Here's a logistical tip for you: while a good new highway system leads to the new airport, nearby accommodations are scarce. We found one place which was perfectly located for our purposes: the Hostería (or Rancho) San Carlos Tababela. Rooms were basic but comfortable; cost was reasonable; breakfast was included; and it's only about 10 or 15 minutes from the new airport, and just off the highway system. The Hostería makes a good launching pad for exploring, whether you're headed north or south.
I highly recommend traveling with the Map app that comes on an iPad! It makes navigation easy, even along the most labyrinthine city routes.
This time we head south! A very long day of challenging driving lands us in old Cuenca at nightfall. Cuenca's ancient center is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally a Cañari city, conquered by the Incas, who followed their habit of replacing the architecture of the vanquished people, but respecting and absorbing their culture. The Cañaris' achievements in agriculture and astronomy were especially impressive. The new Incan city came to rival in grandeur that of their capital, Cuzco. After the Spanish conquered the Incas, the inhabitants of early "Cuenca" destroyed their city so that it wouldn't fall into Spanish hands, and for years the Spanish searched in vain for the legendary El Dorado, probably this very city––the predecessor of today's Cuenca.
A summer's day in Cajas National Park (Photos by Narca)
A major draw for us is nearby Cajas National Park––a rugged mountain park, sculpted by glaciers into spectacular peaks and valleys. It's often misty, as air from the Pacific Ocean hits the Andes and rises, cools, and spills clouds over the ridges. These clouds feed more than 200 lakes in the park, and give rise to major rivers, three of which flow to the Amazon, while one flows west to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, Cajas is a RAMSAR wetland of international importance.
A plant of the páramo
The lower elevations of the park are wreathed in cloud forest and perennial montane forest. Rising to treeline, you'll find groves of beautiful, shaggy-barked Polylepis trees (my favorite tree of the high Andes!). The highest habitat is páramo, the southern equivalent of our tundra. Cajas boasts 19 species of endemic plants––plants found nowhere else in the world. Wildlife in the park is also wonderfully diverse, with regional endemics like the Violet-throated Metaltail (a hummingbird) and the Cajas Water Mouse.
An ancient Polylepis grove is a twisting webwork of gnarly trunks.
Below, a single tree.
We spend a day at the highest elevations (up to 14,000 feet) and a second morning roaming the margins of Lake Llaviucu at the lowest edge of the park––and love it so much that we return to Cajas for two more days at the end of the trip!
Now, at the height of summer, flowers brighten the land; many of them draw hummingbirds.
A couple of Cajas's many flowers!
Among the hummingbirds that specialize in Ecuador's high-elevation habitats is the Blue-mantled Thornbill, a hummer that often flops about on the ground, nectaring at prostrate flowers. It appears very dark, only showing its glittering throat patch and glossy blue back when one's viewpoint is exactly right.
Blue-mantled Thornbills appear very dark from most angles.
(This one was photographed farther north, at Papallacta Pass.)
Other high-elevation specialists are the Bar-winged Cinclodes and Tawny Antpitta. Unlike most antpittas, which tend to be very shy, the Tawny forages openly and calls frequently, making it one of the easiest to see! Both species (like every other bird pictured here!) belong to bird families that only occur in the New World.
An adult Bar-winged Cinclodes (above) is working hard today to feed its hungry fledgling (below).
A Tawny Antpitta, standing tall
Lovely Tit-like Dacnis feed at the lake's margin, a male above and a female below.
The subtle plumage of a Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant echoes the colors of Cajas.
It has been too long since the last time I saw a Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant!
And what would the Andes be, without its camel?
Tomorrow, the lower elevation cloud forest of Cajas National Park!