Ecuador 8 – Central Highlands, Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

7th October –  South of Quito lies some of Ecuador’s most dramatic, mountainous scenery.  It includes most of the country’s highest peaks within two parallel, mountain chains.  It is not surprising that the German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt, named this region ‘The Avenue of Volcanoes’.  Cotopaxi however, dominates the surrounding valley at 5897m – the world’s highest, active volcano with a near perfect, snow-capped, conical shape.

Following our visit to Laguna Quilotoa, we return to Latacunga and into the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi.

It will be another night at a cold, higher altitude but we have learned that early morning is the best time to see these only too often, cloud-covered volcanoes and mountains.  Strong winds blast across the landscape as we check out a camping place for the night amongst some trees that will hopefully provide shelter.   Cloud is drifting across Cotopaxi and we can only sneak an occasional glimpse of its snowy peak.

Before settling for the evening, we have time to take a dirt road that leads up to the Refugio Jose Rivas at 4800m, where ascents to climb the volcano begin at midnight, in order to reach the summit at dawn.  The drive up to this refuge, reveals the enormity of Cotopaxi.

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Only as you get closer, do you appreciate its size, the colours of the rock face and the enormous glaciers that drape its sides.

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Being so cold here, the ice and snow remain throughout the year, although studies to 2010 have shown that Cotopaxi’s glaciers have shrunk considerably.  The large, exposed rock face near the peak, is now clearly visible.

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We stop in the parking area just below the refuge but still above the snow line.  The edge of the glacier is another 200m climb from the refuge.

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From our parking, we have outstanding views across the valley to distant mountains…..a remote and spectacular landscape.

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This picture perfect volcano however, has a destructive past, having erupted on several occasions since 1742 and destroying Latacunga several times.  Although Cotopaxi is still classed as being officially active, it has been quiet since 1904.  As so many people live near it, it is considered to be one of the most dangerous.  Should Cotopaxi erupt again, there would be serious concerns about avalanches caused by melting snow, as well as the intense explosion of ash, lava and rocks.  Plumes of smoke from the crater, are visible to climbers who succeed in reaching its summit!

Wild horses, llama, deer, rabbits, foxes, pumas and many species of birds inhabit the park, including the Andean Condor (Ecuador’s national symbol) sadly in danger of disappearing from our planet because of all the changes the paramo landscape has undergone in the past.  The indiscriminate use of wood over many years has decreased the area of native forests in the Andes and the traditional custom of burning the grasslands has killed plant and animal life.

On our drive back down from the refuge, we are fortunate in seeing a beautiful fox by the roadside, who although cautious, stays around long enough for us to admire him and take photos.

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We return to our trees to camp for the night.  At almost 4000m it’s going to be cold but fortunately the wind has dropped.  A deer appears just the other side of the trees……so lovely to be seeing wildlife again in its natural habitat.

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Once it is dark, the sky is full of stars and we can just make out the white outline of Cotopaxi’s snowy peak in front of us.  Let’s hope it is a clear day tomorrow!

8th October – We are awake early but everywhere is blanketed in a thick fog….very disappointing, we wouldn’t even know Cotopaxi exists!               A thudding of hooves and a group of wild horses suddenly canter through the trees and disappear into the mist.  Another deer appears and stands looking through the trees at us…..beautiful!

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It looks as if this mist and low cloud are going to take a while to disappear though.  By 9am however, patches of blue sky are appearing and Cotopaxi slowly begins to emerge.

We drive along to the shallow and reedy Lake Limpiopungo, where Cotopaxi can be admired from a completely different setting – in fact I think this is one of the most attractive, although it is wise to stay clear of the cows and bulls that are often near the water’s edge.  This lake is also home apparently, to local and migrating birds.

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As we drive along the tracks, Cotopaxi completely dwarfs our Land Rover!

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We now spend a few hours off-roading, taking dirt tracks and crossing small streams that take us round to the other side of Cotopaxi.

Once again, this remote landscape is really spectacular…..lines of distant volcanoes, rounded hills covered in ripples of golden grass, huge boulders and rocks thrown out from past eruptions and a flat, arid plain with a narrow ribbon of water meandering across it.  At times it appears like a lunar landscape, due perhaps to past eruptions when Cotopaxi spewed a huge amount of ash, which became impacted and formed a hard, infertile soil.

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Every side of this volcano appears different but the intense cold and relentless, bitter wind remain the same wherever we are.

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Bulls with their herd of cows and wild horses with their manes and tails blowing, turn their backs to the wind and graze on the coarse grass of the green and gold paramo.

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This park has been a real highlight, not only because of Cotopaxi’s mighty presence but also for the remote, wild and wonderful scenery of the immense plain that surrounds this volcano.  We never got a completely clear view of Cotopaxi, there was always that little bit of cloud either behind or in front or approaching but the day turned out to be beautiful, with a deep blue sky.

Sadly we leave, not wanting to spend another very cold night and return to Quito…..a concrete jungle of houses and high-rise flats, congested traffic, fumes, horns, whistles and loud music…….it will take a little while to re-adjust before we leave to travel further north and soon to our next country – Colombia.



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