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For all of the beauty in nature surrounding Cuenca, I am surprised that not as many locals take advantage of the opportunities that lie in their backyard. I believe that can be said in most corners of the world, but the Cajas National Park is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and it lies just 30km from Cuenca. Its terrain and ecology are fascinating and could make for a mesmerizing backdrop in a Narnia-like movie. The mountains, hills and rock formations fascinate me and make me question the geological history of the park. The park is 285 square kilometers, covered in mountains, hills, and marshlands with over 200 lakes inside.

One group that promotes a culture of hiking and appreciating local nature sites in and around Cuenca is Club Sangay. The club was founded in 1968 and is named after the Sangay volcano which is just a few hours northeast of Cuenca in the Amazon region. The club organizes at least 2 hikes or trips per month. While Cajas National Park is a frequent destination given its countless terrain to explore, the group also visits other mountains in the region for day trips, and organizes longer 3-4 day trips within Ecuador or even Peru. The club rates each hike based on physical difficulty and technical difficulty. Speaking from personal experience, the “intermediate” level is quite challenging, especially given the duration of the hikes (upwards of 8 hours), the steep terrain, and the high altitudes in the sierra region of Ecuador. Club Sangay also organizes monthly hikes for children to promote family activities.

The club attracts participation from locals of all ages, ranging from their 20s to their 60s. I’ve noticed that most hikers come solo. Very few come with other friends or as couples. As an outsider it is beautiful to see how each person comes for the pure enjoyment of nature and is happy to fly solo. Club Sangay is a community where lovers of nature can come together, experience what mother Earth has to offer, and build friendships. The group is incredibly welcoming, and is happy to have anyone join (yes, foreigners). For me, it has been an incredible way to experience hikes and new places that one could never do without an expert guide, and to immerse into a subculture that shares some same values as me.

Club Sangay is fully volunteer-run. Each excursion will have at least three volunteer guide experts. These are locals who have a passion for hiking, have expert knowledge on the parks and trails, and are trained to assist with any physical or medical issues. The cost of each hike (usually about $15 for the day trips) pays for transportation and maintenance of the club.

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We recently went on the hike at “Cerro de Ciprialles” in Cajas National Park. We passed nearly 8 hours exploring the beautiful terrain of the park. We started towards the steep incline of Tres Cruces, and ventured deep into the park. I should have learned my lesson before, but this intermediate level hike was far from easy for me. The steep inclines ensued and ensued until we found snow and hail. In Ecuador. Never in my life would I have expected to see snow in Ecuador. It truly is the country of four worlds. I wouldn’t be surprised if we reached 4,500 meters on this trek. Phew. Despite the physical challenge and at times frustration to keep walking upwards, days like these are ones to be remembered for a lifetime.

I highly encourage all visitors and backpackers in Cuenca to look into a Club Sangay hike. You should assess your level of physical fitness and take into consideration what your body can handle. If you are capable, you will see parts of Ecuador that are not accessible to the average traveler, and surely have a wonderful time.

To get involved, check out Club Sangay’s facebook page for upcoming events. You must buy a ticket prior to the hike, which can be purchased at various locations in centro. Each sales location has a printed schedule of the year’s schedule of activities, which is handy to pick up if you are in the area for a while. All hikes meet in front of the Club’s meeting spot, Sucre 3-12 y Tomas Ordoñez, at early hours of the morning.

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“El universo es una especie de libro del cual uno no ha leido más que la primera página cuando solo ha visto su país.” – Fougeret de Monbron (1720-1761), escritor frances

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3 comments
  • Frank Huthnance
    Frank Huthnance | November 2, 2016

    I very much enjoyed your article about hiking in Cajas. My family and I lived in Cuenca from 1985 through 1993. That was back when even getting to Cajas was an ordeal and impossible without a 4×4. At least once a month we would go hiking, fishing and camping in cajas with our six daughters. One of our most memorable hikes was from the refugio to Soldados with an overnight stop at Osohuaico lake. When we woke in the morning we found our tents covered in snow. Another memorable trip was a five day hike to the coast. We walked the Inca trail to the ridge above Molleturo and then and followed an ancient trail descending to the left. The ridge above Molleturo is so high and inaccessible that the Inca road is almost fully intact. There still stands a one-room stone Inca house next to the trail and farther along on a promontory is an Inca reservoir constructed entirely of fitted stones. In all of the literature I have read about the Incas, I never read about reservoirs, but I saw one, still functional. If you would like information on how to make this trek, call Hernan Loyola in Cuenca. He was a Cajas Park Ranger for 5 years, and knows all the trails.

    • admin_kelly
      admin_kelly | November 6, 2016

      Wow! Thanks for sharing your experience, Frank! That is totally awesome that you could explore Ecuador so much with your family. Your hikes sound magical! We love hiking new places, but you’re right so much of it is inaccessible that you really need to know what you’re doing or find someone who does! I would love to see the Inca trail one day.

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