Whoever said that South America is a land of contrasts know what they were talking about. One minute we’re sunning ourselves at the beach in Mancora, Peru and 3 days later we’re exploring the Cajas National Park outside Cuenca, Ecuador, 4,000m above sea-level.
The park has something like 120 lakes, all of them interconnected by a network of underground and overground streams. A majority of it is what is known as Páramo – a high-altitude ecosystem found between 3,800 and 5,000 metres. Due to the altitude, the plants don’t get much higher than a couple of feet, with lots of grasses and cacti, but that doesn’t make them any less beautiful.
In the sheltered areas, things get mild enough to support trees, although only one kind is hardy enough to grow at this altitude. Known locally as the Paper Tree due to the papery quality of it’s bark, the Polylepis forms little groves of dark brown intertwined trunks – it was like walking through an enchanted forest.
Cajas is a very accessible way (the main road goes through the park at 4,200m) to get to see a beautiful and fascinating ecosystem unique to South America. As always it’s incredible to see how life at these altitudes has not only adapted, but flourished in conditions that we mere mortals struggle in.