After leaving the rose farm it was time to head for the mountains – well, for Cotopaxi specifically, the main object of our trip. We drove back north a little, and turned off the main road to enter the National Park that surrounds and protects the mountain, although on these lowest slopes the land is nevertheless used for timber and shows too many signs of human interference. The road through this lower part of the park was a bit of a mess, undergoing a lot of work that is intended eventually to improve access but in the short term has made it bumpy going! Jose Luiz explained that last Easter the President of Ecuador came here for a camping holiday with his family and was so horrified by the state of the gravel road that he immediately ordered that it be tarred.
The road wound up through the pines until we reached the official entrance to the park. Beyond here we were above the tree-line and the scenery grew more wild and dramatic, although Cotopaxi itself remained stubbornly hidden from view. It was dull and a little drizzly in the low cloud, and we wondered if we would get any sight of the peak of the mountain, but our companion was optimistic that on the other side the weather would be better. It was quite usual, he said, for this side to be in cloud but for the far side, where we were headed, to be much clearer. And he was right. As we climbed, we rounded the mountain, and the peak of the volcano was revealed.
But we were still some way below it, down on the altiplano, or paramo as it is known in Ecuador, at around 3,800 metres. The road continued upwards across a barren stony terrain until we reached the parking lot. By now we were at 4,300 metres. From here it is possible to walk up to the refuge near the snow line (at 4,800 metres). But the altitude made my headache almost unmanageable, and my bad knee was another reason not to attempt the climb. So we contented ourselves with taking photos from this point, and even so, I soon had to return to the car and beg Jose Luiz to drive down a little!
It had nevertheless been a special experience to see this magnificent mountain. Whether you admire it from the plains below, drive up to the parking lot, walk up to the refuge or even climb to the summit (5,900 metres), a visit to Cotopaxi is a must when in Ecuador!
Cotopaxi means “Smooth Neck of the Moon” and the indigenous people have revered the mountain for centuries. The mountain was the bringer of both good rains and good crops. Pre-Incan civilizations believed god dwelled at the top of the mountain. But the mountain is also potentially the bringer of disaster. A still-active volcano (it last erupted about 70 years ago), an eruption today would cause the ice in its glacier to melt and to flood the valley below, bringing destruction to nearby Latacunga and as far north as the southern suburbs of Quito. Latacunga indeed has already been twice destroyed by such an eruption, in 1744 and 1768. The last major eruption was in 1903/04; does that mean that one is overdue???
Next tip: a warning about altitude sickness
Rumiñahui is another of the park’s volcanoes, but unlike Cotopaxi itself is dormant. It is 4,721 metres high, so rather lower than its neighbour and just below the snowline. It is named after an Incan general who fought against the Spanish conquerors, leading the resistance against them in this part of the country. Defeated by them in a battle near another volcano, Chimborazo, he had Quito burned to the ground rather than let it be captured by the invaders. The name Rumiñahui comes from Quechua, meaning “rock eye", reflecting the toughness of the general.
We had dramatic views of Rumiñahui from our lunch table at Tambopaxi Lodge and I loved watching the changing light on its slopes. Later we saw it from another angle at Laguna Limpiopungo, the subject of my next tip.
After our lunch we retraced our route back past the turnoff to Cotopaxi and stopped a little further along the road at the Laguna Limpiopungo. This is a beautiful and tranquil spot, and an oasis of sorts in the paramo for all sorts of birds. A short walk from the car park brings you to a viewing platform where a notice board helps with identification. We saw a number of these, including Baird’s Sandpiper, Andean Teal, Andean Coot (so much bigger than the Coot we have here in England!), Andean Gull and nearby an Andean Lapwing. Other birds that can be seen here, according to the notice board, include the Caracara and Solitary Sandpiper, but we didn’t spot either of these.
From the platform the path continues right round the lake, a circuit of just over a mile (just under two kilometres). We considered taking it, but it had started to rain, and the path was uninviting as a group of construction workers was relaying it. So we decided to abandon the idea and instead just spent a little time with our binoculars, enjoying the bird activity.
As we drove away the rain got heavier, and we saw another aspect of the landscape here – bleak and rather forbidding but at the same time eerily beautiful. I have read that Limpiopungo is at risk of disappearing because the waters that feed it are being diverted for irrigation purposes. It would be a real shame if this lovely spot is lost, not only for those of us that visit the park but also for the many birds that come here.
Next tip: the Hacienda La Cienega where we spent the night.
The parking area is situated at an altitude of 4500m and the refugio at 4800m, so if you are not acclimatised to high altitude it can be a hard walk. We had put on the climbing boots for this hike, just to get used to them, in my hands I carried the crampons and ice axe and on my back I had a heavy backpack, where I also had a lot of supplies for breakfast. For me it took 45 minutes to reach the refugio. There were also several day-trippers walking up to the refugio.
In the refugio there is a large room with tables and chairs, one kitchen belonging to the café (which is open during the day) and one kitchen were our guides prepared the food. Upstairs there are two rooms full of bunk beds. There are also a few large lockers, but you will need your own padlock. The bathroom is in a nearby building.
In the afternoon I was supposed to go out and try the crampons as I had never used that before, but the weather was really bad. It rained/snowed ice and it was some thunder and lightning. So instead we sat inside eating popcorn and drinking coffee, tea or hot chocolate. For dinner we got soup, pasta and chicken, and after dinner, at 19, we went to bed.
Besides me and my guide there were three Frenchmen and their two guides (we came with the same agency), a Canadian couple and their guide and a Spanish couple without guide, staying at the refugio. I heard that the night before there had been over 30 persons. It must have been crowded both in the refugio and on the mountain.
After dinner we had gone to bed at 19.00. We were supposed to sleep until midnight, have breakfast and leave the refugio around one in the morning. I couldn’t sleep at all so when the Canadian couple went up at 23.15 I soon went up as well. I went to the bathroom which is in an adjacent building and was very happy to see that it was a beautiful starlit night, and there was no wind. At the horizon, to the north, there was a narrow yellow light, which I later understood was Quito, because when we came up on higher altitude we could see it was a big city and its lights.
Soon everyone came down from the dormitory and we had breakfast; yoghurt, müsli, bread and hot chocolate. During breakfast my guide Fausto had said we were not in a hurry, but one of the guides of the Frenchmen told us to hurry up as the Canadian couple and their guide already had left, and we should all be on the mountain at the same time. I didn’t look at the watch when we left the refugio, but the Frenchmen said that I and Fausto left 5min before them and they started at 00.15. So, we started the ascend much earlier than planed. I thought it didn’t matter, because I was probably going to need a lot of time, and if you’re not on the top before 8am you must turn around.
After a short walk we stopped to put on the crampons. This was actually the only time during the whole climb (up and down) that I sat down. Fausto also attached the rope between us. At this point we were the last ones. The three Frenchmen and their two guides had quickly passed us and so did the Spanish couple, who had started earlier than us, but because they were walking without a guide they had first taken the wrong path. Good that they could see the lights of our head torches. A bit further up I and Fausto passed the Canadian couple, whose guide were just fixing the rope between them.
It was easy to use the crampons even if I didn’t have the chance to practice the previous day. You shall put the whole foot down, not the toe first, because that will be very hard for the muscles. I walked slowly, but in a steady pace. Now and then we stopped because I needed to catch my breath. The higher we came the more often I had to stop, but never for long. It was quite easy in the beginning , but got more and more difficult at higher altitude, especially as it was very steep at some places. A few times we used the ice axe and the front points of the crampons, and once again it was not difficult.
We met the Frenchmen and their guides, and then the Spanish couple, and I realised we were soon going to be on the top, and it was still dark. Reaching the top I looked at my watch and it was 5.20-5.25, so if the Frenchmen were right it had taken only 5h 15min from the refugio to reach the summit. I was a bit disappointed that it was still dark, I had hoped for wonderful views in all directions. Well, it was anyway fantastic to be at 5897 metres, the highest altitude I have ever been on. I could see the shade of the volcano crater and in the horizon a narrow orange band where the sun was soon going to appear. We couldn’t stay though as it was a bit windy on the top and we would be cold.
I can’t describe with words how amazing it was to climb Cotopaxi this clear night, with millions of stars above. I absolutely want to do it again.
My guide Fausto had walked first during the ascent, but during the descent I was in the front. It was very easy to go down and I was not tired at all. Soon the sun appeared above the clouds and we were rewarded with fantastic views. Above the clouds we saw the tops of many other volcanoes. We passed the Spanish couple who were taking photos and later the Frenchmen, who were very tired (in my opinion they walked too fast during the ascent). From the summit back down to the refugio it took only 1h 40min. As I was not tired I packed my things before I sat down to rest with a cup of coffee. What a great experience it had been!
We were back in Latacunga already at 11.
There are several tour operators in Latacunga offering tours to Cotopaxi, both daytrips and climbing tours.
Before coming to Latacunga I had heard that it was necessary with experience to climb Cotopaxi, but I had also heard from someone that it was not necessary, so I hoped to be able to do the climb.
When I came back to Latacunga after a week of hiking in the Quilotoa area I went directly to Tovar Expeditions to ask. The man at Tovar Expeditions said that after a week of hiking around Quilotoa I could definitely climb Cotopaxi, it is not a technically difficult mountain but being well acclimatised to high altitude is most important and acclimatised I was.
If you are two persons with one guide it was $190 per person and for one person with one guide it was $280 (August 2011). Even if there had been another person to share the cost with I would have chosen to go alone with a guide. I didn’t know if I would make it to the top and I didn’t want to be the reason that someone else had to turn around, and I didn’t want to turn around because of someone else.
At Tovar Expeditions I could borrow all clothes and equipment that I didn’t have but needed for the climb. The evening before going I tried out the boots and the rest of the things I got when I arrived to the agency at 10am the next morning. At the agency there were also three French tourists that were climbing Cotopaxi and two guides (one were coming later, directly to the refuge of Cotopaxi). At 11am we left Latacunga.
When we came to the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park we paid the admission that was $2. A bit further up we stopped at a house to eat. We got bread with butter and coca-cola to drink. At Tovar I had been told we were getting soup for lunch, so after the bread I waited for the soup and was very surprised when it was time to leave (we got more to eat later though, and breakfast before going back to Latacunga). Before we left the house we were told to put on the waterproof/windproof trousers and the boots. Our guides wanted us to use the boots when walking from the parking lot up to the refuge to get used to them.
From the parking lot up to the refuge it took 45 minutes.
I will soon add more information about the refuge and the climb in other tips.
The next day we were back in Latacunga at 11am
Just behind Lago Limpiopungo, which lies at around 3800 meters, are the 4700 meter high peaks of Cerro Ruminahui. While not as visually striking as the nearly perfect shape of Cotopaxi, this small range of jagged peaks is nonetheless a beautiful backdrop for exploring the unique ecosystem and landscape of the paramo that surrounds the lake.
I must admit, seeing this volcanic peak was one of the main reasons I came to Ecuador and I would have been extremely disappointed if weather conditions would have made visibility too poor to glimpse this impressive sight. Fortunately, we were able to see the 6000 meter spectacle in an almost unobstructed view. Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and over the past 250 years or so, it has erupted 10 times and destroyed the nearby town a Latacunga repeatedly. The sight of it from the paramo landscape that surrounds it is impressive and driving up to the parking lot just below the refuge at 4600 meters and experience the blustery wind and frigid temperatures of the mountain really helped me gain a perspective of its power. Biking down from the parking lot was also quite a rush and I'd highly recommend it as a thrilling alternative to actually climbing the peak.
Located fairly close to the entrance of the park, you'll find this small museum. Unless you really have to use the bathroom, it's kind of a waste of time. There wasn't much to see here and there wasn't much in the way of educational materials. There is a small model of the park if you want to get your bearings, but hey, that's what a map is for.
Open daily 8-noon and 1-4 pm. Free.
Llamas are known mostly as domesticated camelids but some do exist in the wild in places like Cotopaxi National Park. Their ancestry is never completely removed and they are far more approachable. I saw them from a distance and we figured we better sneak up on them. They sat in an interesting formation with one looking in each direction to see if anything was coming.
Vicuñas are members of the camelid family and one of only two wild species in South America. While sightings of llamas are common place in markets and even the wild, vicuñas are much more skittish and getting a good photo of them involves some sneaking up and having a decent zoom lens. I spotted this one from quite a distance and was happy he let me get this close for a photo. Their wool is the finest and quite rare due to the animals only being sheared every three years.
The first time I saw a wild horse I was on a trail in Peru and it was truly a magical moment so on this occasion it was perhaps not as special as it wasn’t as much of a surprise. That said, we got closer and got much better photos this time around. Research shows that these are not true wild horses but feral ones, meaning that they have domesticated ancestors unlike the true wild species of Asia. That said, I think when most people think of wild horses, the Wild West is where their mind wanders, and these pretty animals here are what I at least imagine them to look like. We saw two separate herds while in Cotopaxi National Park.
Chimborazo does not lie within the national park boundaries (over 100 kilometers away!) but its peak, the highest in Ecuador at 6385 meters, can be seen on a clear day. Not only is it the nation’s highest peak but being so close to the Equator it also holds the distinction of being the point furthest from the Earth’s center from top to core. It’s permanently ice encrusted top’s climbing requires cramps, ice axe and lots of experience or a qualified guide.
The national park's big lake, Laguna Limpiopungo is a bit of a disappointment as mountain lakes go. Though it is home to some interesting bird life it is on the smallish side and lacks the emerald green or turquoise color of say lakes in Peru or the Canadian rockies. That said, it does provide the opportunity of getting reflection photos of Cotopaxi as it isn't particularly deep. Wildlife is drawn to it for sustenance making for other opportunities for snapping away.
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