While the Galapagos Islands are the biggest driver of tourism to Ecuador, visitors to this beautiful country would do well to explore the mainland and sample some of the culture, food, and historic architecture it has to offer.
Most travellers to Ecuador will satisfy these appetites by spending a little time in Quito, the countries capital, but there are other gems to explore, perhaps less well known, but with a great deal to offer.
A visit to the city of Cuenca is a great way to become better acquainted with Ecuador. With its impressive cathedral, bustling street markets and colonial architecture, Cuenca knits the Hispanic influence together with the indigenous Andean culture into a fusion that truly represents modern Ecuador.
With the holiday of All Soul’s Day looming, we decided to take a family road trip to Cuenca from Guayaquil to get reacquainted with this fascinating city. The fastest route to Cuenca from Guayaquil takes around three and a half hours (if the road is open) through lush, lowland banana plantations, before winding its way up into the mighty, cloud-shrouded Andes.
The road passes through the Cajas national park, with its dramatic peaks and multitudinous lakes, and I made a mental note to return there to enjoy its breath-taking scenery. Our destination was a beautiful lodge, high on a mountainside around half an hour from the city centre.
The lodge is called ‘Allyu’, which means ‘family’ in the Ketchua language of the region, and the welcome you will receive there from the hosts makes you feel as though you are indeed part of a family.
The rooms are comfortable, each capable of accommodating a family of six, and there is ample communal space both indoor and outdoor if you don’t feel like venturing out. There are hammocks, table football, a pool table and board games at your disposal all at no extra cost, and the children can enjoy riding the ‘cuadrones’ (low power, four-wheel automatic motorcycles) around the extensive property.
The food is good, breakfast and evening meals are included in the price, and lunch can be taken there too for a small additional charge. Allyu serves traditional Ecuadorean dishes like motte and yapingacho, although more familiar staples such as egg and chips are available for the less adventurous palette.
Not far from the hotel is a riding centre, where for $40 per person, you can spend two hours horse riding through some memorable countryside and along a high mountain ridge. With it’s spectacular 360-degree views over the lowland valleys, this is an experience not to be missed. The easy riding style and relaxed guides make this experience accessible even for a novice rider like me.
Our ride finished conveniently back at the hostel and we spent a relaxed evening playing pool and enjoying a meal of home cooked pizza. We enjoyed adding our own toppings to the dough, before they were cooked in the outdoor pizza oven for a fantastic al fresco experience.
When driving through the countryside around Ecuador you cannot fail to see the many restaurants displaying the most popular dish of the highlands – roast pork. The roasted pigs can be seen hanging by the road, or turning on giant rotisseries to entice visitors to eat there.
One such restaurant is located a short drive from Ayllu, on the main road to Cuenca, and here we watched the revolving pigs being roasted while a seemingly endless procession of hungry travellers stopped to eat, and to enjoy the uninterrupted views of the valley and hillside behind.
Cajas National Park
The next day was the part I had been waiting for, the hike through Cajas national park. We arrived around 10am and registered our names with the park authorities before setting off on one of the trails. At 285 square kilometres, the park is huge, with trails of varying length and difficulty and it is not difficult to get lost if you don’t follow a trail.
The ground can be testing, so suitable footwear is a must. Take water or electrolytes with you and snacks for energy. Make sure that you wear sun protection and thin layers of clothing that can be easily removed and stowed, if necessary; the temperature in Cajas can vary dramatically between cold enough to snow and warm enough to make you shed the layers.
Cajas national park is just under 4000m high, so altitude is an important consideration. Small climbs can be harder work than you expect so if you are new to high altitudes, hiking in Cajas is best left for a few days after arriving to Cuenca to give your body time to adapt to an environment with less oxygen. It was mostly cloudy while we were there and the sun seldom seemed to emerge, but at high altitudes, where the atmosphere is thinner, the sun can be ferocious even at low temperatures.
We set off on a circuit of the lake near the entrance that was supposed to take a couple of hours. Our plan was to hike around the lake, check out the forest on the far side, then make our way back. With it’s almost alien landscape, Cajas National Park did not disappoint. Twisting watercourses cut through the terrain at regular intervals on their way down to the lake below us, at times dipping out of sight below ground, with a thunderous, gurgling noise that spoke of the huge forces at work beneath our feet.
The mountains around us were a patchwork of grass and bare rock. Strange plants with thick, pointed leaves that barely moved when touched, sprouted here and there, amidst the clumps of long grass that peppered the landscape, while the occasional cacti or aloe vera looked strangely out of place in this cool wilderness.
It wasn’t until we had been walking for around twenty minutes, as we stood admiring the lake from the water’s edge, that I realised there was a near complete absence of animal or insect life around us.
Once on the other side of the lake, we located the trail post that pointed towards the forest and followed the path as the trail rose in front of us. I was surprised at the effort it took to cope with the gentle incline of the slope and had to stop at the top of a rise to catch my breath. We were on the side of a hill with far reaching views over a valley on our right-hand side.
A little further brought us to the edge of an extraordinary forest of twisted coniferous trees that seemed to cling directly to the rocks on the hillside. We followed the path downhill, over surface roots and rocks, eventually coming out at the bottom of narrow valley with a stream running through short, spongy moss-like grass. Here and there, small pools of water had collected in depressions in the earth, only to be marooned as the rainwaters departed.
Here we were treated to the sight of a small bird bathing and splashing in one of the pools – one of only two birds that I would see in our trip to Cajas. We had reached the end of this trail, so Alejandro consulted his watch to check our progress. We had been hiking for two hours and had covered just under 5k; not a huge distance but packed with fascinating topography and incredible vistas.
We made our way back through the forest and around the final section of the lake. By the time we left the park it was early afternoon, and the line of parked visitors cars stretched for hundreds of metres back towards Cuenca. I had a healthy ache in my legs but that was fine, Loly and I had booked an evening at Piedra de Agua Fuente, to relax in the thermal springs before the long drive back to Guayaquil in the morning.