If you are trying to make the most of a limited time and you have the budget, I would definitely recommend a guided tour in Quito. One of my biggest splurges of the trip was a private tour of Cotopaxi National Park or Parque Nacional Cotopaxi.
Twisting through some now familiar roads, our first stop gave us another breathtaking view of historic Quito on our way out of town. We did not stop again until just before entering the park. Here our guide, Pablo, got out to give us a better look at the trees. These were Eucalyptus trees, which are not native to Ecuador, but thrived upon introduction to the country and now pose a risk to many native species.
We continued along the muddy path as it began to climb. Our next stop had restrooms, a gift shop, information about the park and volcano, as well as local vendors selling warm clothing. Completely unprepared for just how cold I was starting to feel, I bought a hat and gloves.
Bring layers (even a winter coat if you tend to run cold) or be prepared to invest in the alpaca, fleece, and other warm clothing from the vendors and gift shop.
Back in the van, we continued along the increasingly rugged path. Eventually Pablo had our small group get out and start hiking a path that led through tall grasses dripping in the low clouds, making me especially grateful for my raincoat and water-resistant pants. A forest loomed to one side, eerie in the thick mist, while on my other side the Earth seemed to open up, a giant tear through her green dress.
We hiked up to the next outpost where the van was waiting. We passed many cows and horses grazing on plants that seemed to stubby to be worth the effort, then again, I supposed they needed anything they could get as they huddled together against the blowing snow. The further up we went, the more difficult the drive became. The mist slowly changed over to icy snow, further saturating the mud. We got stuck once, but after a minute or two of sheepish looks between us uncertain travelers in the back, the tires found their footing again.
Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world with its summit reaching about 19,342 feet.
We finally reached our max height at 14,000 feet. Despite the wind, snow, and overall cold, I did not hesitate to jump out of the van and start heading toward the next stage of the volcano. Unfortunately, the next shelter (and the last before the true climb to the summit) was a good distance from the small hill we had scaled. The icy beads hit my face, stinging like bullets, but it was my toes that stopped me in my tracks.
If you plan on doing any hiking in Ecuador make sure to bring sturdy boots that can handle the sometimes cold, wet, and rugged terrain.
It was majestic. While I had seen plenty of disaster movies with violent volcanoes, somehow I could not imagine this particular mount exploding. It seem too lazy buried in its snow blanket. One of the most difficult peaks to climb, Pablo explained that any potential climber is urged to practice on smaller mountains, working his or her way up to Cotopaxi as the volcano even taller than Mont Blanc (the highest peak in Europe) is often underestimated.
Our last stop within the park itself was Lago Limpiopungo. The wetlands are located at 12,000 feet, and seemed a far cry from the volcano and its freezing landscape that were still visible in the distance. In this lush place fish splashed, a small rabbit scampered, and birds soared. Looking back at the volcano as it played hide-and-seek with the clouds, I could hardly believe the difference a few miles made in ecosystems. Once again taking to the path (more slowly as the activity of the day caught up with us), Pablo brought out his field guide and pointed out some of the most popular birds in the area. I also took note of the various signs depicting the evacuation route in the event of an eruption (although I still could not comprehend it). Just before leaving the park, we stopped for some local coca tea that came highly recommended by Pablo and did the trick to warm us up after the chilly hike.
Picturesque – that is the only way to describe the road leading through the perfectly curated woods. I half expected to blink and find myself riding in a carriage on the set of some movie filmed on one of those old timey plantations. Hosteria La Cienega, where our tour finished up, was by far one of the most regal houses I had ever seen, secretly tucked away off the beaten path a little ways outside the National Park.
I had trouble wrapping my head around the fact that this had once been the home of just one family. Walking through the front door, my footsteps echoed in unison with the creak of the floors. While the plaster was beginning to crack and peel in some places and a musty smell clung to the air, I was amazed that something so old (dating back to the 1600s) could keep its stately feel. It led me to wonder whether or not the Spanish nobleman who once owned it would be proud of what it had become.
We sat down to an excellent lunch that included soup, chicken, and chocolate cake before we were rejoined by Pablo who showed us a few other rooms in the place. No matter where I went in that house I felt uncomfortable, like I did not belong and possibly was not welcome. From the moment I crossed the threshold of the entryway, I had felt as if I was not alone, a feeling that was only exaggerated in the sitting room that displayed many old photographs of the family. While I was glad I had seen the mansion, meandered through some of its rooms, and had lunch in its fine dining room, I did also feel a slight sense of relief as I turned away from its windows staring down at me.
As I later found out, no paranormal activity has been confirmed; however, there are rumors and stories of the house being haunted. Braver guests may even decide to stay the night in one of the available rooms.
On the way back into Quito, my mind flooded with questions. Some of them I voiced to Pablo who tried his best to answer as many as he could. I was grateful for his knowledge and patience as one question led to another. A true believer in lifelong curiosity and adventure, my trip to Cotopaxi was one of the best I have ever taken and I left with a mental note to add mountain climbing to my list of things to do. Who knows, the next time I find myself in Ecuador it might be to scale Cotopaxi’s summit.
There are many tours you can take of Cotopaxi and you can find one to fit virtually any budget. One popular option is a group bus tour for only $45. Or if you are looking for a more personal experience, I would highly recommend Galapagos Travel, which is the company I used for the unforgettable experience detailed above.