Feeling trapped by the city, Reid and I started to check out the possible day tours from Quito. Cotopaxi seemed to tick all the boxes, not too far (55km), the opportunity to exercise and hopefully, as the world’s third highest active volcano, some stunning views.
We arrived at the bus terminal without hitch and with some experience under our belts, knew it was more than wise to trust the bus driver when he told us to get off the bus… seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Dust swirling around us, we paced across the road to arrive at some innocent looking jeeps. A few laughs and haggles later, we were in the 4×4 and bombing our way to the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park.
It’s amazing the difference a few (thousand) metres can make. Having been in sun-burning 30 degree Quito heat just hours before, I now couldn’t find my woolly hat quick enough.
The first stop reuired us to register and browse various alpaca garments with a toilet break option. Despite desperately needing the bathroom, it was a reluctant walk to the ladies…so convinced was I that nothing would thaw out should I even consider pulling down my trousers.
Formalities done and we were off, learning about the village of Cotopaxi and the husband/wife pair we had employed for the day. An eruption of the volcano in October 2015 had sadly destroyed a lot of the town, resulting in the near desertion of this mountainous village, leaving only a few guides and the entrepreneurial few prepared to face the unknown. In fact, since 1738 it has erupted more than 50 times, tragically affecting the town of Latacunga. Although we hadn’t realised it at the time, the park had only just reopened in October 2017 following the events of 2015 – just weeks before our arrival.
We stopped at the lake at the bottom of the volcano – an opportunity to take the optional hour walk around this body of water, spotting birds and losing each other in the ethereal mist. Fancying ourselves as adventurous twitchers, we chose to go full-hog, soaking up the deadened silence, attempting to recognise the four types of swallow and patting ourselves on the back for our successful early start out of the capital.
Another short drive and we were 4600m up, about to scale our final 400m. It sounded so easy! My first real experience of altitude and I discovered it was not to be disrespected. Determined as ever, I took the frequent pauses my body demanded and marched onwards. Attempting to breathe-in deep and slow as we had been taught, I could still feel the light headed sensations getting the better of me. Chugging back water, I made it to the first refuge – a cute wooden shack at 4800m where you can get your passport stamped and buy hot chocolate. We were advised not to eat if you want to continue the ascent so, ignoring the enticing smells, we braced ourselves against the wind and rain that had now become that very wet, very cold snow and continued. Remembering to look up from my feet on occasion I realised the weather couldn’t dampen the ever present smell of rotten eggs, which was really the deep red sulphur, spurted from the volcano. Its appearance was as striking as its smell – in fact, I was so busy watching the ground, I didn’t realise we had reached our final stop. Hurrah!
Breathlessly sat at the bottom of the ice, the results of type two fun were already starting to sink in – we did it! At 5000m we had reached the furthest we could go without serious ice climbing equipment and altitude hadn’t defeated me. Photos taken and breath sort of caught, we slipped and slid back down the wet and rocky path. Incredibly, as we did, the clouds slowly started to part.. it was so hard to know where to look as the volcano and its sheer size began to appear behind us, a rather large reminder of what we had just achieved.
Clearly I felt I hadn’t ascended enough as a few weeks later I found myself planning a trek to the world’s furthest point from the centre of the earth. And honestly, it remains a mystery to me as to why more people don’t come here. The environment is comparable to Cotopaxi but the views, wildlife and vastness is (personally) far superior and it’s only heightened by the lack of tourists. If you ignore the avalanche record, it is technically a little less risky too given its last eruption was circa 550C.E. Oh and it’s free.
Disembarking the bus, we entered the grand archway marking the entrance to the park, pausing only to write our names on the register. At this stage you can look to employ a taxi aka collectivo to take you uphill to the first refuge at 4800m. Feeling sadistic however, Cole and I opted for the two hour walk to take us there instead. It was gruelling but rewarding work – we were truly the sole people there with views galore for us to gorge on. Vicuñas galloped past, nervously avoiding us, the mist swirled and cleared as our breath collected in the air and gradually, we removed our thermal layers as we slowly stumbled higher. Finally civilisation rounded into view as we completed our breathless few metres but in reality…the trek had only just begun.
Revitalising myself with a much needed hot chocolate in the first refuge, I reluctantly looked at Cole, willing the energy I needed for the next stage to come find me. Both a little cold but equally determined, we zipped-up our jackets and braced ourselves for the outdoors. It was like walking through treacle. Altitude came and found me like the Joker does Batman and within seconds I was pausing at every slight incline. Wonderfully the clouds were already clearing and every stop permitted me another excessive ten pictures of the horizon. Feeling the most light-headed and delirious i have ever felt in my life, I climb-crawled the remaining distance to 5000m. The second refuge allowed for another hot chocolate but the feeling hadn’t shifted. I left Cole to do the final 100m to the crater lake and split off, greedily shuffling my way back down the path, seeking salvation in every inch descended.
Blissfully, the road to rescue continued as we found a German trio at the bottom, ready to leave and with space for two back to town. Incredible. Settling into their campervan, we exchanged South American tales and started to plan the congratulatory beers we were going to need that night. Exhausted, I flopped into my seat…it had been a long day but well worth every second.
Seconds to make count
- Sweets and water can get you through any exercise.
- Shop around and work out what tours you can do for yourself to help you save on any unnecessary expense.
- Altitude is to be respected! Try to break up any serious ascents across a few days.
Cotopaxi Traveler Tips
Getting there: Catch the metro south to Quitumbe station. From here, you need to buy a bus ticket – the station isn’t Cotopaxi (as the stop is literally some jeeps on the side of a road) but just inform the driver and he’ll make sure you arrive at the right stop. The bus you take will be heading either to Machachi or Latacunga.
Cost: Including the guide and transport we spent around $36 each plus the motivational snacks!
Chimborazo Traveler Tips
Getting there: Set out early, we were on the 08:15 bus from Riobamba. There are two companies that can drop you off and you can find a bus roughly every hour.
Cost: the bus was $6.50 each way and entrance is free. You will need a few $ too for the taxi to the first refuge if you don’t want to walk.