Cajas National Park is one of the most unique high altitude hiking areas in the world and one of the most beautiful parts of Ecuador. The many trails can be done on a day trip from Cuenca without the need for an expensive tour using this Cajas hiking guide.
Cajas National Park Information
The park sits 30 kilometers west of Cuenca in the Ecuadorian highlands. Covering an area of over 28,000 hectares, the high altitude grassland ranges in elevation between 3,100 and 4,450 meters. This area is part of the Páramo wilderness which extends from western Venezuela to Northern Peru, and is characterized by high levels of precipitation, cool temperatures, high humidity and dry winds. Considered a water factory, this area supplies 60% of Cuenca’s fresh drinking water.
Things to Know Before Hiking in Cajas
You need to register at the park office before hiking, but you will not have to sign out after the hike. Entry is free unless you plan on camping, in which case the fee is $4 for foreigners and $2 for nationals. The park office is on the main road and conveniently located to, well, almost nothing. If you don’t have your own car, you will be stuck hiking only the short trails close to the office, or you will need to hitchhike, flag down a bus or walk several kilometers on the main road to reach longer routes (more on this below).
The main trails around the park office are well marked and easy to follow, but many of the lesser used trails on the south side of the highway have almost no signage and tend to be overgrown. Do not attempt to hike these areas if you don’t have a GPS map (we use maps.me) and a good sense of direction. We spent lots of time searching for trails, which significantly lengthened our hiking time.
Cajas is a high altitude Páramo area, meaning that it is wet, windy and COLD. Dressing in layers and bringing a raincoat, warm hat, gloves and waterproof hiking boots is essential for comfort and safety.
The trails in the park tend to be rocky and muddy. In addition, most are located between 3,700 and 4,200 meters elevation, meaning that the altitude will make hiking more difficult if you are not used to this oxygen density. Expect this to add to your normal hiking speeds. Fortunately for us, we had recently spent lots of time hiking at elevation in Ecuador including trekking the Quilotoa Loop, day hiking Cotopaxi Volcano and exploring Pululahua Crater.
While it is essential to bring plenty of snacks or food if you plan on doing remote trails or trekking, it is not as important to carry tons of water. IF, of course, you are carrying a water filter or tablets. This area is absolutely covered with water sources, so refilling is easy with proper precautions. We always carry a Sawyer Squeeze filter in our minimalist backpacks.
Hiking in Cajas
Cajas National Park has eight numbered trails plus another seven unmarked, ranging in length from one kilometer to over thirty. These can be done individually as day hikes or can be linked into multi day treks. There are several areas which allow camping, as shown on the park map. Of note, the trail names on the paper park map differ from those mentioned on the park website, as well as those shown on maps.me.
If you have your own car, you can park near the entry to most hikes. You would simply need to turn your route into a loop or find another way to get back to the car. If, like us, you arrive by bus, you will have a little more difficulty in reaching your trails.
We hiked in Cajas for two days. On the first day, we got off the bus at the park office and registered. They provided us with a good map of the park including numbered trails and basic contour lines with elevation profile. The officer also recommended that we take Trail 3 based on our interest in a six hour hike. This trailhead was located two kilometers up the road, which required us to walk along the highway to reach the entry point (exact logistics of this hike are below).
On the second day, we wanted to hike on the south side of the highway to see different landscape. Using our park map, we chose to start our hike on Trail 4, which is significantly further up the road from the park office. Without a car and not wanting to walk several kilometers uphill on the highway to reach the trail, we opted to ride the bus past the office and get off directly at the trail head. This meant not registering with the office for our second hike. To be fair, we did tell them on the first day that we wanted to hike two days, but they wanted us to come back and register again instead of taking care of it all at once. We do realize that registration is a safety precaution in case you get lost, but without a way to sign out after your hike, it would take a long time before anyone realized you hadn’t returned. We are not typically rule breakers and are not recommending to skip registration, we are simply pointing out that the lack of transportation infrastructure from the office makes further hikes difficult if you first stop to register. Regardless, we feel it is essential to visit on your first day, sign in and get a map.
How to get to Cajas National Park from Cuenca
The easiest way to reach Cajas is from nearby Cuenca. Buses leave from both the main terminal, Terrestre adjacent the airport, and the South terminal. Terrestre has more frequent departures and is more conveniently located to the old town where most travelers stay. And don’t forget to be careful on buses in Ecuador! We met many travelers who were robbed because they didn’t follow these basic tips for bus safety.
From the old town area, you can either take a taxi to the Terrestre Station for around $2, or walk. Depending on the location of your accommodation in old town, the walk should be around 20-25 minutes and two or so kilometers.
There is one company which operates direct buses to Cajas from Terrestre, with morning departure times at 5:30, 6:15, 7:00, 8:00, 9:15 and 10:20. Our 8:00 bus was half empty in September low season and we were the only hikers.
This bus company is a little difficult to find in the terminal. Their booth, number 40, is set apart from the other larger ticket offices. You need to walk to the back of the terminal and find the hall which runs parallel to the line of buses out back. Once in this hall, turn right to reach the northern corner of the terminal. On the left near the end will be a green booth with Cajas written on the top. Tickets are $2. Before going through the turnstiles to the buses you need to pay $.10 station tax at the kiosk and give the attendant your receipt. Our trip took around 50 minutes to the park office.
You could also take any of the buses leaving for Guayaquil, all of which drive through Cajas en route, and simply hop out at the park office. There are many departure and this would be a good option if you arrive at an off time.
We hiked in Cajas for two days, but decided to stay in Cuenca in between instead of staying at one of the few nearby hotels. With transport to and from being relatively quick and easy, we were happy with this decision. Of note, there are a few refugios inside the park for trekkers, although we did not visit one so cannot comment on these.
How to Get Back to Cuenca From Cajas
If your hiking loops ends back on the main highway through the park, simply flag down any eastbound bus to return to Cuenca. Every bus going this direction will be heading to or through there, so returning isn’t difficult. There are numerous buses, and the return should also be $2. Most people hiking on the trails starting around the office will end near the police control station at the east entrance of the park. Most people wait for a bus here, although this isn’t necessary.
After our second day of hiking, we ended on the road far from the office. It was raining and cold and we were generally tired and miserable. In less than 90 seconds on the road, a local passerby stopped and offered us a ride back to Cuenca. We had not been hitchhiking, but quickly accepted the offer.
Our Hiking Routes
Day One – Trail 3
Trail 3 name: Valle de Quinuas on park map / Via a Patul on maps.me.
To access this trail, we walked a little over two kilometers west on the highway from the park office. On the road you first pass the entrance to Trail 2 before reaching the start of Trail 3. This is a multi use path which is shared by horses so is mostly wide and well defined.
The hike ascends gently going north until it reaches the high point. The ground is covered with unique high altitude plants and flowers. If you are lucky to have clear weather, the views on this section are wide.
Once at the turn, follow the signs to go right and begin a moderately downhill or flat route for the remaining portion. You will pass a series of lakes and streams with a few waterfalls.
As the trail continues to descend, shrubbery will get taller and more pronounced. The hike will end at a point on the highway much further east than the starting point. From here, you simply turn left and walk east 1.5 kilometers until you reach the police control booth and catch a bus back to Cuenca. We first stopped for lunch at the restaurant next door, which serves an amazing local trout (trucha) platter, including rice, salad, fried potatoes and avocado for $5.
Distance of trail: 9.5 k / 5.7 mi
Distance including road: 13.3 k / 8 mi
Starting elevation: 4,057 m / 13,312 ft
Peak elevation: 4,182 m / 13,722 ft
Ending elevation: 3,735 m / 12,254 ft
Total time: 5 hours
Day Two – Trail 4 to Trail 7 to Trail 6
Trail 4 name: Caminos Historicos on park map, Sendero a Luspa on maps.me
Trail 7 name: Camino del Inca y la Lagunas Mayores on park map, Sendero a Luspa on maps.me
Trail 6 name: Al Encuentro con el Valle de las Burines on park map, Hacia Burines on maps.me
As mentioned, we chose to get off the bus directly at the trailhead for Trail 4. This is located in the western portion of the park along the main highway. We were immediately greeted by a herd of wild llamas.
At the trailhead, there is an optional climb to a nearby viewpoint on the left (not shown on maps.me), which we skipped due to low cloud cover. The route from here starts with a fairly steep descent into the valley. We saw a number of different plants than the previous day, including lots of thick and unique moss beds. We also saw many birds and evidence of other larger animals.
From the start point, the path winds south between a series of lakes for 3.5 kilometers before meeting up with Trail 7. Here begins the most distant and least trodden part of the hike, and was very hard to find at times. There are no signs and the purple paint markers have mostly faded from the rocks. We spent lots of time losing and finding our way on this section, so keep a close eye on the GPS. Even with this, we found our app often showed the trail in unlikely locations, so stay alert.
After a frustrating 4.8 kilometers east across a generally flat yet muddy terrain, the trail connects to several others. We linked in to the western portion of Trail 6, which heads north for 2.8 kilometers to the highway.
This is a more worn section and much easier to follow, although it includes the only notable climb of the day which seems tougher due to elevation. Once over the pass, there is a short hike to reach the road where you can flag down a bus and avoid walking any further. As mentioned, we were picked up by a very friendly local hiker and taken back to Cuenca.
Distance of trail: 12.7 k / 7.6 mi
Starting elevation: 4,169 m / 13,678 ft
Peak elevation: 4,169 m / 13,678 ft
Ending elevation: 3,960 m / 12,992 ft
Total time: 5 hours including time searching for the trail
Packing Essentials for a Cajas Hiking Trip
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Warm jacket for layering
- Water bottle
- Water filter
- Backpack with rain cover
- Park map
- GPS map
We hope that this hiking guide to Cajas National Park was helpful. If you are heading into Peru next, you can read our very detailed account of the Aguas Verdes border crossing. Want other inspiration in Ecuador? Here is our travel photo gallery for our trip.
If you enjoy hiking in remote wilderness, then you will love these other hiking guides from our trip:
- Trekkers Guide to the Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
- 4.5 Epic Japanese Day Hikes: A Hiking Guide to Japan’s Wilderness
- The Only Complete Guide to Hiking in El Cocuy National Park, Colombia
- Complete Guide to Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
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