There is something about a windswept, lonely place that draws me in. It’s the escape from the bustling crowds and the diesel. Living in Ecuador’s third largest city is sometimes a challenge simply because it is a city. When I first arrived, I thought I was suffering from culture-shock. I think a lot of the shock was simply adjusting to city life. I’ve adapted, but I still need to escape regularly – to breathe fresh air and wipe the grime from my face.
New Zealand has the Middle Earth claim-to-fame. But the Andes could have easily played a starring role as the Misty Mountains in Lord of the Rings.
Cajas National Park is a place to get excited about weather. Apparently, there are days when the clouds disappear. Those days are rare. For now, I get to do something I haven’t done in a very long time, simply watch the clouds pass by. For those of you who speak some Spanish, and are wondering why would they name a park after ‘boxes’ (yes, cajas = boxes), the name is actually derived from the indigenous Quichua word, cassa, which means ‘gateway to the snowy mountains.’
I’ve been tied to my computer for a few weeks as I piece together an introductory meteorology course for advanced science students. But, in celebration of the three-day Easter weekend (Good Friday is a national holiday here), last weekend I joined a tour to Cajas National Park with some of the other students at my Spanish school. It’s not the first time I’ve been there. In fact, I was in the outskirts of the park just a week prior, when we visited Santuario de la Virgen de El Cajas to check on a weather station. But this was my first semi-big hiking opportunity.
We started our tour in a lower part of the park (lower = 10,500 feet), and took a circuit around a lake surrounded by a humid, subtropical forest. Walking through this mystical forest, I really felt like I was in Middle Earth. It was exhilarating.
But at the same time, it was disturbing to hear that of all the sub-tropical cloud forests of this type that once existed in the Andes, only about 10% remain. All of the remaining cloud forests are on protected land, and the ones that are gone have been replaced by non-native species, like the Eucalyptus, that grow everywhere in Cuenca.
Likewise, of all the species of fish in the streams and lakes in Cajas, the only one that remains is trout, a non-native species introduced in the mid-20th century. Everything else is gone. It’s sobering to witness the changes that have occurred, both due to local practices in clear-cutting and fishing, and the changes associated with a shifting global climate. There is a documented movement of many species uphill, as temperatures warm.
The lake we hiked around is called ‘Llaviucu’ (Yavi-00k-oo), and it’s one of the sources of the Rio Tomebamba that flows through the center of Cuenca – also a source of the city’s water supply. This lake is a major hot spot for birders. It’s has plenty of places for birds to hide, and is a bit protected from the elements, cradled in this little mountain valley.
From there, we spent a couple of hours hiking downhill across the páramo (the high altitude Andean grassland). While my hiking partners and I gaped at the spectacular, glacial-carved vistas, our guide made certain that we didn’t miss the amazing world beneath our feet.
Grassland seems like such a boring word to describe the páramo. If you put your nose to the ground anywhere in the park, you’re likely to find plants you’ve never seen before. There are ferns of all shapes and sizes (the red plants pictured above are a type of fern), little yellow and red tulip-like flowers that apparently never open up. Because they remain closed, they can only be pollinated by hummingbirds. Ingenious. Many of the little green star-shaped plants in the picture above have the feel of a plastic shower mat.
Understanding how the páramo stores water beneath these other-worldly plants is the key to understanding how this water can continue to support the growing population of Cuenca and surrounding cities. A change in rainfall patterns could affect how this water is stored and distributed. This is the primary focus of work by many of my colleagues at the University of Cuenca.
We were really lucky to have a dry day for our hike. Occasionally, a bit of blue sky poked through the clouds, but it was a nice change from the wet weather pattern that brought drenching rains up from the Amazon for most of the month of March.
Despite the dry day, the trail was still quite squishy in places, and there were a few streams for us to leap over. We descended about 1000 feet on this hike to the parking lot where a van met us for the return trip to Cuenca.
I love how the clouds shift constantly – hiding and revealing jagged mountain peaks. I hope to return to the park on an even drier day before I leave Ecuador for a chance at getting a view in full sunlight light.