Finding refuge on Volcano Cotopaxi

11 Feb

National Park Cotopaxi is a paradise for people who love nature and have a spirit for adventure. The 33,393 hectare park is Ecuador´s largest protected area and offers a mixture of woods, lake-land and high Andean Altiplano which is home to an abundance of animals and plant life. The highlight of the park is the perfectly conical and snow-covered volcano Cotopaxi which is Ecuador’s second highest peak at 5,897 metres. Cotopaxi is the world´s fifth highest active volcano and whilst its last major eruption took place in 1904, scientists and seismologists now monitor activity very closely, just waiting for the next big one. The scenery rendered us speechless…for once! Cotopaxi had turned her headlights on and we were caught staring into the full beam feeling like we had the whole park to ourselves.

Latacunga is the closest sizable town to the park, only 30 kilometres south of the main entrance so this would have been a perfect place to make the trip from but, because we’d wanted to pass the previous week in Quito celebrating Dan’s birthday, we backtracked from there to the park (50 kilometres) which took around 1.5 hours to drive. It’s possible to stay overnight in the park or close by at one of the guest houses or hostels but new regulations mean you should be accompanied by a guide on each of your hikes and for trips to Cotopaxi’s high refuge at 4,800 metres which can make multi-day visits into the park a little pricy, even though entrance is now free.

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There are activities ranging from horse riding to ice climbing and, for the brave, even summitting Cotopaxi to stare into the caldera. We decided a trekking and mountain bike combo sounded good and, for simplicity and because it was a good price (40 USD per person), we went against our usual urge to go it alone and decided to join a tour group making a day trip to the park. The tour was organised through a recommended Quito based agency called Gulliver Travel and it included panoramic views of the park, trekking up the volcano from the mountain refuge at 4,800 metres to see Cotopaxi’s beautiful and incredible ice fields and then a thrilling 1000 metre vertical rough road descent down the side of the volcano to Lagoon Limpiopungo. It actually felt remarkably good to let someone else arrange the day for us – our transport, our guide, our activities and our lunch were all planned out using a tried and tested formula – so all we had to do was turn up and enjoy ourselves – easy!

Early morning of the tour we threw on quick drying layers of clothes and a rain jacket and bundled into a taxi which took us to our meeting point in the Mariscal area of the new town for our pick up at 7am. A group of about 15 faces greeted us as we boarded the mini bus and we said hello to a mixed group of international travellers of various ages. The drive to the park passed quickly as heads nodded after the early morning start. We stopped briefly at the agency’s hosteleria Papa Gayo en route to the park to pick up a couple more people and get fitted out for our mountain bikes, and pulled into the park just before 10am.

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The volcano was playing hard to get as we approached its base in the mini van. Thick clouds smothered the peak and only offered fleeting glimpses of its beauty. We puckered our lips and tried to blow them away. The flashes of rock and soil we did see were a rusty-red colour with a halo of snow and ice at the top.

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Our group let out a small cheer each time the clouds parted long enough to get a clear photograph. Our mini bus drove us up an unpaved road that wrapped around the contours of the volcano in a series of switchbacks. As we climbed higher and felt our ears pop, the park’s landscape opened up below us and we could see way into the distance.

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From where the road ended, the climb to the refuge was pretty tough. At sea level the climb would likely only take 20 minutes but the thin air at altitude zapped our strength and it took nearly double that. Dan and I pushed out ahead of our group with a young couple from Switzerland, who, being accustomed to climbing in the Alps, were like spritely mountain goats. We enjoyed the physical challenge of seeing how many steps we could take before we needed a breather. Breaks were a good excuse to keep admiring the scenery around us as the sun occasionally peeked out and switched everything into high-definition viewing.

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We seemed to climb into the clouds as patches of mist swirled around us. We sat on a wall in front of the refuge to catch our breath and wait for the others in the group to catch up.

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We nibbled on sugary snacks and gulped water. The air was very cool and even though we were warm from the climb we were glad we’d piled on the layers. Dan pulled his hat down around his ears to stop the heat escaping from his head.

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Summit attempts can be completed by people with little or no mountaineering experience and take two days, usually starting the climb late in the evening on the first day, climbing through the night and reaching the caldera (if the weather and your fitness holds) by sunrise the following morning. The cost for this is in the region of $160 USD (including transport, guide, training, equipment, food).

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Once our whole group was ready our guide led the way on a path which climbed roughly 200 metres to the start of the ice fields. We traversed slowly and steadily up through loose stones and volcanic scree, digging our toes in where we could to get a firm foot hold.

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Our guide’s reassurance that we were nearly there after 30 minutes of climbing fell on deaf ears as we could no longer see where we were going or where we’d been as the cloud had closed in around us. The air at this height felt very thin and we all panted just putting one foot in front of the other. And then, like a theatre performance, the curtain of cloud lifted and a dazzling show began.

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The outline of a single grey-blue stalagmite of ice came into view and then another, and then ten more – until finally they stretched all the way from where we stood to the summit of the volcano – nearly another 1000 metres.

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We were amazed by the sheer scale of the ice fields with some of the individual formations the size of buses and mini skyscrapers. We stood next to chunks of ice for photographs and were completely dwarfed.

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We could feel the cold oozing out from deep within the ice, like we were stood next to an open freezer.

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When the sun broke through the clouds it felt very warm on our skin but a persistent cold wind hustled across the ice field making us very grateful for our hats and gloves. Fast droplets of water ran from the glacier as the sun’s rays warmed its edges.

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If we clambered too close to the ice the dirt beneath our feet turned to cold, wet mush and reminded us that the ice ran deep beneath our feet.

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The downward climb was much easier and quicker than the uphill section. We dug our heels in and adopted a ski-like slide which very quickly filled our shoes and socks full of sand and small stones as the earth flooded over our ankles. Every now and again our smooth movement would be hindered by a larger rock embedded in the sand and we’d need to work hard to regain our footing and not to take a tumble.

As the name suggests, the refuge was a welcoming place serving hot drinks, biscuits and soup. A small log fire warmed the restaurant and as we started to defrost, layers of clothes peeled off until it looked like we might be holding a giant jumble sale. Our guide prepped us about our downhill bike ride and explained that when we were ready we should make our way down the final section of trail where the mini van would be waiting with our bikes. After surviving our previous mountain bike adventure down volcano Chimborazo we couldn’t believe we were about to turn our knuckles white again so soon, but before we knew it the helmets and elbow pads were on and we were posing for final happy looking photographs.

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The road leading down from the base of the refuge is also used by road vehicles and isn’t too challenging or scary apart from the odd pothole, some sharp corners and in places thick sand. Unfortunately, I’d picked a dud bike where the back brakes kept locking which caused me to skid dangerously each time. Considering it was necessary to use the brakes pretty regularly zooming down the side of a volcano… it wasn’t good. At first I joked around – ‘back wheel-spin stunt girl’ – but then I scared myself when the back wheel launched itself off the ground and nearly sent me somersaulting. So poor Dan swapped his bike for mine as crazily the company hadn’t bought a spare bike with us that day! Dan bumped, clunked and grinded the bike a further 10 minutes until finally the front tyre blew and he skidded to a halt. Another girl further down the track had also had a blow out and her friend decided to ride in the mini bus with her (which followed us down) so Dan did eventually get a replacement but it taught us to always check equipment thoroughly when doing this kind of activity and to make sure the agency you choose always takes spares in case of emergencies.

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We had a further 30 minutes to ride to the lake so we hit the pedals hard and blew away any bad feelings we had about the bikes with an energizing ride and some fantastic views as we snaked into the valley.

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We were red in the face and puffing well as we skidded to a stop at the lake. In contrast to us, the lake was cool, calm and very tranquil. We slowly walked a short distance around the shoreline to catch our breath and noticed that the clouds had rolled in again to cover the summit of the volcano. We’d timed it just right to see the best of the volcano that day and we headed off to find another kind of refuge – a hot shower and a big, well deserved dinner!

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2 Responses to “Finding refuge on Volcano Cotopaxi”

  1. Dean brand February 13, 2014 at 3:19 am #

    Awesome stuff Dan and Kate, makes me rush I had a few more months in SA! Keep up the good work with the blog

    • latinchattin February 17, 2014 at 11:30 am #

      Thanks Dean – great to hear from you. This Continent is so huge, we think we need a few more years here! Hope you and Ellen are good and enjoying life back in sunny Australia.

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