From the top of a crumbly peak, pools shine silver against the sky. Forest-green moss creeps along the rocky surfaces staking its claim. Surrounding the valley below is a row of pointed Andean peaks that look like a row of teeth taking one giant chomp out of the woolly clouds.

On top of the mountains here, the air is crisp. Funnily enough, on this trail in the highlands of Ecuador, there’s not a single manmade object in sight: not a road, not a home, not even a signpost offering hikers information about this barely there path. In this pocket of South America, that’s not a surprise. Located between the passionate, salsa country of Colombia and the traveller bucket-list destination that is Peru, Ecuador is like the often-overlooked, quieter middle child.

Many backpackers blow through Ecuador on the way to Machu Picchu, but those who take the time to visit this lesser-known country will discover one of the most magical places in the world. And, the tranquility of mountainous regions like El Cajas National Park offer a stunning way to see the Andes as untouched as possible.

Cajas itself is situated in the middle of Ecuador just outside of Cuenca, the country’s third-largest city with a population of 330,000. It sits perched at 4,000 m in the Andean mountains and gives outdoor enthusiasts plenty
of leg-punishing trails that traverse up sharply-angled slopes toward rocky summits.  

The park, with its gloomy conditions, heavy mists and rare plants looks like the stuff of fairy tales. Its 250 lakes and thousands of ponds mirror the sky and hazy fog clings to the 285 square kilometres of mountainous, grassy moorland. Anyone who visits this place can expect to run into about as many alpacas as they do people because even though it’s a well-known spot, the grounds beyond the entrance at the Laguna Toreadora are never cluttered. For outdoorsy types looking for a bucket-list adventure in a beautiful South American landscape without the crowds of Machu Picchu or Colombia’s Lost City trek, Cajas is exactly that.

Originally home to the indigenous Cañari people, Cajas, though brooding, rewards its guests with Andean pineapple plants, Andean bears, alpacas and their fluffy white babies, 152 bird species and rare cats. Because it’s so high up, plants are spiky and gnarled and succulents spread across the landscape like a beautiful, multi-coloured carpet. The spiky orange chuquiragua flower, native to Ecuador and Bolivia, grows only at high altitude making it special to this part of South America.

The chuquiragua flower is native to high altitude areas in Ecuador and Bolivia.
Photo: David Ceballos / Flickr

This spot is jaw-droppingly beautiful but many of its routes aren’t for the faint of heart. The terrain is often rough, temperatures are cold, and faint trails seem to disappear in places. Getting up the spines of mountains could very well require scrambling on hands and feet and hoisting your body onto a ridge after hundreds of metres of vertical climbing… all at elevation. For the adventurous soul, it’s amazing – the best way to spend a day. The view isn’t anything to sneeze at either: visualize the serrated edges of black rock cutting into white, hazy skies and kilometres of untouched land as far as the eye can see.

Of course, this place offers a challenge for those who want it but it’s also friendly to the hiker looking for a casual day in the great outdoors. The pink route, for example, is the most popular. It takes visitors on a gentle walk past the clear lake at the entrance and into a seemingly enchanted forest of curly paper trees. In places where the trail is muddy, boardwalks and steps guide the way.

Since Cajas provides water (the highest quality in Ecuador) to nearby cities like Cuenca, hikers ought to pay attention to the waterfalls that tumble down from ledges above. If it rains, embrace it — no use fighting the mountain weather. Afterwards, warm your soul and reward your exercise with fresh empanadas or hot chocolate at the visitor center.

Even though you won’t spot many others there, it’s quite simple to get to the park. The same goes for finding a place to stay nearby. Since it’s less than an hour from Cuenca, it’s reasonable to stay in a hostel and book a day trip for the morning. Cajas is one of the region’s biggest attractions so between the many hostels and the tourism businesses along Calle Larga in the city’s historic downtown, finding a tour, a guide or a driver is ridiculously easy.

Alpacas in El Cajas National Park.

Travellers who prefer to go at it alone can catch the bus that leaves from the terminal downtown. Do note that many people frequently get lost in the national park so hire a guide if attempting the lesser-known path.

To experience the area around Cajas without leaving its majestic bubble, Hosteria dos Chorreras is close by and a great place to stay. It has all the sights of an idyllic little South American spot in the mountains: cows lazily grazing in the fields, indigenous women tending to farms, country dogs roaming and the scent of firewood burning.

In addition to the challenging hiking and gorgeous scenery, Cajas offers something else. A chance to experience a truly natural environment largely untouched by humans, and where animals, like alpacas, leap and bound across the landscape. That right there is classic Cajas.

Editor’s Note: Aeromexico flies to Quito, Ecuador from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and seasonally from Calgary.