I love national parks. Everywhere. It takes a very special place to be honored with the designation and I have yet to be disappointed when visiting one. Cajas National Park, just west of Cuenca, Ecuador, is high on my list of return to destinations. Our last trip was a quick one, only an hour or two, as we were trying to squeeze in as many days on the coast as possible. But if you love hiking, striking vistas, and stunning wildflowers, please plan on a longer visit. A hike, at the very least.

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One of the more favorite destinations in the park is the Continental Divide, the place where water on west side of the Andes heads to the Pacific Ocean and on the east heads to the Atlantic. What makes this place amazing is that in Ecuador the Continental Divide is very close to the Pacific Coast, maybe 100 kilometers as the crow flies. That means almost all the rain that falls in this part of South America actually feeds the Amazon Basin and eventually ends up in the Amazon River in Brazil.

Near the marker for the Continental Divide, there are several trails to hike. Before heading out, it is a local tradition to place a stone at the base of the three crosses erected in memorial in this location. The stones serve as a prayer to those who have died on the trail and a good luck piece for the hikers heading out. The crosses serve as a stark reminder to the rapidly changing weather patterns in the mountains and how a little fog or a lot of rain can change a trail completely. If you do hike, be prepared!

It is possible to hire a taxi or driver out of Cuenca to take you on a day trip to Cajas National Park. Several tour companies offer package deals as well. If nothing else, you can do as we did and stop on the side of the road (where it’s safe, of course), take a short hike, and enjoy the views.