Today was probably my favorite excursion so far. We ended up going to Cajas National Park about half an hour away from Cuenca by bus, which really wasn't too bad. A lot of people were tired from the night before because it is a Sunday but I went to bed fairly early because I knew we had this trip. I think most of the group forgot that we were even going. Anyways, Cajas was simply astounding. It's pretty much the definition of desolate. The elevation is extremely high, about 4,000 meters (or 13,000 feet) and is subsequently very windswept and cold. It reminded me a lot of a cross between the Scottish Highlands and the moors of England. Most of the flora and fauna were very hardy species such as lichen, stunted trees and grasses. You'd have to be pretty tough to survive there. The temperature is fairly bitter but after a while it wasn't too bad if you were wearing enough layers.
Many of the plants and animals that live in Cajas are actually only found in that national park, which was really cool. They even have wild llamas, whom I promptly bestowed the title "llamas of the mist". They also have wild guinea pigs, rabbits, birds and even the only species of bear found in South America. Additionally, there is a species of giant hummingbird that lives in Cajas. Cajas is very important to Ecuador, in particular Cuenca because the drinking water flows down from Cajas. The spongy ground found in the park acts as a natural filter, making the water in Cuenca the cleanest in South America.
We all joked that we felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings trilogy because of the way that the land reminded us of the environment seen in the movies. The movie was filmed in New Zealand but I have to say that it really did look like we were about to battle orcs. I was excited to tell my father because he is a really big fan of Tolkien. I only wish he could have been there to see it.
We hiked around for a good three hours. Most of the hike wasn't too difficult but we did have a bit of uphill climbing in the beginning. I didn't mind but the people in the group who weren't really prepared for the trip certainly were feeling it. We had a great tour guide who was very informative about the park and showed us the best views, and boy were they stunning. It's probably one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to, and I'm really glad that we were able to go.