Cajas National Park is about twenty miles away from Cuenca. Because it is so close to a large metro area, it could suffer from having too many visitors. This is especially troubling, because 60% of the water that Cuenca drinks, comes from the Cajas area. Therefore, the park is administered by the Cuenca water district. Cajas has more lakes that any other park in the Andes. To discourage people from going there, the road to the park is about as bad as a road could be. (Generally, the roads and highways in Ecuador have been quite good; just not the major expressways that we are used to.) The road was one lane although vehicles drove in both directions, and “paved” with rounded boulders that tested our springs and tires unmercifully. Most of the people in the area have dairy cows so of course our bus ran into the milk truck that was picking up the fresh milk. Our skilled driver handled it all with aplomb.
It is hard to remember that we are on the Equator here. The park is over 10,000 feet in altitude and evening temperatures drop below freezing. We took a walk around one of the many lakes that comprise Cajas. We passed the ruins of a brewery, built by German immigrants before it was a national park. The owners as well as many other Germans, were swept up by the CIA in a general witch hunt for Nazi’s during World War II. From what the guide said, it was a lot like our internment of Japanese nationals during that same time period.
You could describe the area as a cloud forest. The fog was so enveloping it was hard to distinguish when it was drizzling from when it was just 100% humidity. Fortunately, the guide stopped regularly to point out interesting plants. This gave us the chance to catch our breaths at this high altitude. The plants confused me. Because we are on the Equator, many had a tropical appearance, but because it was so cold, they looked very different from the plants I know from Florida. Because there are no real seasons here, plants bloom year round. Because it is so cold, the flowers are all quite small. The guide pointed out a number of birds, but the vegetation was so thick, they were hard to see.
Many of the lakes outside the park have been stocked by rainbow trout imported from Canada. We feasted on them at a magnificent lodge, but were as cold inside the lodge as we had been outside hiking. None of the buildings in the Cuenca area have heat or A/C. While it is quite temperate here, 50º temperatures mean that taking a shower in our hotel room has been a challenge. Our guide said that about 10,000 expats have relocated here from the US. I would think they would want to add heaters to their homes, but that’s not the done thing. He has worked with some, helping them to find real estate to purchase here. He said that many have told him they have come here because they are so unhappy about the political situation in the US. Since our dollar is the currency here, it makes real estate transactions even easier and the prices are much lower than they are at home. Ecuador has never been on our radar as a retirement destination, but it does have many advantages including free health care.
The touring day ended early, because the trip ends tomorrow. Most of the group will fly back to Quito from Guayaquil, and we will leave the tour to stay in Guayaquil a night before we fly home late the next day. It's time to reorganize and repack for that final bus ride tomorrow.