Why should you visit El Cajas National Park, Ecuador’s ultimate hidden gem? Because although it is only 30 minutes from Cuenca, it is the best outdoor adventure in Southern Ecuador! Unfortunately, there is very limited information about how to go backpacking in the park available in English. I recently spent a couple of days hiking in the park. In this guide, you will find all of the information I wish I had before heading out into Cajas.
Cajas National Park is only 30 km from the city of Cuenca, but it is considerably higher. The elevation within the park ranges from 10,000 to almost 15,000 feet above sea level. If you are planning on hiking there, it is advisable to spend a few days acclimatizing in Cuenca before you set out.
The local water supply for this part of Ecuador comes from Cajas. The national park has over 700 lakes! This means the park is incredibly wet all year round. Don’t be surprised if there is a lot of mud on the trails.
Cajas National Park is absolutely gorgeous, and it easily makes the list of best backpacking trips in Ecuador!
Things to Know about Cajas National Park
Everyone, even day visits, have to register with park rangers when you visit Cajas National Park. There are 4 places in the park where you can register, but Torreador is the main spot. This is located about halfway through the park on the main highway next to Lake Torreador.
The Torreador ranger station also has the most amenities. At this location, there is a restaurant, a refugio and cell service.
If you want to go camping, then you need to pay 4$/night (2$/night for Ecuadorians). You also need to give the rangers your itinerary. They will require that you have the Parque Nacional Cajas app on your phone before you leave. In theory, this app has maps with gps built in. In reality, you should not rely on this app for your navigation. Be sure to either have paper maps, or a digital map with gps capabilities. I used AllTrails to navigate.
The park has most of the same rules for backcountry travel as American National Parks with a few exceptions. First, campfires are not prohibited. When you are traveling, you will see fire rings. Just because these exist does not mean you should use them. Second, groups larger than 6 people are allowed, but they need to be accompanied by a guide.
How to Get To Cajas
Cajas is extremely easily accessible from the city of Cuenca. Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, and the largest city in the southern highlands part of the country. Getting to Cuenca is fairly easy. It is roughly 8 hours by bus from Quito and 4 hours by bus from Guayaquil.
Buses in Ecuador are inexpensive, expect to pay around $1-$2/hour of bus ride. Alternatively, Cuenca has an airport. A $50 flight from Quito will have you in the city in under an hour.
From Cuenca, the cheapest way to get to Cajas is to take a bus. This will cost about $1-$2 and will take around 45 minutes. Just head to the terminal terrestre in Cuenca and ask around about busses heading to Guayaquil. These busses will pass through Cajas National Park and you can ask the driver to let you off there.
Sometimes, the bus will not be running due to landslides or some other reason. In this case, it is easy to take a taxi. A taxi ride will cost $20 and will take about 30 minutes.
On your way back to Cuenca, you can flag a bus down from the highway. Additionally, Ecuadorians are very friendly, and if you try hitchhiking, you will probably be able to find someone to give you a ride very easily.
There is very limited information about Cajas National Park in English on the internet. Everything that does exist pretty much only talks about day hikes in the park. For that reason, this section is going to focus more on multi day backpacking trips.
First of all, generally speaking, the day hikes are in the northern part of the park and the longer hikes are in the southern part of the park. There is a huge section of the park far to the south that doesn’t have any trails at all.
One of the weirdest things about Cajas National Parks is that the trails start from really random places. Many of the hikes in the park will require walking along the side of the highway for a couple kilometers to get to the trailhead. The main highway through the park has wide shoulders, but cars are moving really quickly, so be vigilant.
If you are looking for a good 3 day, 2 night trip in Cajas National Park, do the following:
Start on trail 4 from Tres Cruces, head south to trail 7. Follow trail 7 west until you intersect with trail 8. Take trail 8 South East until you reconnect with trail 7. Follow trail 7 East until you get to Lake Taitachunga, then back track to the second intersection with Trail 6 and follow that North until you get to the highway.
This is the best option for the park for a few reasons. First, this will keep you up in the higher portion of the park where the views are a lot more interesting. If you follow trail 7 all the way to Lake Llaviucu, you will have a muddy slog through the forest before you get to the trailhead. Second, This will have you start and end roughly at Torreador. It will be much easier to find a ride back to Cuenca from here.
This is not what I did. I followed Trail 6 to Trail 7 out to Llaviucu. I found the trail I did to be too short. The last few miles to the lake were pretty boring. Also, I got lucky and found someone at the trailhead to give me a ride. If there had been no one there, the walk to the highway would have been long and dusty.
When to Go
Ecuador sits on the equator, so the weather is going to be ok pretty much all year round. For equatorial regions, there are two seasons: Rainy and Dry. The rainiest time of year is going to by March and April. The dryest will be July and August.
Just because this is generally true, you should be prepared for all types of weather year round. It can be clear in the morning and thundering by the afternoon. This National Park sits very high in altitude and people have died of exposure.
What to Bring to Visit El Cajas National Park
Since the weather can change extremely quickly, it is good to be prepared. In particular, it is a good idea to be ready for very wet conditions! This is the gear that I brought during my trip. I used every single thing except for the snow pants.
- Gossamer Gear 50 Litre
- Gossamer Gear the One
- ground tarp
- Montem Trekking Poles
- REI Sleeping Bag
- Nemo Sleeping Pad
- Thermal pants and shirt
- Base layer shirt
- Snow Pants
- Ski Jacket
- Baseball Cap
- wool gloves
- Gas (bought in Cuenca)
- Sawyer Squeeze
- Cnoc bladder
- water bottle
- Trail runners
- 2 pairs of socks
- Bag cover and trash bag
- sun screen
- garmin in reach mini
- battery pack