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The International Writers Magazine:: El Cajas National Park, Azuay Province, Ecuador. 

No Flaws with Cajas
Tyrel Nelson

With some free time at last, I felt relieved as the monstrous bus roared westward through the green hills just outside of Cuenca. Given that I had spent the previous six weeks learning the ropes of my new job with CEDEI (Centros de Estudios Interamericanos) and finally securing a place to call home, this was actually my first time leaving the capital of the Azuay province.
While the coach continued to angrily snake its way through Ecuador’s Southern Sierra Andes, I was suddenly distracted by something in the corner of my left eye. It was my fellow English teacher, Emily, looking at me with a concerned expression on her face.
"I hope we know where to get off," she said to me as we approached some cabins to our right.

I knew the bus ride to El Cajas National Park was approximately an hour from Cuenca and we had been on the road for about that long, but I, too, was unsure of our drop-off point. Not taking any chances with missing our stop, I turned to the old Ecuadorian gentleman across the aisle with whom I had been chatting.
"Do we get off here," I asked.
"Well, what do you want to see? Countryside? Lagoons? Did you bring your cameras," he inquired.
I relayed the questions to my fair-skinned friend and she confirmed that she wanted to appreciate the scenery.
"Yeah, we want to see it all," I told the Ecuadorian.
"Don’t get off here then," he advised. "Let the bus take you up higher. There are beautiful views and many lagoons you can see. Plus, it’s easier to walk downhill when you get tired."
From out of nowhere, the stocky cobrador (fare collector) appeared in front of me.
"What part of Cajas do you want to see," he asked.
Before I could respond, my newfound bus friend told the dark-skinned youth about a lagoon up the road some ways. The fare collector nodded his head and quickly returned to the front of the bus.
A few minutes later, the cobrador shouted that we were almost at the point where Emily and I should exit. I quickly stood up, shook hands with the frail fellow, and thanked him.
"It’s been a pleasure," he said.
I agreed and wished him well. Trying not to fall down, Emily and I made our way to the front of the rocking vehicle. The door opened and we followed the cobrador off.
"When you want to go back to Cuenca, just come to the road and wave down a bus. They pass by often," the energetic Ecuadorian said with one leg in the doorway.
While quickly shaking his hand, I thanked the youth and the bus rumbled away.

Turning our backs to the large cloud of exhaust, Emily and I then faced the Andes, looking for an entry point. Within a few minutes, we arrived at a large map of Parque Nacional El Cajas, which was posted next to an empty building just off the highway. The map showed different hiking trails and after consulting my guidebook, Emily and I decided on one of the paths closest to our location.

Walking uphill for several minutes, the two of us slowly marched along the shoulder of the road until we arrived at a clearing on our right. After catching our breaths, Emily and I noticed something that resembled a trail, so we decided to give it a shot.

Our hunch was right. We spent the next five hours on lush mountainsides, taking pictures of waterfalls as well as meandering around and in between pristine lagoons on paths that faded away and seemed to reappear out of thin air. The peaked panoramas were endless; it was hard to believe that Emily and I were witnessing such majestic landscapes.
Moreover, we were surrounded in silence. It was rare if the two of us heard anything more than an occasional bird chirp or the soothing sound of distant cascades. In fact, the peaceful feeling I got from absorbing the beautiful scenery was truly unexplainable. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so calm.

Eventually, our excitement turned into exhaustion. As the mid-afternoon sun warmed the backs of our necks, Emily and I steadily ascended and descended the rocky terrain in the direction towards the highway. While trudging around several water breaks, we could see small stretches of the interstate snaking through the far-reaching hills. However, this proved to be frustrating and mirage-like. Sometimes, Emily and I could see the highway and, subsequently, would get our hopes up. This optimism lasted until we rounded a bend or made it to the other side of a mountain and saw no sign of asphalt. It was like someone was teasing Emily and me, yanking the road from us like pulling a string away from a cat.

Finally, Emily and I came upon a creek, which we followed through soft and wet ground until it ran into a half-collapsed fence line. From there, the two of us crossed a makeshift bridge over the stream and continued along the trail of fence posts and barbed wire until we discovered the interstate. With tired legs and soaked feet, it was at this point where Emily and I realized that we had hiked a LONG way. We ended up much further down the highway than from where we had started our journey. Then, like clockwork, a Cuenca-bound bus rounded the mountain curve a few minutes later. Emily and I quickly climbed aboard and plopped into our seats.

As we headed east, Emily and I reflected on our day in Cajas. Having heard from others that the weather in the park could change on a visitor without warning, we both decided that we had lucked out, especially since Emily had seen precipitation on the Doppler.

On two prior occasions, Emily correctly predicted that is wasn’t going to rain in Cuenca, which was impressive because it ALWAYS rains there (at least for a little while most days). That morning, however, when I asked my light-haired friend what she saw in the forecast for our trip, she told me that we were probably going to get wet.
I’m glad Emily was wrong.
© Tyrel Nelson
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June 2008
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