I learned a new word in Ecuador.
I thought we English speakers were the only ones radical enough to use “hairy” as in:
“…difficult, not easy, undesirable, i.e. ‘a hairy situation’ – such as accidentally zipping one’s privates into one’s pants.”
But it seems that South Americans are also as talented. 10 points.
Well Pablo and I, while hiking through Ecuador’s Cajas National Park outside of Cuenca had a very peluda experience indeed.
Before getting into the hairy details, I will state for the record that Cajas is a mighty fine national park indeed and I don’t regret for a minute having traipsed through it.
It sports an odd shade of greyish, yellowish green I’d never before seen on Earth. There are lakes. Mountains. Strange plants that seem better placed in the Jurassic period. Corners to doze in. Little carpets of tiny flowers.
It’s like a demigod’s answer to what you should do on a weekend.
A demigod with a warped sense of humor, that is.
The short Ruta 1 is the classic hike leaving from Toreadora refuge. But Pablo and I were both keen hikers in need of a serious leg-stretcher, and were informed that there was a much longer walk crossing the national park from the Toreadora to Llaviucu refuge. The idea was to arrive at the second refuge, stay the night and catch a bus back to Cuenca the next morning…all of which we were told was possible with a swift pace. And good weather gear.
Our day began beautifully at 6.30am. The sun shone in that golden-edged way particular to good health and a singing soul, and continued to do so until we reached the other side of Taitachungo (Mamamag) Lagoon and realised that the route was no longer clear. We scouted the area, and basing our logic on its almost-to-scale map offered at Toreadora, selected what seemed like the correct direction. To this day I can’t say with certainty that it was; seeing as we ended up clinging to the edge of several steep descents that seemed dangerously unlike anything we’d been told to expect.
It was in the middle of one of these descents – a grassless wonder resembling a small cliff – that the sky split in two and began delivering forth the type of heavy, drenching rain I’d never before had the misfortune to experience outdoors.
Soon after, the rain’s evil twin, hail, came along to mess with our minds.
Having walked 6 hours already that day it would have been impossible to turn back and still arrive by dark. And so we continued. Scrambling down a small cliff – that in the rain had become a waterfall – towards a forest which on our map seemed enormous.
Completely soaked, we continued on, walking soldier-like through the forest streams the downpour had created. These streams continued to pick up pace and the hail bounced off our bodies while we marched on without rest. As we weren’t clear we were in the right place, we simply followed the streams/paths as they flowed downhill. We couldn’t be sure it was exactly the right direction to take, but it was clear that Llaviucu was not to be found up the descent we’d just completed.
At this point, had either of us slipped the likelihood of injury would have been very high. Mossy, uneven rocks lay silently beneath the running water and mud, and any help was at the other end of the forest – an untold distance away. To not become overwhelmed, I entered into a state of mind I can only describe as “like a video game,” kind of an out-of-body experience, where I simply went on, as retreating was out of the question.
It seemed that the instinct to follow the streams was the right one, and after an hour or so we spotted two llamas in the distance. Even though the rain had not let up the sight of the llamas was very calming, as we knew that where there were animals, there would be people not too far away.
After another hour we arrived at Llaviucu refuge…only to see that it was boarded up and closed for the season. Both of us were shivering and soaked right through to our underwear in cold rainwater, while Pablo was experiencing worrying chest-freezing symptoms. Night would be falling shortly after, dropping the temperature with it. At the bottom of my pack we had two plastic-wrapped t-shirts, and it was looking like breaking a window and crawling up somewhere in the locked refuge was the only thing to do. The consequences would have to be dealt with later.
Amazingly, we didn’t have to worry.
Still to this day we are so immensely grateful to a young Ecuadorian man walking towards us at that moment. The aptly named Ángel and his one-year-old boy had been spending some father-son time, and were heading back to their car just as we were contemplating smashing a window. We were, it turned out, not far from a highway. He was shocked when he heard we had come from Toreadora refuge, and told us that no one does the hike we’d just finished in one day. Weather conditions were too variable, he said, and many people got lost.
On the way home to Cuenca, our fingers were so numb that we couldn’t break our panela in half. We had to pass this soft, chewy, high-energy slice to Ángel, who broke it for us.
We were lucky. The hike from Toreadora to Llaviucu refuge is indicated on the map and suggested as “difficult” by the rangers. But in practice it is not clearly marked. At least not in the places where several possible directions open themselves up to you. We did it in 8 hours, though the signposts indicated 9 – 10. Most importantly (and alarmingly) the weather is viciously fickle. On any hike in Cajas National Park, you will need every wet and cold weather piece of mountain gear you own…and spares. The morning sun you might see is absolutely no indication of a dry day.
We don’t have any photos of the difficult part of our hike. Needless to say, recording the moment rated second to not slipping on a wet rock. We only have this one, taken when we first saw the refuge in the distance.
- Cajas National Park is a seriously large splotch of pure nature waiting to be traipsed through and – if our experience is anything to go by – lost in if one isn’t careful. Many treks snake along its plains, mostly only one to four hours long.
- The park lies 35km from Cuenca and can be reached by any bus leaving for Guayaquil. Hop off at Toreadora, the main entrance. Here, you’ll sign in. Maps, coffee and basic (expensive) snacks are available.
- There is a refuge at Toreadora for those who wish to stay the night. It is equipped with a functioning kitchen, bathroom, simple bunk beds and fireplace. Bring food and matches. Also bring more warm clothes than you imagine you’ll need – bedclothes are not provided and no one seemed to use the fireplace.
- Among the trails on offer, the Ruta 1 is the standard do-it-yourself affair. Longer options are available as well, but many require guiding as they are partly or wholly unsigned.
- As advised, we hiked the Ruta 6 until its intersection with Ruta 7. It took two hours to get to the intersection, where a signpost suggested 8.5 hours to go. However in total, we walked 8 hours.
- Wet weather and warm clothing is essential. We were well prepared, but still got completely ambushed by the weather.