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  • Niki Harry

Ecuador: Hiking the Cajas & the Inca Trail

We wanted to do a hike in the CAJAS NATIONAL PARK and the cheapest way of doing it (next to doing it yourself and taking a huge chance of getting lost) is through a group tour. But we lucked in and ended up with only one other person with us and a private guide. We had a young girl from Russia with us and luckily she spoke english. The entrance to the park is only about a 1/2 hour drive from Cuenca which is a huge plus for outdoor enthusiasts. Our first stop and short hike was at Laguna Llaviucu and is at 11,000 feet (3200 meters). We hiked through a forest area and then down and around this marshy lake.

​We then drove further though the park and arrived at Laguna Toreadora where we started a second hike. We hiked 4 kms around several lakes in the area.

The terrain was varied with mossy plains along some sections and rocky, tundra type with hard grasses along most of it. The altitude is too high for trees to survive here. The exception are the beautiful and unique Polyepsis trees which can survive at altitudes of up to 16,400 feet.

The weather can turn on a dime here. We really lucked in seeing it was rainy season and that it did not actually rain on us. We had a beautiful warm day and then the clouds rolled in with a threat of rain and a few sprinkles but beyond that we were spared.

Here we are approaching the POLYEPSIS FOREST. The saying “enchanted forests” actually comes from the referral of these trees.

What a magical surreal place! I loved the hike through here. It was very muddy, rocky & steep along some sections and you had to do fancy maneuvers to get around and through the trees. The trees have a beautiful rose petal type papery, layered bark and the branches are twisted into really neat patterns. These trees can grow from 33 to as high as 148 feet tall! I think this was my favourite part of the hike.

Our second hike was a few days later, north of the city, where we hiked the Inca Trail and visited the biggest Inca site in Ecuador, called Ingapirca. Once again we lucked in! We paid for a group hike but when we showed up it was just the two of us. We had a driver and one guide, Adrian. We were very happy as that meant we were on our own speed and did not have to worry about someone else getting altitude sickness!

The hike started in Sangay National Park and near the town of Canar. We drove through many villages, valleys and mountainous areas. So much beautiful pristine farmland and clear views along the way.

We drove north for about 2 1/2 hours along a great highway but the last 4 kms were awful. We had to take a back road to get to the start of the hike and there were large rocks, ruts, holes and mud bogs. We had to get out a couple of times and once he actually got stuck!

The driver dropped us off and we with our guide, Adrian, continued on foot for 10kms (and I did not realize we were going to hike that far!) The driver then left us and looped around to a spot where we would come out and meet up with him.

We hiked at altitudes of 13,000 – 14,000 feet so once again there are no trees as its mostly grasslands and boggy wet areas.

Most areas around the lakes were like this. The flowery plant is so tightly intertwined that it supports quite a bit of weight. The thickness is about a foot and below it is all water. So when you are walking on it its like walking on a wet, cushy carpet.

Arriving at one of the Incan rest spots.

Excerpt from Wikipedia: “The Chasquis were highly trained runners that delivered messengers, royal delicacies or other objects during the Incan empire. They used the relay system which allowed them to convey messages over very long distances within a short period of time. Tambos or relay stations, were constructed at key points along the road system, often consisting of a small shelter with food and water. Chasquis would start at one tambo and run to the next tambo where a rested chasqui was waiting to carry the message to the next tambo. Through the chasqui system a message could be delivered from Cusco, Peru to Quito, Ecuador within a week”.

We came upon some REAL gauchos who were herding the cattle along the ridge.

Here is the actual Inca trail. I was surprised as to how wide it actually is. More like a road. The trail is 24,800 miles long and spans many countries; it starts in Ecuador and ends in Santiago, Chile. The road provided transportation for people who were traveling and also provided many military and religious purposes for the Inca. All I tried to imagine was how many feet have walked along this road over the past several hundred years and who these people might have been.

Because we didn’t arrive by bus tour and did a hike first, we got to come in the back way & not the way most tourists arrive to Ingapirca. We drove around twisty dirt roads, though local little villages, along the edges of mountains all the while I couldn’t stop staring out the window, checking out the local way of life. I am always so fascinated by the way other cultures live. There are woman herding pigs, goats or sheep. There are children walking for miles to and from school or hitching rides on the backs of vehicles if they are so lucky. There are men working in fields, tending to their crops. Life is very busy just a different type of daily grime then what we are used to.

We came upon some farm friendlies as we approached Ingapirca.

We arrived at Ingapirca (meaning”Inca Wall”). Once again we really lucked in with this day’s weather. It was rainy season and we had quite a bit of rain during the week in Cuenca, but on this day it was gorgeous and sunny for most of our hike and the tour around Ingapirca. These are the largest remaining ruins in Ecuador.

EXCERPT FROM WIKIPEDIA: “The most significant building is the Temple of the Sun, an elliptically shaped building constructed around a large rock. The building is constructed in the Inca way without mortar, as are most of the structures in the complex. The stones were carefully chiseled and fashioned to fit together perfectly. The Temple of the Sun was positioned so that on the solstices, at exactly the right time of day, sunlight would fall through the center of the doorway of the small chamber at the top of the temple. Most of this chamber has fallen down.”

​We had another 2 1/2 hour drive back to Cuenca but I was very happy that I felt good and was not affected by altitude today even with the long hike. I loved speaking with Adrian as he was very fluent in English and he told us so much about the history here, the peoples, their customs and culture. My Spanish started coming back and by the end of the day (and 5 weeks later) it starting feeling as if I was part of all of this, as if I belonged here.

The next day we were packing again and off to the southern part of Ecuador, down to VILCABAMBA, “THE VALLEY OF LONGEVITY”.

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