Last week, we spent 2 days exploring and hiking in La Avenida de los Volcanes in Ecuador, the bulk of which is located about an hour south of Quito. There are 14 magnificent volcanoes in this area.
For this adventure, we booked a tour with a local company, as trying to hire a car & guide to go so far is pure insanity. We went on this trip with Gulliver Travel, a company based in Quito. Our tour cost $40/person/day and included a guide, transportation, lunch, and cake with tea in the afternoon.
The van picked us up in the Mariscal on Saturday morning and we headed out to pick up the rest of the group at Hosteria Papagayo, about 45 mintues south of here. But our driver had never driven this route before and he got lost, so we actually drove about an hour further south than we needed to, to Latacunga. But the views of the Cordillera, with volcanoes and rolling green hills of farmland on both sides of the road, were quite striking as we barreled down the PanAmerican Highway, lost and listening to music that varied from a Spanish version of Hava Nagila to the latest pop from the US with a bit of Latin polka thrown in for good measure. Our driver screaming in Spanish into his cell phone that he was lost and waiting for someone to catch up to us so he could follow them to the right place was also highly amusing.
Finally, we arrived at the correct turn-off, and were met by our guide, Luis. And then the real adventure began as we entered Cotopaxi National Park. At roughly 5900 meters (19,350 feet), Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in South America. She last erupted 158 years ago, and scientists believe she is on a roughly 100 year cycle, so technically she is overdue for another eruption. She is so high that the top of her is covered by a glacier and most of the time you can’t even see the top as it is shrouded in clouds. She is also a near symmetrical cone shape, which is the most dangerous shape for volcanoes.
Our first stop was at the Visitor’s Center, for a briefing on what we could expect to see in the park, including wild horses, wild bulls, condors, & fox. Located at 3500 meters, the center is a bit higher than Quito, and is a good stopping point in order for us to acclimate a bit to the altitude. This is also where they sell coca tea, made from the leaves of the coca tree. Coca tea is a mild stimulant that also helps with altitude. We each tried some and it was quite good, very simply prepared by steeping leaves in hot water.
After about 20 minutes here, we headed up to the parking lot, a little more than halfway up Cotopaxi at 4500 meters. And then the weather took a sharp turn for the worse. We got out of the van to high winds and rain. Our plan was to hike straight up Cotopaxi from the parking lot, at 4500 m, to El Refugio, at 4800m. As we started up the trail, the visibility was pretty much this:
The trail to El Refugio is a steep, roughly 50 degree grade, trail covered with fine volcanic ash, which means that with each step you sink backwards just a bit. It’s about the same as trying to walk through deep dry sand. Our calves got a good workout, as did Kyle’s lungs as he could feel the altitude a bit. To hike the roughly one mile from the parking lot to El Refugio took us about an hour, and we gained 300 meters in elevation in that short distance. During the hike there were 30 mph winds, rain, snow, and lots of fog. But finally, we reached the top!
We were soaked to the bone so it was straight into El Refugio for hot chocolate and to dry off and warm up as best we could. El Refugio is a large building located at 4800 meters and is also a lodge and staging point for climbers making for the summit of Cotopaxi, which takes roughly another 6 hours from that point.
Normally on our tour, we would spend a bit of time at El Refugio, and then hike up an additional mile to the glacier, which is at 5000 meters. But our guide decided the weather was too unpredictable to risk it that day so we just hung out at El Refugio for a while and then prepared to hike back down. And mother nature did not disappoint. As we started our hike down, the sun came out and the clouds cleared and we were treated to beautiful views of the valley below and many of the other volcanoes that surround Cotopaxi.
Walking down the steep trail was fun as you sort of walk/slide down quite quickly.
Once we reached the parking lot, the plan was to ride mountain bikes back down the road to Laguna de Limpiopungo, a high lake that changes size and shape regularly. Kathy opted not to ride the bike but to ride down in the van, and those of you who know her will agree that was a wise decision. But Kyle braved the mountain biking on the rutted dirt road and had a blast! He was smiling ear to ear when he arrived at the lake, in spite of endoing off his bike into a soft patch of earth along the way. He sustained no injuries except for a sore shoulder the next day. When he arrived we were treated to wild horses grazing across the lake.
From the lake, we headed to a small restaurant in the park, where we were treated to sopa de papas, ensalada de aguacate con pan integral, frutas, and te. We were ravenous and food has never tasted so good! After lunch, we were all exhausted as we piled back into the van for the trip back to Hosteria Papagayo, a small hotel in the valley near Cotopaxi. Here we enjoyed warm chocolate cake and tea. And then the bulk of our group headed back to Quito, but Kyle and I stayed behind. We spent the night at Papagayo in preparation for our trip to Quilotoa Lake the next day.
We visited with several other guests at the hotel, watched a bit of the Ecuador/Argentina football game (Ecuador lost horribly), and enjoyed great chats, a yummy dinner, and hot tubbing with our new friend, Lai, whom we met on our Cotopaxi hike. Hi, Lai! Hope you made it to Banos safe & sound! It was a most enjoyable evening.
We fell into bed late and morning came far too quickly, as we had to get up early to prepare for our trip to Quilotoa Lake.
Coming up next: Day 2 – Our trip to Quilotoa Lake, where los pinquinos made us carry them all over the place and we got to ride burros!