Lisa Owen

Ecuador National Park

Ecuador’s national parks are hidden gems of this underrated South American country – and the best thing is that many of them are easy to reach for backpackers.

Two unique and popular national parks in Ecuador can be reached on public bus – and they are definitely worth a visit.

Cajas National Park is located in Ecuador’s south, near the university town of Cuenca, while La Reserva de Produccion de Fauna Chimborazo, is located near Riobamba in Central Ecuador.

Cajas National Park is a lake filled, moody mountain wonderland that reminded me of the Scottish Highlands – and was not what I expected to find an hour out of Ecuador’s third largest city.

The park can be accessed by a one-hour bus ride from Cuenca at the budget price of $2 each way. It’s easy to reach the park independently and avoid the $70 USD tour price.

Buses leave for the park once every hour between 7am and 2.30pm. You’ll find the bus at the end of Cuenca’s Terminal Terreste (central bus station). Buy your tickets at the little hole in the wall at the Cooperative Occidental office. You’ll also need 10 cents to pay the platform tax when exiting the terminal to get on the bus.

Admission to the park is free, however arrive early as the park has a capacity of 92 visitors per day. You must register at the ranger station before starting your trek.

cajas view

Trails are well marked with colour coded signs or spray-painted arrows marking the route.

The trails range from moderate to hard and you can choose one suited to your ability. The rangers can give you information about the trails at the ranger station but be aware that they only speak Spanish. However, there’s handy colour-coded track maps hung on the walls of the ranger station to show distance and elevation gain and loss.

I opted for the hard hike up the Cerro San Luis peak. The rangers recommended to take the trail in an anti-clockwise direction, which means walking on the road about 1.5km until you come across a trail marker.

green trail marker

Then you simply follow the regular green wooden arrows or green spray paint. The first part of the hike winds around a moody lake, before going up. This is where you’ll start puffing, and progress will be slow with the altitude even if you’re somewhat acclimatised. The minimum elevation in the park is 3,100 metres above sea level.

The ascent can be hard work with some rock scrambling sections due to loose rocks. But once you’re at the top, all that huffing and puffing will be worth it as you get 360 degree views across the park.

There’s several high points on this trail as you walk along a ridgeline and each side offers a unique view.

The hike down is tough, with some exposure and lots of loose rocks down a steep slope – so you need to have a good head for heights and steady feet. The return trek up Cerro San Luis was about three hours.

If a hard hike is not your thing, there’s a couple of other options in the national park, such as the Laguna Toreadora trail, which winds around the lake on a flat trail.

The hike starts and ends at the ranger station and takes about two hours.

ecuador

You can find information about trails on the national park website: http://parque-nacional-cajas.org/tracks.html

To get back to Cuenca, simply wait at the bus stop on the opposite side of the road to the park entrance and signal for the bus to stop when it approaches. Buses going back to Cuenca run about every hour. The rangers will be able to tell you when the next bus is due after you finish your hike.

The La Reserva de Produccion de Fauna Chimborazo is home to the extinct Chimborazo volcano – Ecuador’s highest peak and also the highest mountain on Earth if measured from the centre of the earth.

Chimborazo Volcano stands at 6,310 metres and while its summit is only achievable for mountaineers due to snow and ice obstacles, hikers still can get a taste of the mountain by hiking up to the second refugio.

To access the volcano, take a bus from Riobamba’s Terminal Terreste (Central Bus Station).

The bus costs $2.50USD each way and you want a bus heading towards Guaranda from Riobamba.

At the time of writing, there were two transport companies offering bus services to Guranda via Chimborazo.

Ask the bus driver or the assistant to drop you at the national park entrance. It should take about an hour to reach the national park from Cuenca. If you have the Maps.Me app on your phone with the Ecuador map, you can see when you’re getting close.

From the entrance, you can choose to hike the 8km up to the first refugio, or do as I did and get a local to drive you up to the refugio.

img alt="first refugio" src="/sites/covermore_us/files/symlinks/Content/Apr-18/backpacker_ecuador_5.jpg" />When I arrived, a local man was offering rides up to the first refugio for $10 per person return.

From the first refugio (4800 metres), you can then take the hike up to the second refugio and a lagoon – an elevation gain of 300 metres.

Arriving at 5,100 metres, you’ll likely be a little bit breathless but you might also spot vicunas – a relative of the llama that lives in the high Andes.

Hiking down the volcano is much easier as you lose altitude quickly. Then you can warm up with a hot chocolate at the first refugio.

Shortly after I got back from the hike and warmed up my hands, my local driver drove me back to the park entrance. You then have to wait for a bus to come from Guaranda to pick you up and take you back to Riobamba.

If hiking and exploring the great outdoors is your thing, and you also want to bag a couple of high altitude peaks, then a visit to these parks should be top of your list on a visit to Ecuador.

Things You Should Know:

  • Both these parks sit at high altitudes. You’ll want to have spent a few days in Ecuador to acclimatise before attempting any hikes here. Be aware of any symptoms of altitude sickness such as headaches and nausea.
  • Bring plenty of water with you on your hike and take regular breaks during your ascent.
  • There’s a daily cap on hikers in Cajas National Park (92) so aim to get by around 10am. All hikers must register with the ranger station before setting out.
  • Prepare for all types of weather during both these hikes, such as rain and cold as the weather can change quickly in the mountains.  Bring a rainjacket, hat, sunscreen and warm clothing.
  • At the time of writing, entrance into both these parks was free.

 

Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 60 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @thelittleadventurer. Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the Policy Documents available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.