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: 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!
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