“Ladies, be careful,” warns Juan, our guide for Cajas National Park in Ecuador. “This forest is known to have evil elves.”
We are currently in the Quinoa Forest, which we are told, at 13,124 feet high, is the highest forest in the world. Because I’m from New York and don’t believe in elves, the warning does not scare me. However, there are various legends revolving around the forest that stem from Incan beliefs.
For one, elves, or chuzalungu in Cachua, the native Inca language, live in the forest and kidnap women and children. In my opinion, this may have stemmed from the highlanders being short, and if anything bad happened to a woman or child, the wrongdoer may have been mistaken as being an elf.
It’s not surprising so many mystical legends exist here. Walking through the Quinoa Forest, you’ll feel like you’re hiking through some kind of bizarre fairy tale, as you climb over twisted trees and tangled roots. In reality, the jungle gym-like terrain is due to the three feet of soil.Another legend is the Quinoa Forest is home to talking animals. This also stems from the Incas, probably because at that time they didn’t understand the talking macaw. To the Incas, a talking bird would have been preposterous. However, it created a belief that the forest was full of animals that could speak their language.
Finally, there is the legend – or possibly fact – that spirits roam the forest. The reason I say “possibly fact” is that many people have actually died here, from altitude sickness, getting lost, starving or freezing. According to Juan, 20 tourists have died since the boundaries of the park were created in 1979. Furthermore, many locals, including a 10-year-old boy whose skull was later found in a nearby lake, have lost their lives among the dark shadows of the Quinoa Forest trees.
For those who want to learn more about the Quinoa Forest and its many myths and legends, there is currently an Ecuadorian movie being made at the location. I’m not sure of all the details, but the premise has to do with a tourist getting lost in the woods and running into elves, spirits and other mythical characters.