Cajas National Park

Departing Cuenca, we had the same driver and guide, who had taken us to Ingaprica.  Trained as a guide and naturalist, he provided a wealth of information on our route, and our destinations.  This trip, we were headed initially to the National Park, located about 45 minutes outside the city, and then on to Guayaquil on the coast.  On the outskirts of Cuenca, we traveled through San Joaquin.  In this small community of around 5000, there are small plots of gardens in almost every single property in town.  Corn, potatoes, various greens, and several other plants we couldn't identify, all part of the bounty headed to the markets in Cuenca.

Cajas has only been a national park for 20 years.  Prior to that, for 19 years, the land was a national
recreation area.  So protection of the land is relatively new.  Perhaps due to the mountainous nature of the lands, few private interests developed anything in the area.  Only 35,000 visitors a year come to the park, based on the Park Service numbers, and they register everyone coming through the gate.  At our first stop in the park, only 114 people a day are allowed to enter.  This level was determined to be the maximum the lands could bear without creating a negative impact.  I thought it was interesting to compare this to the most visited National Park in the U.S., the Great Smokey Mountains, which has over ten million visitors a year.  Of course, this isn't really a fair comparison, since Cajas is only 110 square miles, a relatively tiny national park, but I can't even begin to imagine the uproar in the U.S., if usage limitations, such as this, were implemented.  Non-Ecuadorians were previously charged $10 to enter the park, but entree is now free for everyone.

At 10,400 feet, we were at nearly the same altitude as the previous day, so heavy jackets and jeans were essential to keep warm.  Numerous marked/guided trails are available, but we wanted something which offered little change in the altitude, but still provided an introduction to the park.  We opted for the easiest trail, around Lake Toreadora, a two-hour walk with less than 50 feet change in elevation.  Numerous llama and alpaca munched on grasses near the lake, and our guide, Wilson pointed out dozens of plants used for everything from altitude sickness to sleep remedies. 157 bird species make their home in the Park, but for the most part, they shied away from our cameras.

Upon completion of our walk, we drove on to a higher, and much colder portion of the Park, where the Visitors Center is located.  At this level, 207 visitors a day are allowed on the trails, no doubt due to the lack of vegetation at this height.  We were now at 13,000 feet, and really appreciated the warm building which blocked the wind, and the hot coffee and hot chocolate available at the small restaurant.

From this point, the drive was downhill for the next 2 hours, to sea level in Guayaquil, our stop for the next few days before flying out to San Cristobal for our Galapagos adventure.

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