Going to the Birds

mindo giant antpitta-with-angel

Ex-Farmer-cum-Birdman, Angel Paz, owner of the Paz Bird Refuge in Mindo with a Giant Antpitta.

We wake up at 3.00am, yawning and stumbling around in the dark, getting dressed in warm clothes and trying not to wake other guests at the hotel, but not succeeding very well as we kick the furniture and stagger noisily down the stairs. The manager has thoughtfully left us a packed breakfast in the fridge. We retrieve the bag and then mumble unintelligibly to each other, rubbing our arms to warm ourselves while we wait for our driver, the steam from our breath clouding in the chilly air. Segundo shows up a few minutes late and we finally take off, rattling down the narrow winding track towards our destination. Headlights bounce all over the place as we navigate through mountain streams in the battered 4WD, going slowly on the bumpy road. It rained during the night. The vehicle slips and slides. Catching a few extra winks of sleep enroute is impossible.

“Oh no!” exclaims Segundo in the dark, cursing under his breath, before pulling up abruptly in the middle of the muddy track.

We have a flat tire. Wondering if we will still make our pre-dawn appointment on time, we work quickly together to change the tire, some of us shining flashlights on his work, others undoing the spare tire and rolling it to the front of the car. The road is slick. Just as he pulls the old tire off the studs, the jack falls over. Segundo moves it to another spot and jacks up the car again. This time, it stays. We help him to lift the new tire and fasten the nuts to the studs. He lets the car down and checks the studs again. After ten minutes driving, he checks them again. The clock is ticking. We don’t want to miss our appointment, but we do want to make it there in one piece. We arrive at the appointed meeting place less than a minute after our guide arrives. Everyone whispers in the dark, as if afraid to break the magic of the night before it’s time.

MindoBirds2

Following our native guide, and some wildly dancing flashlights, we make our way down a very narrow slippery track. Just barely keeping our balance, we silently follow Angel Paz, a local ex-farmer and hunter who became a passionate birdman, to the edge of a small cliff as the first grey light of dawn begins to break. Angel indicates we should stay still and remain silent. The ghostly outlines of the trees begin to take shape in front of our eyes. Then, a strange clatter begins in the trees. We can’t see the birds yet, but we can certainly hear them.

As the light increases, just on sunrise, the bizarre red heads of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock appear in the branches as they dance and chatter, all competing for the affections of the plain brown-colored female. The Rupicola Peruviana is one of only two species that live in the neotropics. The noisy mating display goes on for over half an hour, the birds leaping about on the branches, chasing each other off, calling and dancing, until the female chooses her partner. Suddenly the forest is quiet again. We trudge back to the 4WD and head up the hill to another location, snacking on our packed egg sandwiches along the way.

Another hike down a steep slope takes us deep into the forest. Angel goes slowly, shushing us with a finger to his lips.

“There it is,” he whispers, pointing to a tree branch high above our heads.

MindoBirds3

The White-Faced Nunbird dances along the branch, hopping back and forth, searching for breakfast. Angel tells us it’s a rare species that many birdwatchers have yet to spot. We have no trouble watching this avian treasure as it flits from branch to branch for a few minutes. Leaving it to find sustenance, we head back up the path, our guide whistling and twittering as he walks. On the way, a Rufous Potoo hides itself on a branch, blending into a tree. We nearly miss it, but Angel points it out with a green laser light.

“Shhh!” says Angel, stopping mid-step with his arms wide. We freeze. “There!” he whispers, barely making a sound as he points to the underbrush.

The Moustached Antpitta is hard to see at first, camouflaged in the thick undergrowth. Then, he hops around, digging worms from the ground just under the path. He flits back and forth, “hohoho”ing as he feeds on rich proteins. We silently observe as one of the most vulnerable species sings and eats.

Further up, Angel sets out breakfast for some Green Toucans. Slicing bananas and placing them on tree branches, he offers the birds almost 30 ripe plantain bananas. We sit back and wait, once again silent and unmoving in the early morning. Soon, the tree branches are buzzing with activity as Crimson Rumped Toucanets compete with Toucan Barbets, Blue Winged and Black Chinned Mountain Tanagers, until a couple of Sickle Winged Guans come in to hog the breakfast offerings. Fluttering and chirping, the birds come and go, feasting on the ripe bananas.

“Look!” says Angel, pointing up into the trees, where a red-breasted bird with a yellow head, a green coat and a black tail rests. The Quetzal. There is silence in the hide as the bird comes closer, easily spooked by the slightest movement. We freeze. Sitting just a few feet in front of our eyes, the Golden-Headed Quetzal pecks at the fruit. Cameras click. Then, it’s gone. On the ground, a pair of White-Throated Quail Doves waddle around, picking up the scraps dropped by the toucans.

MindoBirds1

We continue along the rough track, heading upwards until Angel stops us again. A rare Giant Antpitta gathers worms in her beak to feed her offspring. She jumps back and forth, stuffing food into her mouth and then vanishes to her nest in a nearby tree branch, returning a few minutes later to eat her own breakfast. Nearby, an Ochre-Striped Antpitta dances on a branch, swinging its hips from side to side, assessing the danger. “Huewee! Huewee!” It sings. We don’t move. No one speaks. Soon, they both disappear.

At the top of the path, hummingbird feeders are attracting a number of species: Velvet-Purple Coronets, Fawn-Breasted Brilliants, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds, and the shimmering Andean Emeralds, amongst several others whizzing by too fast to identify. There are 137 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador and we spot at least a dozen of the 49 species in the region. After a feast of raspberries picked from the vines behind the hide, we trek up the final part of the path to dine richly on a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast of Bolon (green plantain banana balls), sweet Empanadas (cheese pastries) and aromatic local coffee, before heading back into town feeling sleepy but satisfied by our early morning adventure.

Interested in Birdwatching Tours in Ecuador? Ask us how.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part Two

Blue-Footed Booby

Colonies of the adorable Blue-Footed Booby are found all over Galapagos

When I asked all my friends about the best things Ecuador has to offer, we unanimously agree that one of the most spectacular not-to-be-missed destinations in Ecuador is, without doubt, the incredibly beautiful and mystical Galapagos Islands. Straddling latitude zero, 1000km west from the mainland, this archipelago is home to an amazing array of wildlife; numerous species you will never see anywhere else in the world abound on these enchanted islands, unusual and fascinating creatures to someone who has never visited, and yet often quite common to those who know the islands well. Landscapes – or  moonscapes – of shimmering black lava and hardy flora forcing its way through the rock to thrive in such an arid environment where rainfall is extremely scarce in many places is a miracle so fantastic to behold that it’s worth every penny to come and discover the secrets of Galapagos for yourself.

There are 10 species of Giant Tortoises in Galapagos

Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) are the longest-living vertebrates on earth. The average life-span is over 100 years, and some live to over 170 years.

There are four inhabited islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana, with an international airport on Baltra, near the abandoned WWII American military base. While the Galapageño capitol of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is on San Cristobal, which also has an airport, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is the most populated settlement, with its infrastructure firmly in place to serve the requirements of around 175,000 visitors per year to the World Heritage National Park and Marine Reserve. Whether tourists participate in land-based or water-based activities, Galapagos; its phenomenal wildlife, unique vegetation and breath-taking landscapes, are bound to make a life-long impression on anyone fortunate enough to experience the magic.

Las Grietas, a fissure in the lava rock, is a wonderful local swimming hole.

Las Grietas, a fissure and a swimming hole where dare-devils leap in from the cliffs.

Regardless of age, there are activities to suit every level of fitness and include a vast range of interests, from a gentle 2.5km walk to Tortuga Bay near Puerto Ayora, to a strenuous hike up the challenging slopes of Sierra Negra on Isabela to see the massive crater, which is 11km in diameter, from stretching out in a bikini under the hot equatorial sun while your launch cruises leisurely from island to island on the azure Pacific Ocean, to rolling back off the launch in your scuba gear to experience the fascinating world of Galapagos marine life 20 meters below the surface off North Seymour, from observing the Magnificent Frigate Birds bathing in Lagoon El Junco on San Cristobal, the only fresh water lake in the archipelago, to leaving your postcards in Post Office Bay on Floreana and hoping they’ll arrive at their destination at some point in the future, and once you’ve done all that, there is still so much more to do… like visit the Giant Tortoise breeding center at the Charles Darwin Research station, or just lay on a towel on a pristine beach and relax.

Divers are always thrilled to find large schools of Hammerhead sharks

Scuba Divers are thrilled to find large schools of Hammerhead sharks at Gordon Rocks.

A trip to Galapagos is, for many, a once in a lifetime experience. Admittedly, it’s a little costly to get there. Between airfares, national park fees,  and the high cost of cruises and many other vacation activities, you almost need a second mortgage just to put your feet on the enchanted islands. And because most of the food is shipped 1000km, it also costs more than on the mainland. Even so, if you spend every penny you’ve saved for this trip, just to make it one single time, you will spend the rest of your life enjoying the wonderful memories of a natural phenomena not to be found anywhere else on the planet. Galapagos is worth every penny. There are also a number of land-based and water activities that don’t cost a thing. Depending on which island you are on and, if you have the time and resources, it’s highly recommended to go island-hopping on at least two islands in the Galapagos, and you can easily find out which activities are free. Whether you’ve lived in Ecuador for many years, or have just passed through as a visitor, the magic spell of Galapagos remains with you forever.

Ask us how to get to Galapagos:

Ecuador is Awesome – Part One

Green tree snake

Green tree snake

Ecuador is one of the most interesting countries on the planet. The incredible diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero stand out in South America. You might think I’m being biased just because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question:
“What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This post, and the following nine posts will be all about what they said.

The Jungles and Forests

In a country that is made up of half rainforest, whether it’s the lush cloud forests high in the Andean Sierra with bird sanctuaries and butterfly farms, the verdant  tropical rainforests fringing the Pacific coast filled with howler monkeys, sloth and Pecari tajacu, the wild jungles of the Amazon with the richest variety of flora and fauna on earth, or the moist highlands of the volcanic Galapagos Islands with its giant tortoises, the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems, and wildlife is equal to none.

With 3500 species of orchids, 1600 species of birds, and 415 amphibian species, not to mention mammals, reptiles, insects and marine creatures such as the unique Amazonian pink river dolphins, there is no shortage of fascinating wildlife and countless species of exuberant vegetation to observe in the magical wildernesses of Ecuador. In every corner of the country there is something fascinating to explore and discover, from strange pink caterpillars that will give you an electric shock. gigantic boa-constrictors capable of swallowing a grown man whole, healing shamans who will take you on a natural psychedelic journey to your inner-self, and traditional indigenous tribes who are the fiercest warriors around, as they shrink heads and eat delicious grubs right out of the ground. Critters you’ve never even imagined abound in Ecuador. Flowers and plants that are beyond imagination thrive in the jungles and forests.

Despite its remoteness, the Amazon is alive with people. plants, creatures and adventures just waiting to be enjoyed. Historically, indigenous communities of the Siona­ Secoya, Cofan, Huaorani, Quichua, Shuar and Ashuar have been able to maintain a productive subsistence within the existing ecosystems of vast Amazonian forest preserve, estimated to cover around 12 million hectares. The Amazon ecosystem, particularly its tropical jungles, is considered one of the richest and most complex communities of plant and animal life in the world.

Esaltamontes amazon-boardwalk-in-jungle achuar

Friends from all over the world, and from all walks of life, we all agree unanimously that the forests and jungles of Ecuador, and the vast range of indigenous peoples and their cultures and traditions, and the amazing wildlife, incredible nature, countless activities, wild and tame adventures and wonderful education they have to offer a visitor to the country, are definitely not to be missed if you are thinking of coming to Ecuador.

Footprints can take you into the highlands, rainforests and jungles of Ecuador and show you a wonder-world of nature and eco-fun.

Point Break – Mompiche

Many people come to Mompiche just to surf the Point Break. In the season – November to April – this tiny remote fishing village that barely earns its spot on the Ecuadorian map, becomes a haven for surfers from all over the world. Hostels fill up, restaurants are teeming with diners, and the pristine beach is smattered with the bright sarongs of rapidly reddening sunbathers. Vendors walk up and down the white sand hawking fresh coconuts, tropical fruits and tasty ceviches. The rest of the time, it’s pretty quiet. Don’t be fooled by its reputation as solely a surf beach. Aside from surfing, there are many other activities and tours you can do in Mompiche.

Wakeboarding, Mompiche style when the wave-action is a little slow.

Wakeboarding Mompiche-style when the wave-action is a little slow on The Point.

Naturally, there are plenty of water sports on offer along the 7km white sand beach. Body-boarding and surfing aside, you can also go kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, motor-boating and fishing. All year round, you can see the colony of Blue-footed Boobies on The Point, as well as Brown pelicans, Great and Magnificent frigate birds and even the odd Pink flamingo. From June to September, during the annual migration of the Humpback Whales, local fishermen offer trips out to San Francisco Peninsular to view these enormous marine creatures as they make their way south on the Humboldt Current. Lucky visitors often see mothers and their calves playing in the sea as they travel past Mompiche bay. Frequently during the whale-watching season, leaping whales can even be spotted from the beach. On public holidays and fiestas, a para-sailing outfit sets up shop on the beach and sometimes there are bay tours on a catamaran.

If you’re not a water baby, but enjoy spending time on the beach anyway, Doña Fabiola offers horses for rent. Mompiche’s version of Mrs Doolittle, Fabiola takes very good care of her horses, as well as her ever-growing menagerie of dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese and an abandoned calf named Anabel, which she hand-feeds thrice daily. The well-maintained horses are in lovely condition and can by hired by the hour or for a half- or full-day tour with a guide. There are two tour options: a leisurely walk along the beach and back, or a more adventurous tour through the mountains behind Mompiche, passing by lakes, through dense jungle trails and spotting plenty of wildlife. Depending on the fruit seasons, you can even pick and eat exotic tropical fruits directly from the trees.

You can also go with a Native Guide and hike along Mompiche’s fascinating river, learning along the way about all the exotic water plants, tropical fruit trees you didn’t even know existed, and the magical medicinal herbs the ancient Chachi tribes used and the modern locals currently use to cure their ills, also visiting the Secret Waterfall and taking dips in refreshing pools as you go. A hike along the river takes most of the day and is an education in Mompiche’s jungle flora and fauna in itself.

Miguel, who has lived in the mountains his whole life, takes half-day hiking tours through the jungle. With intimate knowledge of every tree, plant and flower, as well as all the species of wildlife in the area, hiking with him is truly an eye-opener. Sometimes he just stops mid-step. Using sign language, he tells you not to move. Then, straight away so as not to alarm you, he tells you to listen. And then he’ll point out the creature making the sounds he heard while you were noisily opening your water bottle. He will also protect you from any danger long before you even know it’s there. En route, he’ll cut coconuts out of the palm trees to drink and feed you with seeds and weeds, roots and shoots you did not even imagine were edible. Most of the trails are moderate to difficult. But even if you’re a novice hiker, and enjoy the solitude of the jungle, a trip into the wilds with Miguel is definitely for you!

If you are lucky, you can see families of Howler Monkeys in the trees along the path.

If you are lucky, you can see and hear families of Howler Monkeys calling from the jungle.

There are numerous hotels and restaurants of all grades and varieties, as well as kiosks selling freshly made fruit juices and milkshakes made from all the wonderful tropical fruits available in the area. The best “superfruit” juices to try are Papaya, Borojo, Jackfruit and Guanabana (Soursop). Bananas, naturally, are a staple food on the coast and fresh juice blended with a banana is more like a milkshake without the milk. Of course, just like everywhere there are reputable places to stay and eat – and some not so great. Some of the local delicacies not to miss are Corviche, Muchin, Encebollado, Encocado and Ceviche.

If too much action is not your scene, there are also some wonderful options that don’t cost a penny: a leisurely stroll north along the gloriously unpopulated white sand beach, followed by a spot of hammock-surfing and a siesta are also “activities” in which you can heartily participate while visiting Mompiche. If relaxation is your thing, shiatsu massage, relaxation massage and yoga are also possible in this tiny village.

A short hike southwards will take you to either the Cemetery on top of The Point, which has a spectacular view of the bay, or go further to Black Beach, a short cove covered in shimmering black titanium sand. Further south, the islands of Portete and Bolivar can be explored on foot (with a river crossing), or visit Jupiter by boat.

Towards evening, people-watching and sunset-gazing along Mompiche’s ever-changing beach-front promenade can also be extremely educational and entertaining, and also breath-takingly relaxing.

Sound good? Ask Footprints how to get to Mompiche.

The Octopus Garden

Just after dawn, as the motorboat pulls out of Pelican Bay, we start to prepare ourselves for the dive, pulling on pre-dampened wetsuits over our bikinis and leaving them hanging half-open at our waists for the rest of the journey. Frigate birds fly overhead, their distinctive red necks deflated as they wait to see if we’re offering them breakfast. Disappointed, they soar towards a flock of blue-footed boobies hunting nearby to bully the boobies and pirate another meal.

The glorious Galapagos Islands shimmer in the bright sunlight as we speed past Santa Cruz and Baltra, Dafne and finally arrive at North Seymour. A large manta ray skims along just under the surface. At first, just a shadow in the distance, we get close enough to see the 4m wingspan of this magnificent creature, with its wingtips breaking the surface as it cruises alongside. We anchor in the channel between North Seymour and Mosquera to listen to the dive brief and finish putting on the rest of our gear: weight belts and fins, masks and finally our BCDs with tanks and regulators attached. The language of the dive has been discussed. We all know how to communicate underwater.

It's another world where nothing above the surface matters.

Twenty meters under the Pacific Ocean there is a completely different world where nothing above the surface matters.

Unless you have been scuba diving, it’s difficult to describe the feeling that envelopes you when you roll backwards into the water and then descend to the first meeting point. The only sound you can hear underwater is your own bubbles as you exhale. A small group with a very experienced dive guide, we buddy-up and head into the channel, adrift on the current which carries us along. Almost no effort is required. I barely wiggle a fin. My buddy drifts along beside me. White-tipped sharks rest of the ocean floor, letting the cool water rush over them. Minutes later, we find ourselves in the middle of a large school of yellow and black striped angelfish. We drift over impressive lava formations and colorful corals until we notice that some of the pretty pink rocks aren’t rocks at all. They’re fish. Scorpion fish.

The Scorpion fish is one of the world's most venomous species

The Galapagos Scorpion Fish is one of the most venomous species in the Pacific Ocean.

Responsible divers in the Galapagos know not to touch anything, so we are never in any danger of being stung by this cleverly camouflaged fish. Starfish abound in all shapes and colors, clinging to rocks and corals as the current sweeps over them. An octopus hides in a narrow crevice, its tentacles stretch over the rock as it moves ever-so-slowly across the rock face to find a more spacious hiding place. Enormous Moray eels peek out from their rock caves, mouths open to allow the Pacific cleaner shrimp to wash their faces for them. Outstanding service, if you ask me! During the dive we glide alongside elegant Eagle rays, and see a large school of Devil rays overhead. Concealed Stingrays shoot out from their hiding places in the sand and a large Manta ray circles overhead. A massive Pacific green turtle snoozes on the sandy bottom, ignoring us as an underwater photo-frenzy takes place above its head.

After a fifty-minute dive, we slowly ascend, making a safety stop a few meters below the surface. As we hold hands in a circle and dance, wiggling and shaking our hips, trying not to laugh out loud and lose our regulators, our friendly Manta ray sweeps by one last time to wish us farewell. On the surface, we board the boat once more, all talking at once, such is the excitement of yet another great dive in the spectacular Galapagos archipelago.

Would you like to come diving with me? Ask Footprints how.

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Galapagos Scuba Diving Tours
    Footprints Ecuador helps you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. Go Scuba Diving in the Galapagos!
  • “LIKE” Footprints on Facebook
    Footprints offers personal one-on-one consultation to help you plan the trip of a lifetime to Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands with no-fuss itineraries making the most of your time and budget, catering to your specific interests and requirements.

Behold the Boobies

Blue-Footed Booby

Blue-Footed Booby

One of the most amazing and wonderful things about Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands is the wildlife. The rich diversity of creatures to be found in the air, on land and in the sea is mind blowing. One of my favorite air critters is the Blue-Footed Booby (Piquero de Patas Azules).

Some interesting facts about Blue-Footed Boobies:

  • Blue-footed boobies are normally found on arid, tropical, and subtropical islands off the Pacific coast of South America (especially in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador).
  • The Sulidae family includes ten species of long-winged seabirds including the genus Sula, which comprises six species of boobies. Scientific name: Sula nebouxii
  • Subsisting on a diet of fish, these large seabirds can live for around 17 years.
  • They have a wingspan of nearly five feet in length. They weigh 1.5kg.
  • The blue of the webbed feet comes from carotenoid pigments obtained from the diet.
  • Blue-footed boobies use their vibrant blue feet in a showy mating dance ritual.
  • Habitat loss and egg collecting currently threaten the species.
  • Blue-footed boobies have a large, but little known, colony on Mompiche Point.

The mating ritual of the Blue-Footed Booby is a spectacle to behold indeed. The synchronized movements of both birds and the male’s high-stepping strut to show off his blue feet to attract the female is comical and highly entertaining. The bluer the feet, the better. The smaller male birds kiss and peck and clack beaks and whistle, kicking up their feet to show the prospective partner how beautiful and fabulously blue they are. Flaunting his blue feet and spreading his wings, presenting his mate with building materials for the family home, ensures he won’t be left out in the cold.

Blue-Footed Boobies also use their large webbed feet to protect their young and keep them warm. Eggs are laid in nests on the ground. After the brood of one to three chicks hatches, both parents feed and care for their babies. Breeding pairs usually only stay together for about one year then, unable to resist the urge to go dancing once again with their bright blue-suede shoes, they go off and find a different mate. Galapagos is home to about half of the world’s breeding pairs.

Exceptional divers, Blue-Footed Boobies wrap their long wings around their streamlined bodies and plunge into the water like spears from as high as 80 feet (24 meters) to catch small fish. They also dive from sitting positions on the surface of the water. A large flock of diving boobies is an impressive sight as they circle and dive over large schools of anchovies and other small fish, popping up like corks to swallow the catch.

People travel from all over the world to come and see Blue-Footed Boobies in Ecuador – especially visiting Galapagos to find flocks of Sula nebouxii, and observe their weird and wonderful mating ritual. They can also be found on Isla de la Plata, and here in Mompiche.

Would you like to see a colony of Blue-Footed Boobies? Ask Footprints how.

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Galapagos Tours / Coastal Tours
    Footprints Ecuador helps you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. See the Boobies in Ecuador!
  • “LIKE” Footprints on Facebook
    Footprints offers personal one-on-one consultation to help you plan the trip of a lifetime to Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands with no-fuss itineraries making the most of your time and budget, catering to your specific interests and requirements.

The Magic of Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

The 4WD picks us up early in the morning. We climb into the vehicle with the blankets of sleep still covering our faces. Yawning and floppy, we bump southwards out of Quito though the winding mountain range. Three and a half hours later, after stopping for breakfast somewhere along the Avenue of Volcanoes, we arrive at the Cotopaxi National Park Entrance where there are several stalls selling hand-knitted gloves, socks and balaclavas for anyone who has forgotten to dress warm. There are also brightly colored blankets, jackets and sweaters made from hand-dyed alpaca wool on sale. It’s warm at the entrance, the sun shines brightly, lighting up the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding volcanoes, the Illinizas (17,213ft) and Chimborazo (20,560ft),

Following a dirt trail that leads into the 36,000 hectares of pristine forests, rolling mountains, and serene lakes, as well as the treeless plains of the Andean páramo, which are also home to herds of llamas, wild horses, deer, and large lizards. On our way we see the Andean gull, blue-billed ducks, some large hummingbirds and a pair of (endangered) Andean condors circling high in the clear blue sky. We don’t see any pumas, spectacled bears, Andean foxes, or orange-headed caracaras that day, but are assured by our naturalist guide that they exist in the park. Shortly, we arrive at the Mariscal Sucre Museum and Visitor’s Center to drink a steaming cup of herbal coca leaf tea, which helps combat altitude sickness, and inspect the native garden in the grounds before checking out the relief map inside the tiny center, which also has a public bathroom at the back.

A quick stop to admire the reflection of majestic Rumiñahui (15,489ft) in the cold, clear waters of Limpiopungo Lake, and the spectacular view of snow-capped Cotopaxi on this brilliant sunny day leads into a photography frenzy when some rare black-faced Ibis and a small herd of llamas turn up to do a quick show.

The drive up to the carpark on Cotopaxi (14,924ft) reveals an incredible view of the surrounding plains and ranges, and our guide points out nearby volcanoes along the way. According to our guide, the Quechua meaning of the name Cotopaxi is Neck of the Moon, so called for the position of the volcano under a rising full moon. Dressed like so many Michelin men in many layers of wool and cotton, we spend the next forty-five minutes ascending the rocky path to the José Ribas mountain refuge (15,780ft) on the Cotopaxi snowline. At the yellow-roofed refuge, sipping more hot coca leaf tea, wrapping our freezing hands around the mugs to warm them, we’re not sure if we were lightheaded from bliss or the thin air at that altitude. For today, at least, we have no plans to climb to the summit of Cotopaxi (19,347ft).

In the Cueva del Búho (Owl Caves) great horned owls peek out from high above, blinking wisely as we eat a picnic lunch of home-made spinach pie, pasta salad and brownies, with brimming mugs of coca tea. Our guide points out native wildflowers as we lean against volcanic rocks and enjoy the warmth of the midday sun. After lunch, we’re off again, bumping over dirt trails until we come to Pucará El Salitre. After a snack of wild black currants from a nearby bush, we enter and explore the stoney ruins of this sprawling Inca military fortress which was used to monitor the movement of its armies and supplies, and keep look out for the enemy.

We leave the picturesque archeological site and drive over the grassy volcanic plain, spotting herds of wild horses and a flock of Andean gulls as we head towards Santo Domingo Lake via the Manantiales (natural springs). Inca stone walls surround the tranquil lake which gives us a glimpse of a traditional hacienda and boasts excellent views of the vast volcanic plateaus all around. The whole vista gives us a wonderful sense of feeling spiritually enhanced and celebrates our deepening love for the spectacular nature to be found in the Ecuadorian wilds.

Most of us are dozing lightly as we pull up outside the hotel in Quito at the end of the day. As we disembark, we fully understand the proud claim that Cotopaxi is the second most popular adventure destination in Ecuador. It’s definitely an unforgettable adventure.

Fancy a trip to Cotopaxi? You can take a day trip to visit the National Park and Volcano, or Climb right to the Summit!

Ask Footprints how!

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Cotopaxi Tour
    Footprints Ecuador will help you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. Take a Day Trip to Cotopaxi or Climb right to the summit!
  • LIKE” Footprints on Facebook
    Footprints offers personal one-on-one consultation to help you plan the trip of a lifetime to Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands with no-fuss itineraries making the most of your time and your budget, catering to your specific interests and requirements.