Teachers and students in the mountains of Ecuador get three weeks of vacation during the month of August.  I took this opportunity to travel out of my site and see some distant areas of Ecuador.  My first stop, was the city of Cuenca.  This city, in central-southern part of Ecuador, is considered the most beautiful city in this country due to its well-preserved 16th and 17th Spanish colonial architecture resembling Spain and other European cities.  In fact, it’s city center is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I spent a couple of days wandering the streets, relishing in its tranquility and the selection of foreign food for all the tourists and Ex-Pats who live there.  
The “New Cathedral” built in 1885
The “Old Cathedral”, built in 1557, and Parque Calderon
Cathedral San Blas
Church of Santo Domingo
Church of San Sebastian

Cuenca is beautiful, but my real impetus for traveling 12 hours by bus was to experience Parque Nacional Cajas.  This area of the Sierran paramo was created by glaciers and is an important source of drinking water for the region, as well as many endemic and/or endangered flora and fauna of Ecuador.  While the highest mountains reach as high as 14,600 feet, the main road reaches an elevation of 13,500 feet as it crosses the Continental Divide of South America.  Speculation abounds regarding the name Cajas, some believing it is derived from the Kichwa word for “cold” or the “box-like shape” of the more than 700 lakes in this region.  Either way, it’s cold, there’s water in every direction you look, and the soil retains moisture like a bog.  I loved this unique ecosystem so much, I spent two days wandering its trails.  
For the first hike, I gathered fellow volunteers Josh (Virginia), Kyle (Illinois), Chris (Buffalo, NY) and his friend Emily visiting from the States
We had a beautiful day and Josh led the way up Cerro Avilahuayco.  We couldn’t find the trail,  but since there isn’t any trees in the paramo, it’s hard to get lost. 
We ended up scaling a near-vertical wall of grass and inventing a new sport: grass climbing.
But in the end, the view was spectacular from the top at 13,700 feet.
At the top, we finally found the trail and had a much easier hike going down.
Two days later, I returned to Cajas on my own and found 
a very different wet and foggy world to explore.
In the protected valleys, the trail winds through forests of Polylepis, or Paper Trees.  According to my guidebook, these trees are adapted to grow at higher elevations than almost any other tree in the world.  Their colors were stunning and their papery-bark reminded my of decoupage. 

Water, Water, Everywhere!
A family of wild llamas
I had a great day, but I definitely did not wear the proper footwear!
Thanks to another kind hiker, I plodded through the boggy trail with one of his hiking poles.
If I get the chance to return to Cajas, I better buy a pair of boots.