Driving, Hiking & Biking Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

An hour and a half outside of Quito, Ecuador lies Volcan Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world sitting at 19,347 feet (5,897 meters). It last erupted August 2015, and continued doing so, until January 2016. The national park was closed to visitors until October 2017. Cotopaxi is one of the most active volcanoes in Ecuador, having spewed lava 87 known times.

Once again, we used a tour company for this day hike, and again, somewhat regretted it. We were picked up from our AirBnB in a school bus of sorts, and driven to another hotel, where we sat and waited. At which point, we were transferred to yet another bus, but this one was crammed with many more people. We were originally told it was us and two other people. Oh well… The more the merrier! Our group consisted of a father and son, another couple, some other random folks, and the tour guide and driver.

We retraced our route to Quilotoa from the day prior, winding through the city before entering the rural landscape south of Quito. An hour and a half later, we rumbled into the national park, and approached the visitor’s center. Have change on you… the bathroom usage is not free, and women cost more than men (I believe that is considered sexist). We were told to buy snacks or drinks if desired, and then given some information about the volcano. Hubs and I being the avid hikers we are, we assumed we were going to hoof it from there. Alas, they told us to board the bus yet again, so that we could drive yet another hour to get to the next parking lot. I paid to hike the damned mountain, not drive up it! Regardless, we found ourselves sitting on the van bouncing along the unpaved road towards the volcano that was currently hiding amongst the clouds. We were able to stop at one point, and catch a glimpse of the snow-capped mountain when the clouds broke ever so slightly. Unfortunately, the clouds only became denser and denser during our time at Cotopaxi, so I wasn’t able to capture any great photos of the peak.

Up and up we wound, before finally reaching a steep parking area with many other people. We donned our cold weather gear, to include woolen hats, rain gear, and gloves. There are a couple of ways to tackle the mountain… either up the steepest of the steep straight to the refuge, or the switchbacking route weaving up the lava field. We all chose the latter, and began meandering up. Hubs and I took a decisive lead, booking it upwards regardless of the high elevation. Hell, the elevation barely winded us! We can only surmise it was because the grade was far less steep than Quilotoa. We beat the next two up by at least 15 minutes, and the next ones were behind by about 40 minutes after that.

The refuge, Refugio Jose Rivas, sits at just about 16,000 feet, specifically 15,953 feet above sea level (4864 meters). By the time the guide and the remainder made it up, we were all settled in in the refuge drinking coca tea, not that we needed it. For those that don’t know, coca tea helps with altitude sickness. We chatted as we escaped the growing wind outside. An American flag hung on the wall behind the tables and benches, signed all over by hikers who have visited the structure. We joined in on the tradition, and I scrawled our names on the flag on December 20, 2021.

Just before we left the comforts of the refuge, we watched a pair of women begin layering themselves with additional clothing and gear. In order to tackle the remainder of the mountain, you must have climbing gear, and be experienced in climbing. We possess neither.

The clouds had really taken over when we departed the refuge. The parking lot we had started it was gone from sight completely. The slow moving chaps in our group elected to take the quick route back down the mountain, while my damaged knee would not allow for such a steep incline downward. Hubs and I took the serpentined pathway back down as well. My knee thanked me, even though we were the last ones down.

Next on the agenda… biking down the rutted road we had driven up. Initially, Hubs and I elected to forgo this activity, as we were under the impression that it cost extra. Once we discovered the bikes were included, why thought, ‘What the hell?!’ Famous last words… err… thoughts? When we started the bumpy journey, the rain was merely a light sprinkle. Shortly after, it became a steady, annoying drizzle. The 20 something guys sped off ahead of myself and another girl on the trip. We brought up the rear like champs. At least for awhile. We kept sharing glances as the bumpy road became a muddy, bumpy nightmare, daring one another to give up first. Water was steadily dripping off my nose, hands, elbows, chin… my pants were drenched, soaked through to my underwear. My fingers were frozen, struggling to grip the handlebars as I bounced downward. My rain jacket was rendered useless as the rainwater ran down my face and head slipping passed the collar of the chaqueta (that’s jacket in Spanish). Finally, we squinted at each other and came to a stop. The bus pulled up behind us, the driver dismounted, and began loading up our cycles. We climbed the stairs onto the bus in defeat, receiving snide remarks from the two people that did not opt to bike… “Told ya so!” Somewhere, there is a photo of me dripping wet and dejected as I entered the vehicle, shedding my soaked attire (Updated: Hubs was hiding the photos from me… rude). However, quitting was the best decision I ever made (at least, at the time). Once drier and settled in on the dry, warm van, I gradually thawed.

Down the road, I glimpsed the Hubs was pulled off to the side, awaiting the bus. He was shaking his head with malaise… which could have been despair or just to shake off some of the water. Three down, the remainder of the 20 something dudes to go!

As the parking lot came into view, so did the remaining bikers. They were all waterlogged, cold, and muddy. One of them made the distinct mistake of sporting a woolen sweater for the quest. He looked like a miserable, drowned rat regretting every minute of the ride. The bus reeked of wet dog as everyone tried to get warm and dry for the jaunt back to Quito.

Unbeknownst to us, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch post-hike. Rondador Cotopaxi hosted us with a large variety of teas for our sipping pleasure, some delicious Ecuadorian food, and a guitar fashioned from an armadillo shell (poor little guy). We laughed, we ate, we finally all warmed up, and then we fed alpacas A LOT of carrots. Hungry, greedy little fuckers they are! We boarded the bus one final time, and cruised back to Quito.

And with that, our time in Ecuador came to an end. Now time to obtain a COVID test that is a scant 24 hours old in order to board the flight home.

Adios Ecuador, we will certainly be back someday to explore more of your stunning scenery.

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