El Cajas National Park is located in southern Ecuador and features a tundra vegetation on a spectacular jagged landscape of hills and valleys. Home to a large variety of wildlife, it is part of the Macizo del Cajas Biosphere Reserve.
El Cajas National Park
El Cajas National Park is located in southern Ecuador, in the province of Azuay, west of Cuenca. Encompassing an area of 28,544 ha (70,500 acres), it features tundra vegetation on a jagged landscape of hills and valleys.
The park is part of the Macizo del Cajas Biosphere Reserve. The area is characterized by large outcrops of bedrock. This is called knob and kettle geomorphology and results in a spectacular landscape, where the outcrops alternate with lakes.
The Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System (Inca road system) crosses the park and is a vestige of the road linking Tomebamba with "Tambo de Paredones" (Molleturo), on the strategic route between the highlands and the coast.
The highest point in the park is the 4,450 m (14,600 ft) high Cerro Arquitectos (Architect's Hill) and the elevation of roads reaches higher than 4,310 m (13,550 ft). There are as many as 250 lakes and ponds located within the park, making it a vital water source in the region.
Humidity, low temperature, and high altitude with low atmospheric pressure create an ecosystem that accumulates organic material in the soil that is able to retain water.
The high grassland ecosystem (páramo) contains plants suitably adapted to it, 19 of them endemic to El Cajas. The dominant plant is straw grass (Calamagrostis intermedia).
About 270 lakes and lagoons are present in the páramo of Cajas. Two of the four rivers of Cuenca originate from Cajas, the Tomebamba and Yanuncay rivers which eventually drain into the Amazon river. The Paute river also links to the Amazon.
As the park straddles the Continental Divide, its western drainage, the Balao and Cañar link to the Pacific Ocean. The modern road crosses the Continental Divide at the pass "Tres Cruces" (4,255 m). This section is the most western part of the continental divide of South Americas.
Above 3,300 m (10,800 ft) the Quinua (Polylepis) or 'paper tree' forest can be found. It is in forests such as these that a second protected population of the rare Fuchsia campii, in the Onagraceae family, is predicted to live, as it has also been found in another nearby national park of similar ecological characteristics.
In the lower parts of the park, the cloud forest and perennial high mountain forest are present, primarily in the ravines near the brooks and rivers.
El Cajas National Park is home to a large variety of wildlife, some of which are endemic or highly endangered. Among the most prominent are:
- the South American condor, of which only 80 remain throughout all Ecuador
- the curiquinga, a large black and white raptor
- the largest hummingbird of the world, the giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas), which lives only on agave flowers
The violet-throated metaltail (Metalura gorjivioleta) is endemic to El Cajas and surrounding valleys. The avifauna consists of 157 bird species, making birdwatching an alluring activity for visitors.
Overall, 44 mammalian species have been identified in the park. Species include various types of opossums, cats and bats. In addition, there are pumas, coatis, weasels, skunks, foxes, porcupines, pacas, shrews, rabbits and other rodents. Endemic species include the Cajas water mouse (Chibchanomys orcesi) that belongs to the group Ichthyomyini and Tate's shrew opossum (Caenolestes tatei).
At least 17 species of amphibians live around the lagoons of El Cajas. This includes those of the genera Atelopus, Telmatobius, Gastrotheca, Eleutherodactylus and Colostethus. The high variety of amphibians suggest the presence of a diversity of insects, as they are a chief amphibian food source.