Sunday, January 9, 2011

Parque Nacional Cajas

I am taking you back to September 2010....

Well I had just started my first week of Spanish classes and I met a nice gal from New Hampshire named Bre. She was backpacking through Ecuador and had always wanted to visit the Galapogas Islands. She convinced me to sign up to hike the Cajas Mountains with her, where were about 30 kilos outside of Cuenca. I said sure, why not! Little did I know what I was really in for....

The name Cajas was originally from the indigenous language, Quichua, that meant "gateway to the snowy mountains," but in Spanish Cajas means "boxes." These mountains surround the Historical city of Cuenca and the highest point in the National Park is about 15,000 ft. If you know me at all, I am always up for an adventure, but little did I know I would be hiking a total of 6 miles through the freezing cold.

Sidenote: always do your research before attempting to say yes to any adventure. I hadn't even packed the necessary attire, let alone even brought that attire to Ecuador, thinking, Ecuador=equator...if you were to say I would be hiking in sleet and wind and temperatures in the teens I would have laughed at you and said, "I think I will go to the mall instead."

But the small mini van with our tour guide who spoke mainly Spanish, and called us all "muchachos" meaning buddies, paid little to no attention as the roads got steeper and the weather turned icy. At first we ventured into the park at the lowest point of the mountains and saw some llamas and an old brewery. The whole area of the park spans over 285 kilometers with over 270 lakes/lagoons. My camera couldn't even capture all of the beauty throughout our hike.

After arriving to the part of the park where we would begin our hike, I was told to put on a pancho, because I was not even prepared for the next venture. I was freezing cold once we stepped outside the van and I started to turn to Bre with this look of "I'll meet ya back in the van when you guys are done." Don't get me wrong, I enjoy hiking, but not in the wind, ice and cold temperatures. Bre coming from New Hampshire, was use to hiking through freezing cold weather. (Don't worry, I got her back though when we hiked miles through Vilcabama where the temperatures were well into the 90's-look forward to that post!)

We ate this leaf in the van. It apparently helped us from getting high altitude sickness.

The interesting thing about the Cajas is there are 5 different ecosystems throughout the 285 km, which is a lot of different types for being such a small area.
-The high grassland (contains over 19 different types of plants, the main one being straw grass)
-The cloud forest (located in the lower part of the Cajas)
-Quinua (also known as the paper tree forest-this was my favorite!!)
- Perennial high mountain forest
-Avifauna which is a place for bird watching

A ribbed feeling leaf from the trees

The Cajas are home to a large variety of animals, 80 of which remain only in Ecuador including the giant hummingbird, the South American Condor and the Black and White Raptor.

So we hiked and hiked and hiked with our group of about 8 from all over the world. My favorite areas were when we saw the Llamas in the high grassland area and the paper tree forest. The llamas were just hanging out in the fields and looked so peaceful even out in the coldness. At that point I wish I could have had their fur coats! After hiking up and down over mountains and under we came upon a forest out in the middle of no where. It was like a tangled woods, we had to climb over and under limbs and watch the slippery slopes. Our tour guide told us they were going to film a horror movie out here...which would be perfect! It was definitely eerie and you could easily get lost in it!

We hiked out of the forest and down the mountain to a valley were there was a huge lake filled with stalks of hay looking plants. It was a neat site, except for when we found out the stalks were actually taking over the lake and consuming all the water, which eventually the lake would disappear.

Another cool point along the way was the rock of a thousand faces. If you look closely you will see this rock has a ton of faces!

A few times we all had to stop and take a breather cause the air was so tight it was hard to breathe! I was really proud of myself, because I could breathe almost the whole way til we got to the top of the highest point and then it was very hard to breathe! At least it was only a temporary thing, but man my heart sure was thumping away!

A memorial to fallen hikers

By the end of the journey, with no potty breaks, because honestly who would want to take off 5 layers of clothes, we could see the van about a mile away. We all picked up the pace, our faces and bodies numb to the cold, but we didn't care anymore! We were home free!

Afterward, our guide took us to a popular restaurant where we all ate a whole Cod, Yucca root and a shot of cinnamon Canelazo (a traditional alcoholic drink from Cuenca). I think the whole gang was just ready for a nap!

It was quite an accomplishment to hike that high for me, even though it was freezing cold, Bre and I cheered each other on the whole way! Just another adventure in Ecuador!

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