the mighty volcán cotopaxi

Wednesday, August 10, 2022: After another fabulous breakfast at Hostal Huasicama in Latacunga, we were on our way to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. In 40 minutes we were at the Main Southern Entrance to the park. It had been warm and sunny in Latacunga, but as soon as we entered the park, it suddenly became cold, windy and rainy.

Cotopaxi is among the highest active volcanoes in the world. Its most recent eruption began on August 14, 2015, and ended on January 24, 2016. It is known to have erupted 87 times.

The park includes three volcanoes, Cotopaxi itself along with two others, the dormant Rumiñahui to its northwest and the historical Sincholagua Volcano, which last erupted in 1877, to the southeast.

We had all the right rain and cold weather gear, so we just bundled up and walked on the only trail people are allowed to walk unless they have access to a 4×4 vehicle. This was the Laguna Limpiopungo Trail, a 2.5 km walk around a lagoon. It is a shallow reedy lake at the base of Volcán Rumiñahui.

We saw much of the same high Andes vegetation we encountered in the páramo at Parque Nacional Cajas, further south near Cuenca. The Limpiopungo Lagoon is the natural habitat for at least eight species of aquatic and migratory birds: the Andean lapwing, Baird’s Sandpiper, Andean Coot, Caracara, Andean Gull, Andean Teal, the Solitary sandpiper and one other.

Sadly, we couldn’t see views of Cotopaxi as the volcano was shrouded in clouds and rain.

It was pretty miserable walking around the lagoon on this cold and blustery day.

As we left the lagoon, we saw some wild horses grazing.

As the road veered north away from the volcano, it got much more gravelly and bumpy and the drive was slow going. We’d been advised by the people at Hacienda Los Mortiños, where we’d spend two nights, that the southern way to the hacienda was doable with a regular sedan, whereas if we had come from Quito to the north, we would have needed a 4×4. I was still afraid we’d get a flat tire in our little Yaris, but luckily we made it there intact.

We stopped at Tambopaxi, a red lodge and restaurant within the park boundaries. We enjoyed some hot coffee and soup to warm up. The place was a certified sustainable tourism project involved in wildlife conservation and watershed protection, and it hired local workers.

I’d been excited about the haciendas we’d booked for our last four nights in Ecuador. We exited Nacional Parque Cotopaxi through the north gate of the park to find Hacienda Los Mortiños. It is a modern adobe dwelling with views of the neighboring volcanoes. We in fact got the “King room with Cotopaxi View.” It was too bad we had no view because of the rain and fog.

The hacienda was cold in the afternoon. We had found most of the places we stayed in Ecuador didn’t have heat, but this was the first time the cold permeated through our bones, even in our room. Our room and the others had wood stoves that the staff said they’d light around 4:00-5:00.

Mike took a walk around the property upon our arrival, but I was so cold after our morning walk, I took a hot shower and cuddled up in bed under fuzzy blankets with the space heater on full blast. I read a bit and posted pictures to Instagram.

We went to the downstairs bar/restaurant and ordered drinks and chatted with the bartender/receptionist “man about the house,” Franklin. At the bar we also chatted with a young Dutch man staying there with a large group from Amsterdam. They were all tall, lean and put together and were on a post-college trip with lots of friends (maybe ~25). The boisterous guys were guzzling down beers and had planned a climb up Cotopaxi for that afternoon.

We went back up the room, where the staff had stocked it with wood and kindling and lit the fireplace. Mike made us drinks in the room and we pulled up chairs around the wood stove.

Later for dinner in the dining room, I enjoyed some excellent Tilapia with Creamy Sauce, zucchini and potatoes. Mike ate a ham and cheese sandwich that was finally the “grilled one” he’d envisioned at an earlier stop.

Steps: 8,696; Miles 3.69.

Thursday, August 11: After enjoying a great breakfast at Hacienda Los Mortiños, we saddled up for our three-hour horseback ride around Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. It was slow going, as my horse, Fortunato, was “muy perezoso” (lazy) so I was lagging increasingly behind our guide, Edizon, and Mike.

Finally, Edizon switched horses with me. Then I was on the feisty Dorado, who always wanted to be ahead, “un jefe” (a boss) wannabe.

Before we started our ride, Edizon had asked if I had any experience riding horses. I explained that when I was a young girl, I rode horses and even jumped them. I let that exaggeration stand; of course, I meant I had jumped on Maybe, who was a small pony and not a horse. I’d ride him over jumps, and when he landed, at the moment I was most off-balance, maybe he’d buck me and maybe he wouldn’t. When he did start bucking, I held on for dear life on the underside of his belly until I fell off. One time I rode him galloping across the Yorktown Battlefield, and he abruptly stopped and put his head down!  I went sailing over his head.

Here at Cotopaxi, when we reached a creek, Dorado jumped across with me hanging on for dear life.  The other horses simply waded across. He did this twice. After the second jump, where the horse jumped and then ran quickly up a steep bank, I barely managed to hang on. Edizon told me I needed to hold tighter to the reins and keep better control of him. I felt foolish acting as if I really had experience riding horses!

After that last jump, I was quite shaken and I knew I had to pee. We found a large rock where I hunkered down to go. Though Mike and Edizon couldn’t see me, there was a group not too far off who had stopped to look at something.  They might not have been able to see me clearly, but I’m sure they could see enough to figure out what I was doing. There was nowhere to hide on that wide-open plain.

We were lucky it wasn’t raining because rain had been forecast. It was fiercely windy and cold. I even heard a pitter-patter on my raincoat that may have been freezing rain or tiny hailstones.

Still, for three hours, we had the grandest vistas imaginable, only a few of which I was able to capture since I was on horseback. We even rode at one point along the precipice of a deep canyon, which seemed mighty dangerous. I kept hoping the horse wanted to live as much as I did.

The windy landscape reminded me a bit of Iceland in its stark and sweeping beauty.

Near the end of the ride, the clouds finally lifted enough for us to see glimpses of Cotopaxi. It was stunning. Seeing it didn’t stop the bitter wind or the frigid temps, but it made the whole ride magical.

We arrived back at the Hacienda and hitched up our horses. My behind was sore after all that riding and I felt like a stiff 90-year-old walking around after.

After showering and getting changed, we enjoyed lunch in Los Mortiños: I slurped up the traditional Ecuadorian Locro de papa soup; Mike had an empañada. Franklin and his merry band of staffers were scampering about trying to keep all the guests happy.

Then it was a long and boring afternoon as we waited for dinner and tried to keep warm. We walked upstairs for a view of Cotopaxi under blue skies.  We even could see the volcano out our window.

We went back down to the dining room for a drink and to kill time. There was another large group of young Dutch men, but they looked rather slovenly compared to the first group. They were getting ready to hike up to Cotopaxi with a guide and were loading up with a bunch of beers to take along. They had a horseback ride planned for the following morning.

We ate at around 6:45 in the dining room. Again, I had the delicious Tilapia with Creamy Sauce and Mike ordered spaghetti, a real Ecuadorian dish!

Steps: 19,912 (obviously the horse’s steps!); 8.12 miles. 🙂

Friday, August 12: Another fabulous breakfast and then we were off, backtracking to the southern entrance of the park even though we were heading north of Quito to Otavalo. This time the sky was bright and blue and we enjoyed many fabulous views of Cotopaxi and its vast boulder fields.

We then headed north to go around Quito to Otovalo.

Here’s a short video of our time at Cotopaxi.