Legends And Myths In The World’s Highest Forest

quinoa forest “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.

Hiking, Drugs And Inca History In Cajas National Park, Ecuador

cajas national park Cajas National Park outside of Cuenca, Ecuador, is an idyllic and peaceful park with five ecosystems, over 150 bird species and many exceptional features. For example, Cajas has one of the highest densities of lakes in the world, and is also home to the Quinoa Forest, the world’s highest woodland at 13,124 feet. This area is also full of legends and myths from Inca times. Likewise, the park is a perfect example of an ice age park, as the area was created by glaciers. Cajas National Park is such a unique natural place, it is currently a candidate to be named a World Heritage Natural Site by UNESCO.

During a tour with Gray Line Ecuador, I got the chance to explore the park’s primary cloud forest, the lowest elevation area of the park at 10,171 feet and the Quinoa Forest. I also got to learn about Andean medicine and drugs, trace Inca history and take in great views of jagged mountains and crystal lakes.

For a better idea of the experience, check out the gallery below.

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Tour a Panama hat factory in Sigsig, Ecuador

First popularized by President Theadore Roosevelt and worn by countless travelers ever since, the Panama hat has become a symbol of coastal and tropical locales. Nothing screams I’m on vacation somewhere warm! quite like the straw hat, which is known for being breathable and able to return to its original shape after being folded in a suitcase. But what is not as well known is that Panama hats don’t actually come from their namesake country. The hats actually originated in Ecuador, but were mistakenly called Panama hats because they were shipped through the Isthmus of Panama before making it to locations across the rest of the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Panama hats are still made throughout Ecuador, where Ecuadorians call the hats sombreros de paja toquilla (or “hats of toquilla straw”). Anyone selling the hats at markets or in shopping malls, however, is well aware that tourists often ask for them by the name “Panama hat.” Several towns are famous for the production of the hats, including the small town of Sigsig in the Andes Mountains near the colonial city of Cuenca. It is possible to take an hour-long bus ride from Cuenca to Sigsig to visit a Panama hat company owned and operated by indigenous Ecuadorians who work directly with wholesalers. There, you can see women with amazingly nimble fingers as they weave the hats. Remarkably, each hat takes a single weaver several days to make. While there, you can get a good deal on a hat of your own or purchase other items made out of straw — including bowls, boxes and coasters — from a small company store. There’s also a nice photo op in front of a giant Panama hat in the courtyard of the warehouse.

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Click through the gallery above or watch the video below to learn more about the art of creating Panama hats.