Adventures in Quito: Hiking in the Shadow of Cotopaxi

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For most of my trip to Quito I had Internet access, and was able to write about my days events as they happened. On the final few days of the trip, I was in a mountain lodge that didn’t have Internet, so I continued to write about my adventures so that I could share them when I got back home. I’m now getting back to my regular routine, but still have a couple of stories to share. Here’s the first one about a day I spent trekking in Cotopaxi National Park.

After two straight days of gray clouds that hung low over the Earth, it was a relief to wake to sunshine and blue skies. That meant that my last day of trekking in the Andes would at least get off to a good start, and we might actually see some of the amazing scenery that had been teased over the previous two hikes. It seemed that the day was looking up, and I hadn’t even rolled out of bed yet.

Unfortunately, that feeling wouldn’t last long. When I did roust myself from the massive and comfortable bed at the Santa Ana Hacienda, I discovered that I wasn’t particularly feeling well. I’m not sure if it was the altitude or something I ate the night before, but there was definitely some stomach troubles brewing. Never the less, I was determined to hit the trail, as this was the day we would be hiking in Cotopaxi National Park, right in the shadow of the massive volcano itself.

After a quick breakfast (my stomach wasn’t much interested in food) we checked out of the Santa Ana and set off on the road to the park. Traditionally, the trek I was doing would have begun on foot at a different lodge, but my friends from Tropic were doing me a favor by showing me this route, so we had to take accommodations where we could find them. A short drive down the road put us in the national park however, and we soon transitioned to foot.
As expected, the clear skies afforded us some amazing views of the mountains that surrounded us, including Pasochoa, a 4199 meter (13,776 ft) peak that we had summited just two days earlier. But of course, the real crown jewel was Cotopaxi itself, and the gigantic volcano didn’t disappoint. It stood out starkly against the clear blue skies as clouds lightly drifted by just below the summit. It was an impressive, awe-inspiring sight, and most definitely worth the wait.

We set off across the open grassland at a steady pace with the snow-capped summit of Coto gleaming in the sun. It was impossible to ignore the giant mountain, which loomed overhead, despite the fact that there were three or four other prominent peaks that were also clearly visible from the trail. Cotopaxi is a mountain that demands attention with its beautiful, yet rugged lines, and massive presence on the landscape. 

The trail began as an access road, but soon turned into a series of twisting routes made by other trekkers, and the wild animals that inhabit the park. Before long, we were wandering through narrow valleys, up steep hills, and over prairie lands inhabited by numerous wild bulls and horses.

About an hour or so into the trek, we turned up an embankment out of one of those valleys, and climbed to the highest point of the day. It was the top of a hill that stretched roughly 3950 meters (12,959 ft) into the air, providing fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. It was a spectacular sight, and on a clear day, it was easy to see for kilometers in all directions. 

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The site was so good in fact, that the ancient Incas liked it as well. More than 500 years ago, they built a fortress on top of that hill, and used it as a lookout point and way station for travelers. Some of the walls from that fortress remain to this day, marking the history that the region has witnessed over the centuries. 

The climb to the top of the hill wasn’t a particularly challenging one, but it was enough to get my already delicate stomach even more upset. I found myself laboring to hike to the top, and while there, it took longer than normal to catch my breath. Up until that point, I had been feeling fine, but the labor of the climb had kicked me into another level of suffering. For the rest of the hike I’d struggle to maintain a solid pace, and felt the energy drain from my legs in an unusual fashion. Fortunately, I never actually got sick, but the rest of the trek was a challenge when it really shouldn’t have been.

This hike is the third in a four-day lodge-to-lodge trekking itinerary offered by Tropic. The route is perhaps the most beautiful of all, but it truly shouldn’t be a very difficult walk. In fact, most of the time you didn’t need to use trekking poles at all, although Tropic definitely recommends you bring them. For the most part, the hike crosses over open landscapes, with just grasslands surrounding you. On occasion it does wander into rubble fields left over from previous eruptions of Cotopaxi, or up into the high-alpine marshlands, where the same thick, tall grass that plagued me on Pasochoa two days earlier attempted to make life hard once again. 

After descending from the Inca ruins, we struck out across open fields towards some natural springs that crisscross the national park landscape. These incredible clear – and incredibly cold – streams were a source of tranquility as we hiked along their banks. Fed by the glaciers on Cotopaxi, the water rushes down hill to join ever-enlarging rivers, which provide a steady source of water to Quito and other towns in the region. 
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As we continued upstream, we actually came across the source of one of the babbling brooks. Our trail passed right over the point where the water broke out from its subterranean well, and gushed out onto the land above. It was at that point that we reached the furthest point of our trek, and started to loop back towards the end point. Cotopaxi had been on our right all morning, but was now shifting to the left as we started towards are finishing point at lodge called Tambopaxi.

On this day’s hike there were four of us crossing the wide-open fields. Our head guide Fabian lead the way, and I tried to follow close behind, although me waning energy levels made it difficult to keep up at times. We were joined by two representatives from Tropic – Javier and Carmen – who answered my questions about the trek as we walked, Typically, a group on this trek ranges in size from 2 – 6 clients, plus a guide, which is the perfect size for an adventure like this one. Anything larger becomes too cumbersome, and the fitness level to the group can vary too greatly as well. On this day, I would have said that we were all well matched, although I found myself the one who was lagging. 

By the time we started our return trip, some low hanging clouds began to move into the area, and the view of the summit of Cotopaxi became obscured. For the most part, it was still a very lovely day, but the telltale shift in the Andean weather was on the horizon. As we walked, we spied some of our locations from previously in the day from the distance, including the Inca ruins, which stood out at the top of the hill. We also encountered more wild bulls and horses as well, all of which scurried away at our approach.

Finally, we made the final push up, and out, of the valley below, and found Tambopaxi lodge, where our van was waiting to hurry us along to our next destination. For me, this marked the end of my travels with Tropic, as they dropped me off at the El Porvenir lodge, where I would spend the next two days before returning home to the states.

Traditionally, the Tropic mountain lodge trek would actually have one more leg. On the fourth day of that itinerary, the group leaves Tambopaxo and hikes up to the glacier line of the Cotopaxi, which is located at about 4800 meters (15,748 ft). While I would have liked to have been able to go for that final stage, considering my low energy levels after today’s hike, it would have been a tough slog for sure. 

Fortunately, an afternoon of rest at Hacienda El Porvenir has helped me to recover to a degree. Tomorrow, I’ll go horseback riding in the Andes, as that is one of many activities that the lodge offers. Visitors can also take in additional hiking trails, go mountain biking, or simply enjoy the ambiance that surrounds the traditional Andean farm/ranch setting. While very different from the other lodges I’ve stayed in on this trip, it provides a setting that fits in amazingly well with the Andean traditions.
Kraig Becker