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El Cajas National Park

This past weekend we had the pleasure of visiting one of the main attractions in the greater Cuenca area, El Cajas National Park.

El Cajas National Park is located approximately 30km west of Cuenca. It’s full of picturesque mountains, lakes, lagoons, and rolling hills.  The name ‘Cajas’ is apparently derived from the Quichua word “cassa”, which means “gateway to snowy mountains” (thanks Wikipedia). While we did not necessarily come across any snowy mountains, it was beautiful nonetheless.


We woke up at 6:00 AM, as we had been advised to try to get there earlier than later, to ensure we didn’t get wrapped up into “The Mist”, which Cajas is allegedly notorious for. Apparently on many afternoons, a fog/mist will roll through, making it nearly impossible to see the trail ahead of you. Wanting to avoid such situation, we heeded the warning and arrived early.

Entrance to Cajas

Luckily, with our early arrival, it felt like we had the park to ourselves. Outside of spotting a local ‘pescador’ (fisherman) on one of the many lakes in the park, we didn’t see anybody until we were pretty much back at the park office. We saw more llamas than we did humans, which is a win in my book. Though, I made sure to give them a little space, as I was nearly trampled by a herd of them while on the Inca Trail a couple years ago.


While the weather wasn’t perfect, it was still a gorgeous hike. All in all, the hike took us approximately 3 hours, and took us through a variety of landscapes. Sometimes through odd looking forests…


Sometimes through scenic open expanses…

Open Expanses

And sometimes the trail even called for fording rivers…

Fording Rivers

It was a fantastic way to spend a Sunday morning.


Thermal Pools

Last weekend, Brandon and I took a city bus to the edge of town (only $0.25 to ride!) to spend a few hours at a thermal pool spa.  The area, called Banos (although not to be confused with another, much larger city called Banos in the center of the country), was a bit more rural but beautiful with the Andes as a backdrop.


The spa we went to was called Piedra de Agua

Piedra de Agua

It had several packages to choose from with massages, mud wraps, steam boxes, etc, but Brandon and I just wanted to soak in the pools.  We tried out two different pools and the turkish steam baths while we were there and it was a really relaxing day!

Warmest Pool at the Spa

Japanese Pool at the Spa

Each of the pools had a large “warm” pool and apparently for maximum benefit, you were supposed to alternate between the warm pool and going into smaller “hot” and “cool” pools for a few minutes.  The hot pools were really nice but the cool pools were COLD!  I lasted 10 seconds in the cold water before diving into the hot pool to warm up and Brandon was in and out of the cold water even quicker!

Before heading back into Cuenca, we hung out on the terrace at the spa drinking smoothies, playing cards, and enjoying the nice day.

Me at the Spa

First Week in Cuenca

I can’t believe that we’ve been in Cuenca for a week already – the days have been flying by!  Cuenca is a cool little city (the 3rd largest in Ecuador) with a population around 500,000.  It is in the middle of the Andes mountains so it is awesome just looking around and always seeing mountains in the distance.


The city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is full of really cool buildings, cobblestone streets and churches.  Apparently there are 52 churches in Cuenca so you could visit a different one every Sunday for a year.  Here are a few, including the largest – the New Cathedral (blue domes).

New Cathedral

San Blas

San Sebastian

The city looks unlike any other that I’ve been to in South America.  Brandon says it looks European (I’ll have to take his word since I still haven’t been to Europe!)

Cuenca Streets 2

In the center of the historic area is Parque Calderon.


Parque Calderon

This week in Cuenca was a festival called Corpus Christi.  The streets around Parque Calderon were lined with tents filled with dulces (candies, pastries, cookies).

Dulces Tent

Dulces Close Up

Every night in the park, they set off fireworks and would light between 1 and 3 castillos.  You can see a castillo in the picture below – it is pretty much a little tower covered with fireworks.  There are 4 tiers to it (they light one after the other) and for the grand finale, fireworks shoot out of the top.  We walked over to the park a couple different nights to see the castillos – and eat some dulces of course.



This weekend we’re planning on doing a little more exploring and heading out to the city limits to an area called Banos where there are spas with thermal pools.


We made it!  After leaving Brookings on Tuesday am, driving to Minneapolis (thanks Mom and Dad!), flying to New York, flying to Panama, flying to Guayaquil, Ecuador, taking a taxi to a bus station, a bus to the coast and then another taxi to our hotel in Salinas, we arrived after 30 plus hours of traveling!  The only hiccup we ran into was that the airline we flew from JFK to Ecuador wouldn’t issue our tickets unless we had proof of return or onward travel (something that immigration in Ecuador requires, although they didn’t actually ask us about it in Ecuador…) so we spent a frantic 20 minutes purchasing bus tickets from Ecuador to Peru on my phone to “prove that we were leaving within 90 days”.  Luckily we got a refund on our bus tickets a few days later 🙂


Our first order of business once we got to Salinas was to explore a little so we walked along the Malecon, which is a road that runs right along the ocean



and then popped into a small shop for some ceviche and beer!  We shared some fish and octopus ceviche, which is fish “cooked” in citrus juices.  It seems simple enough to make, so I might have a cooking adventure later this week to try my hand at it.



We spent our few days in Salinas just relaxing either at our hotel (with the owners’ dog Princessa), on the beach, or at a bar watching the World Cup.  Friday we camped out under an umbrella for most of the day and enjoyed this view.


Yesterday we left Salinas and took a bus to Guayaquil and then on to Cuenca.

Ecuador Map

The buses we were on were pretty standard South American for going between cities – coach style buses with the obligatory US action movie playing dubbed in Spanish.  Both buses yesterday played Paul Walker movies (RIP).  The bus to Cuenca didn’t have AC, which was pretty uncomfortable at first, but was fine as we drove into the Andes.  There was a man carrying a live chicken on his lap for the 4 hour ride though which I was really excited about.

Bus to Guayaquil

We had some crazy elevation changes as we drove from Guayaquil, which is pretty much at sea level, through the Andes to Cuenca.  Cuenca is about 8,300 feet above sea level but on the drive, we got up to over 13,000 feet.  The scenery was gorgeous up in the Andes.


So now we are in Cuenca, where we have an apartment for the next month.  The first impression we got yesterday was awesome, so we’re excited to start exploring!


Midwest Road Trip

Whoa, we are getting really close to the start of our South American adventure – we leave tomorrow!  We’ve been hanging out in Brookings with my family, mainly relaxing, eating and drinking for the past week.  We had a great little road trip to get here!  We left Michigan on Thursday, June 5th and drove to the Quad cities in Iowa.  Friday morning we drove to Omaha and spent the day (and night) with family and friends.  Saturday morning was spent in Lincoln with more family and friends and then we had a long drive out to Chadron, NE.  Sunday we spent in the Southern Black Hills of South Dakota and then explored the Northern Black Hills on Monday.  Tuesday was a long drive day from Western to Eastern SD with stops at Wall Drug, the Badlands and the Corn Palace.  Here’s what we saw along the way:

Memorial Stadium

Quick stop by Memorial Stadium in Lincoln

Exploring Wind Cave National Park

Exploring Wind Cave National Park

Brandon's first visit to Mount Rushmore!

Brandon’s first visit to Mount Rushmore!

Custer State Park

Custer State Park

Cruising around the Black Hills

Cruising around the Black Hills

We hiked to the top of Little Devil's Tower in Custer State Park.

Top of Little Devil’s Tower in Custer State Park

B&E on Little Devil's Tower

Both of us on Little Devil’s Tower


View of the Needles


Bison on the side of the road

Waterfall in Spearfish Canyon

Waterfall in Spearfish Canyon

Relaxing with some beers at Crow Peak Brewery in Spearfish

Relaxing with some beers at Crow Peak Brewery in Spearfish

Badlands 2

The Badlands


More of the Badlands

Hiking in the Badlands

Hiking in the Badlands

Brandon hiking Badlands

More hiking in the Badlands (I went a little photo snap happy!)