meters (10,370-14,600 feet).
Most of the landscape resembles a scene out of Lord of the Rings, or the Scottish Highlands, covered in paramo, polylepis trees (the last left in the country), the fauna and scenery in Cajas National Park will leave you breathless. Well actually you probably will be breathless from hiking in Ecuador at such a high altitude.
An international wetland of importance, with meandering mountains, hills, and dotted with lakes created by glaciers, Cajas has a mystical nature that allows you to escape. The beauty of over 270 lakes, dramatic mountains, and Cajas National Park is an important source of water for Cuenca and much of Ecuador’s wildlife in the region. 2 rivers are borne in Cajas, that run towards Cuenca. Also, the road that connects Guayaquil to Cuenca passes through Cajas National Park crossing the continental divide at “Tres Cruces” (Three Crosses) at 4,255 meters it is one of the highest points in the park!
How to get to Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park is large. While one of the main points of interest Laguna Llaviucu is about 18 kilometers away from Cuenca, Ecuador, I would recommend taking a tour on one of the day trips from Cuenca. If you are traveling solo, I highly recommend this option. In the end it was why I chose to get to with Apullacta Tours to Cajas National Park.
This way I not only got to go to Laguna Llaviucu, but I also was able to hike around Laguna Toreadora, and see Tres Cruces in one day.
Take Day tour like Apullacta Tours day trip to Cajas National Park.
Taking a tour takes care of so much of the annoying logistics of planning a trip, especially if you are tight on time. I decided to take a day trip with Apullacta to Cajas National Park for a few reasons.
- I didn’t want to go hiking alone.
- There were a few points of interest I wanted to see in Cajas National Park.
- Having a guide that could explain the landscape to me while we hiked was important to me.
- It included an amazing lunch! So I didn’t need to worry about food.
- Pick up and drop off from my hostel.
Getting to Cajas National Park on you own.
Cuenca is only a 45-minute ride to Cajas National Park and there are buses that run regularly from Terminal Terrestre. Terminal Terrestre is a quick 20-minute walk from the historic center or a 5-minute taxi ride. The bus will set you back only $2 USD each way.
While this option is the cheapest, if traveling alone, or if you are tight on time. To get back to Cuenca, you can take any bus on the road that is going towards Cuenca. There is no exact stop or schedule, so this means you could be stuck outside in the rain or cold while waiting for the bus back to Cuenca. I recommend this is you have a lot of time and only want to explore one part of the park.
Before Hiking Cajas National Park here are some things you should know before you go!
There are a few things I learned while out hiking in Ecuador’s Cajas National Park. Some people learn the hard way, but luckily with almost two months traveling through the Andes and different conditions in South America I knew how to prepare. But here are just a few things to know before you go to Cajas National Park.
Bring Passport or ID
Whether you are on a tour or going to go at it alone, like most National Parks and tours in South America they ask to see an ID. At the visitor entrance a ranger will need to see an ID, know what route/trail you are taking, and how long you plan to stay in the park.
The park has no entrance fee, unless you choose to go camping in the park. The fee for camping is $4 USD for foreigners and $2 USD for locals per night.
The park and trails are all at a fairly high altitude. If you just arrived to Cuenca, and have not acclimatized to the altitude it might be better to wait a day or two before you begin trekking at 4200 meters (almost 14000 feet).
The visitor center itself is 3920 meters and Cuenca is at 2500 meters. It is necessary to acclimatize if you want to have a pleasant experience. Otherwise, hiking in the cold, with altitude sickness, and a huge headache won’t be enjoyable.
Altitude can make you feel tired quicker because there is less oxygen.
Weather in Cajas National Park
I swear Cuenca, Ecuador and Cajas National Park has four seasons in one day. I felt freezing cold, hot and sweaty, as well as wet during my day trip. It was definitely an experience I was glad to be prepared for. It was sunny at times, cloudy skies, and it even rained for a bit.
Also, when we were at Tres Cruces it was pretty cold (the wet type of cold). Due to the altitude, it felt cold, wet, was decently muddy, and the clouds were constantly rolling over the hills bringing wind.
Download Maps.Me and Parque Nacional Cajas apps
Do you get lost like me? Or like to know where you are and what’s around you while exploring. Definitely download Maps.Me before your hike or tour to Cajas National Park. The park even has its’ own app, Parque Nacional Cajas apps that you can download for trail information and other interesting things. Both apps work offline, which is perfect since most areas of the park have no service!
My Experience with Expediciones Apullacta’s Cajas National Park Tour
After learning about day trips and partners of Ecuador Hop in Cuenca, I knew I could trust Expediciones Apullacta’s tours to be knowledgeable and professional. So when I was looking for a day trip from Cuenca to go hiking and into nature at Cajas National Park I knew where to begin my search.
While I am very independent and love being in nature alone, when I am hiking or in an unfamiliar park that may not be well marked I rather be safe. So, I decided to go in a small group and pay for a tour of Cajas National Park.
After booking my tour online, my guide Wilson picked me up at my accommodation in Cuenca at 8 am to begin my tour with Claude a man traveling solo from Canada. It was perfect. Two people and a guide all to ourselves in the Cajas.
Intimate Group Tour and Informed Guide
I was pleasantly surprised at the intimate group tour. Our first stop was at Llaviuco, where we walked around the perimeter of the lake, and through a cloud forest. Wilson, our guide, was very informed about all the flora and fauna around Cajas National Park. I learned so much about the birds and nature in the park. It was definitely a unique experience. It is easy to guide someone on a hike, but actually being able to entertain your guests with a deep understanding of the place is something special. I know that I would not have had the same experience if I had gone alone.
H3 Economical on Time
It was great how our tour started at the lower altitudes of the park, and gradually worked our way up. This way we were able to acclimatize to the hike. If you are not used to the altitude or just came from the Galapagos every little detail helps like this to keep you from getting sick. Also, the tour allowed us to take our time in different stops, since we didn’t have to worry about public buses or how to get to and from the different stops.
A Guide and a Great photographer
After hiking around the lake at our first stop we headed to Tres Cruces the highest point of the tour. The windy modern road up to the Mirador Tres Cruces, used to be one of the most dangerous passes of the Andes in Ecuador. Our guide shared that before cars, many people died due to the elements as well as altitude sickness. The three crosses commemorate those who died.
The panoramic view is the most picturesque spot for your next profile picture.
My guide was amazing and he took some amazing photos. Being a solo traveler, it holds a special place in my heart for guides and others who offer to take epic photos for me.
Also, when we got to Lake Toreadora my favorite spot on the trip had some of the best views for hikers and nature lovers. We hiked around the lake, as well as the Lagunas Unidas, called Totoras and Patoquinuas.
The mist and overcast nature of the place, made me feel like I was in a fairy land. Seeing one of the last Polylepsis Forests called “San Luis” it was definitely interesting to see the natural endemic trees to the Andes. The trees were interesting due to their paper like shavings.
Before heading back to Cuenca by 4:30 pm we had an amazing lunch with locally sourced Rainbow Trout, rice, and veggies. Also, I had an amazing potato soup. One thing I did not expect was how freaking amazing soups in South America and Ecuador are.
What to pack for a day trip to Cajas National Park?
- Rain Poncho- It is a wet cold at high elevations in Cajas and the weather can change fast.
- Sunscreen- At higher elevations, you are closer to the rays of the sun. Strong UVs= Likely to sunburn.
- Water or Filtration Water Bottle- I love to stay hydrated and it helps to prevent altitude sickness. Definitely check out LifeStraw for hikers.
- Gloves, Hat, warm jacket- It is cold, especially for my Florida blood. So I definitely needed warmer clothes.
- Shoes you don’t mind getting mud on. Before I left on my trip I INVESTED in some amazing waterproof boots. And it was WORTH IT. I left my trip with no blisters or sore feet. After miles of hiking my Oboz left me very impressed for my adventure through South America.
- Snacks- Food = Energy and I love that.
Where to stay in Cuenca, Ecuador and Cajas National Park?
Well you could camp. However if your traveling alone and don’t feel like sleeping under the stars, check these amazing places in the center of Cuenca.
Selina Cuenca Hostel –
I stayed at Selina and boy was it impressive. Selina is always a sure bet if you want a clean, modern hostel/hotel, with good wifi, and resort like amenities. Well for backpacker standards!
Well here you can utilize their co-working space if you are a digital nomad. Also, they offer yoga classes on the yoga deck and movie nights in their cinema. I stayed in a dorm for $9 USD and it included a very filling breakfast with eggs and avocado toast. Also, I had a little porch overlooking the Río Tomebamba. It was central to all nightlife and even hosts some parties if that is your thing.
Another great option is Del Parque. If you like your privacy and want an elegant stay this is your option. Here you will have luxury meets the colonial style of the UNESCO World Heritage city of Cuenca. Elegant and homey this place will have you feeling at home. Rooms here go from $22- 50 USD per night and include a fabulous breakfast.
Apullacta offers tours across Ecuador, from day trips to personalized experiences.
The Cajas National Park Day tour from Cuenca, Ecuador costs $50 usd and offers a great tour. It includes lunch, transportation, and seeing all the main sights of Cajas National Park.