I have never seen beauty like the National Parks of southern Ecuador. The Cajas National Park near the colonial city of Cuenca is truly astonishing – a rolling Middle Earth of steep valleys and broad mirror lakes, an untamed wilderness with temperatures to rival an English winter and a landscape which shifts as much as the winds blowing temperamentally across it. It periodically rains in this unforgiving land, and a stubborn swirling layer of mist is settled permanently above the mountaintops.
The hills themselves are high and sharply aligned with one another, relentless undulating mounds dotted with scrubby plants and occasional patches of dense, silent, labyrinthine trees.
Some wonderful Irish girls I met at the hostel joined me for a three-hour hike, and the altitude (9000-13,000ft / 2743-3962m) was soon getting the better of us, though the resounding beauty and quiet of the surroundings made it worthwhile.
Then there is the Podocarpus National Park even further south. A five hour drive in a cramped van brought me and eight other wayfarers directly from Cuenca’s old town to Izhcayluma hostel, a much raved-about Hotel California which really… you will struggle to leave.
The first day a new friend of mine, Shannon, and I hiked up into the amazing hills around the town.
Vilcabamba is a nice little town, and the hostel itself (2km away) is the most fantastic place to stay. If you’re coming anywhere near Lojas or Vilcabamba, don’t deny yourself the chance to stay here. Allow at least three days to take advantage of the on-site massages, many hiking routes, swimming pool and free morning yoga, which takes place on a beautiful outdoor platform in the hills, surrounded by birdsong. This place attracts interesting people from all over the world and has a relaxing vibe, much like going on a spiritual retreat. The German man who runs it was extremely friendly and helpful, and I could happily while away whole days just chilling out in the hostel’s stunning grounds in Podocarpus National Park. You might think all this would cost you dearly, but in fact a dorm room (if you can get one – book at least a week in advance to guarantee a bed) is just $8.50 as of March 2015.
I decided to make the most of my stay and booked myself in for a 75-minute full-body massage ($22) and also went for a five-hour pony trek into the nearby mountains with a local guide ($30 pp). It was well worth the spend – my guide, Fernando, was energetic as they come and the horses were so steady and reliable. Plus, I got to wear this cowboy hat.