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Cheap Travels around Cajas Cuenca Ecuador

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On the grand South American travel circuit, the relatively small country of Ecuador is often overlooked. Visitors either stop because it is the only jump-off point to the Galápagos Islands, or travelers pass through between Machu Picchu Peru and Colombia. Some backpackers and mountaineers visit a few of the more well-known regions, like the capital Quito, and the famous peaks of the volcano alley.

Within the lightly traveled country, Cajas National Park remains almost a secret.

During our few days there, we didn’t encounter any other tourists. Yet, El Cajas offers some of the most accessible trekking, photography, and wildlife watching in the northern Andes.

The city a destination itself - Based in the colonial city of Cuenca, which lies about 20 miles east of the park, we spent several days hiking and exploring the mountains. Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city and capital of the Azuay Province, offers plenty of affordable accommodations and eateries.

The center of the city harbors many historic buildings, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it a destination in itself. Nestled comfortably at 8,000 feet, spending a few nights here will also help with acclimatization and prevent altitude sickness when venturing into the nearby mountains.

On our first day in the park, we visited Laguna Toreadora, the largest of the more than 250 lakes found here. The main visitor center and entrance are located here, and park rangers can provide maps plus current information. Bus drivers know the spot and regularly stop here.

We crossed a grassy flat, nibbled down to turf by domesticated llamas, and started the path circumnavigating the lake. Black cliffs reflected in the leaden water, and dense cumulus rolled over the distant peaks.

What at first glance looked like sparse and weather-beaten country revealed countless delicate flowers, lichens, and mosses upon closer inspection. Numerous plants in the region are found nowhere else on earth.

Within protected ravines and along twisting shorelines grow stands of polylepis trees, with their distinct copper bark that peels in thin flakes from gnarled branches. These plants grow at some of the highest elevations of any trees on earth. The crooked trunks created an impenetrable maze above thick mats of cool green moss.

Within this stunted forest, the wind died, and an otherworldly silence dripped from wet leaves. Except for the shy twitter of a few hardy birds, the world lay hushed.

The main highway winds west from Cuenca into the mountains, past frothing streams spilling down valleys and steep pastures. It crosses the Continental Divide at Tres Cruces before dropping toward the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populous city. Bisecting the park, the highway allows access to many trails via regular and cheap public transport. Rains falling on the eastern slope drain into the Tomebamba and Yanuncay Rivers, which eventually flow into the Amazon Basin.

We walked deeper into the park on our second day. After the accommodating bus driver had dropped us off at Tres Cruces, we planned to hike the Parade Patul Virgin all the way to the eastern edge of the park and catch a bus back into Cuenca from the main road.

We tromped for hours below a checkered sky of blue racing clouds. The mood of the mountains changed with the fickle weather — from endless miles of inviting, bright, straw-colored hills to brooding lumps of rock, ominous and gray in a quiet drizzle.

The Andes can be surprisingly mild for the high elevations, but conditions can change rapidly, and it’s important to come prepared.

We ate some food by one of dozens of small lakes and admired the puya plants (bromeliads unique to the Andes), their tall flowering stalks defying the harsh climate.

We also kept a lookout for some of the famous animals of the Andes, but the view remained relatively empty. The park protects some of the best preserved wild lands in Ecuador and its respective denizens, which include spectacled bears and pumas. No worries, though — the chances of encountering one of these rare animals are remote. A few Andean condors still extend their massive 10-foot wings above the inaccessible high country and canyons.

The antithesis in size (but not name), the giant hummingbird visits agave flowers and is seen more often.

A second entrance at lower elevations allows access to the long Inca Trail, a multi-day trek that requires guides and gear. For shorter adventures, it is worth the visit to see the lagoon and surrounding cloud forest that thrives in the more forgiving climate. The entrance here also has a ranger station that can provide maps and information.

We wandered through misty forest hemmed by steep walls. The valley here offered glimpses of Ecuadorian pastoral life, with thatch-roofed houses scattered on green pastures and cows grazing impossible inclines. We also had a few tense moments with local dogs, a bit overeager in staking out their territories.

Before calling it a day, we stopped in one of the restaurants along the main highway, which specialized in trout raised in clear brooks in the valley. It turned out to be a delicious finish to a calf burning but memorable few days.

"Ingapirca Inca Ruins" in Ecuador - If a break from the mountains is needed, Ingapirca, the largest known Inca ruin in Ecuador, is an easy day trip from Cuenca. The remains of Ingapirca (which roughly translates as "Inca Wall") stand atop dry windswept hills, offering panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.

At the center of the site stands the Temple of the Sun, an elliptical structure of sand-colored brick. The remaining walls are a great example of the traditional construction method of the Inca. Perfectly fitted fieldstones form narrow hallways, stairs and long walls.

The ruins date from the 15th century, but were built atop older structures. The Inca were not the original inhabitants, but usurped the area from the Canari. Eventually, after living peacefully in close proximity, both groups merged.

The ruins are open daily and it takes about two hours by public bus from Cuenca to get there.

Beyond Cuenca, Cajas and Ingapirca waits the rest of Ecuador, with more mountains, jungle and history to be explored.

Ecuador Travel at Agosto 15, 2011 09:18 AM