El Cajas National Park
When planning our trip, we realized that the best way to travel between Guayaquil and Cuenca is by car. We will go from sea level to above 13,000 feet, and we will have an opportunity to stop at El Cajas National Park. Thus we hired a driver from Cuencabestours. It worked out wonderfully.
(Click on each image to see the high-resolution version)
The roads from Guayaquil to Cuenca were much better than we expected; in fact they are just as good as in the U.S. as far as mountain roads go. After a brief stop at a private cocoa farm, we made a stop at a restaurant in the Andes for lunch. From the back of the restaurant, we could see the mountain valley and the houses clinging to the slope, which was almost reminiscent of the famous Machu Pichu.
It was also at the back of the restaurant that I saw my first Green-tailed Trainbearer, a hummingbird with an elegant and elongated tail.
After some time we arrived at the park. Outside the visitor center, a few domesticated llamas were grazing on the grass. Elevation here was already near 13,000 feet (nearly 4,000 meters), and it was misty and cold. At the visitor center, I had my first canelazo of the trip, which is said to have medicinal quality to cure altitude sickness. Since I did not actually have any altitude reactions on the entire trip, I could not vouch for that (and I very much doubt so). But it was warming and delicious.
We took the hike around Laguna Toreadora. This is not a long hike, maybe 1.5 km, but the trail was muddy and slick. It was quite cloudy during the whole hike, and the pictures turned out rather dull.
Mountain Range at El Cajas
The ecosystem at this elevation is certainly very unique. It was very wet there, at least at this time of the year, and the moss-covered bog was very spongy.
The plants all look new and fascinating to me. One plant was of interest, I think this is Hercules' Club Puya (Puya clava-herculis) a type of bromeliad (pineapple) family. Unfortunately they were not blooming at this time of the year, so I did not see its famous "Hercules' Club" (the inflorescence or flowering stalk), but even its rosette (cluster of leaves) is stunning enough.
Hercules' Club Puya
Another stunningly beautiful plant is the Chuquiraga jussieui, and they were blooming.
Chuquiraga jussieui flower
And the birds. The time we visited the park was not the optimal time for birding, but the few that I saw were very distinct as well. Even their names are quite a mouthful. Most of them (such as the three shown below) were high elevation specialties. In all, I tallied 10 new birds (including en route) during this brief visit, not bad for a pass-through!