Before I delve into my adventure climibing Cotopaxi Mountain in Ecuador, let me acknowlege that yes, I am still in Perú. I know that my previous post described my experience crossing the border between Ecuador and Perú and here I am writing about an experience I had in Ecuador, but no one said this blog was 100% chronologically accurate. Moving on, then…
Cotopaxi Mountain was frequently named dropped by a number of travellers I met during my time in Ecuador; it’s famous for being an active volcano, the second-highest summit in Ecuador at 5,897m (19,347 ft), and having a perfectly conical shape. While it’s possible to climb to the summit of the mountain, I knew this would be a no-go for me based on my previous experience hiking Mount Pichincha, where I stopped to gasp for breath every three minutes during the last hour’s ascent. Further, climbing to the top of Cotopaxi means a six-hour ascent that starts around midnight and costs $300+ for equipment and guide (these are non-negotiable).
However, I had read that another popular climb that did not require a guide or special equipment was between the moutain’s parking lot at 4,600m (15,092 ft) and the José F. Ribas Refuge at 4,800m (15,748 ft). Further, there was the option to continue climbing past the refuge to the glacier line at 5,000 m (16,404 ft). Such day tours from Quito or Latacunga run around $40-70, and after reading it could all be done by yourself for a fraction of the cost I decided to go for it.
After my two-week Workaway at a hostel on the Quilotoa Loop I was already located decently close to the mountain. By my calculations I could make it up and down the mountain with time to catch an afternoon bus to my next destination, Baños.
While this did happen, some extenuating circumstances delayed the trip a bit. The tiny town of Chugchilán, where I was staying, only had two daily buses to Latacunga, the largest nearby city and where I could catch the bus to Cotopaxi Mountain. I was originally planning on catching the 5:30am bus, but the hostel owner mentioned her husband was planning on driving to Latacunga that same morning and asked if I would like a ride. While promised a departure time of 8:30am, we actually wound up leaving around 9:15am. It’s a two hour drive to Latacunga, so we arrived at 11:15am. I then hopped out of the car and spent the next 30 minutes packing myself a day bag and walking over to the bus station on the other side of town. I was fortunate enough that the hostel in Chugchilán had a sister hostel in Latacunga where I could store my main backpack for the day.
I caught the bus between Latacunga and Quito and let the driver’s assistant know I wanted to get off at the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park. The bus between Quito and Latacunga usually costs around $2, so when the bus assistant came around to collect fares I explained I was getting off before Quito, and thus wondered if I’d have to pay the full fare. The assistant stated I would, as the entrance to the national park wasn’t an official stop (but then again, what is an official bus stop in Latin America?). This seemed a bit strange to me, as I had witnessed buses stopping at the park entrance and had read many times over it was completely plausible to ask the bus to stop there. I was about to pay the full fare when the young Ecuadorian sitting next to me piped up.
“The bus fare is only $0.75 to Cotopaxi, not $2” he stated to the assistant. The two of them went back and forth for a bit, with the assistant maintaining I had to pay the full fare and my good Samaritan disagreeing. I thanked my seatmate a number of times and also threw in a few disagreements with the assistant of my own, while simultaneously realizing we were passing the entrance to the park.
“Hey, I asked to be let off at the park entrance!” I exclaimed. The assistant made no acknowledgement that he had heard me or of my desire to exit the bus. I threw a dollar at him, hurriedly waved goodbye to my seatmate, and ran to the front of the bus to stop the driver. Eventually I was let off the bus, a good 200m past the park entrance road, but the assistant hadn’t challenged my $1 fare payment. Simultaneously frustrated and grateful for the act of kindness from my good Samaritan, I carefully walked along the side of the busy highway to the road that led to the entrance of the park.
Here I was met with a number of tour guides and cars offering to take me to the park, as I read I would be. However, here is where my master plan faltered. I had heard the best thing to do would be to group up with other travellers and split the cost of the transportation and guide, who were quoting me $60-70. However, I had arrived to the road leading to the park around 12:30pm, and had likely missed the majority of the other travelers, who had started their visit earlier in the day. I stood waiting expectantly as each bus passed on the highway, hoping a fellow hiker would disembark. No such luck. The guides continued to hound me, acknowledging I could wait for another traveller but reminding me that the park closed at 3:00pm and time was ticking away (I later learned that while the park entrance closes at 3:00pm, visitors who have already entered before that time are permitted to stay until 5:00pm).
With minutes flying by I finally lucked out when an Ecuadorian guy who had been on his phone off in the distance approached me. He asked if I was going to the park and when I asked if he wanted to share a ride he said yes. Right around that time a car pulled up and I realized he was getting picked up by someone, and was asking if I wanted to join them. After confirming with the driver, his girlfiend, that it was okay to give me a ride, we drove on our merry way to the park check point. Here the three of us registered with the park officials. At this point I realized, somewhat awkwardly, that no, they did not plan to continue to take me on to the mountain- Even though on the ride up I had been chatting away about all of us splitting a guide once inside the park to the glacier line. They eventually stated they were not going to that section of the park (the park itself is huge and thus I could not attempt to walk it myself) and left me at the park entrance checkpoint.
Well, then. If I could catch a ride once I could catch another, right? I looked around at the cars pulling out of the check point parking lot and asked a few if they were headed to the refuge. All stated no or that they couldn’t take me. At some point I heard a group of people speaking what sounded like what might have been English. As their car passed me, I politely inquired in Spanish as to whether they were going to the refuge, unsure if I had heard correctly.
“…. uh…. English?” the driver pleaded, giving me a deer-in-the-headlights stare.
“Oh, okay!” I replied. “Would you happen to be driving to the refuge?” I asked. Unfortunately for me they had just returned, but we chit-chatted for a few minutes after realizing we were all from the U.S. They then wished me good luck and drove on their way.
At this point it was hot and late in the afternoon, but after waiting another 20 minutes or so I scored my lucky break. An Ecuadorian family of four I approached warily agreed to take me to the parking lot below the refuge, as that was also their destination. Acutely aware of their wariness, I chatted away in Spanish, attempting to remove any unease. The family turned out to be very nice and opened up to me, telling me about themselves and asking me questions. At one point I even had a conversation in English with their teenage son regarding college scholarships in the U.S.
Once we reached the carpark they promised that if we finished the descent to the parking lot at the same time we could drive out of the park together, which was a fantastic offer. Not wanting to be more of a burden, I went on ahead to the start of the trail while they put on their winter gear. I started up the trail, but after walking about 10 feet stopped. The walk was hard! I had expected the cold and the elevation, but wasn’t prepared for the strong winds to be blowing directly into my mouth, making it very difficult to breathe. I looked around to see if anyone else was struggling the same way I was, but no one was close enough to ask. At this point I seriously considered returning to the family who had given me a lift and asking them for help; I didn’t know how I was going to continue on.
After taking a few steps back (literally), a few deep breaths, and preparing myself mentally, I decided to try again, this time using the fabric of my rain jacket to cover my mouth and break the wind. Step by step I moved up the hill toward the refuge that looked so close in the beginning. Even though it was only 200m away, the elevation and weather conditions meant it took me about 45 minutes to climb to the top.
Once I reached the refuge I felt a huge sense of relief; I had made it! I popped inside to warm up and use the bathrooms, only to find out that the plumbing had frozen and thus the bathrooms were non-functional. Time to move on to the glacier line.
The path between the refuge and the glacier line was less traversed, less marked, and not as straightforward as the path between the parking lot and the refuge. Luckily for me a group of Columbians were departing the refuge for the glacier line at the same time, so I felt more comfortable with the path ahead. The group and I walked together, occasionally talking or taking pictures for each other. We all rejoiced when we reached the glacier line, which was marked with yellow tape proclaiming “Cuidado.” I had reached 5,000m, the highest altitude I had ever achieved up until that point!
After high-fiving each other and taking some more pictures, the Columbian group decided to press on past the section marked dangerous. I decided this was not an idea for me and turned back toward the refuge by myself. At some point during my walk down the fog started rolling in, obscuring parts of the landscape. I wasn’t 100% sure of the trail and found myself internally panicking. What if I got lost climbing down and was stranded on top of a freezing mountain for the whole night and died?!?!
I kept trying to calm myself, knowing panic was never the correct answer. However, I couldn’t see the refuge and continued to panic. Eventually pulled out my phone and opened up Maps.me to find the route back to the refuge. Ironically enough, I only had to walk another 40m or so before I rounded a hill and saw the refuge’s roof in the distance. Sweet Jesus, I had made it! I practically ran to the refuge and then popped in to see if my Ecuadorian family was inside. They weren’t, so I continued down to the parking lot where I found their car had already left. Left with little other choice, I then approached a group of people about to enter their car and asked if I could catch a ride back to the highway between Quito and Latacunga, figuring they couldn’t very well leave me stranded in the park as it was closing.
This new group, who turned out to be a two-car caravan from Venezuela, mercifully obliged to take me out of the park. Even better, their end destination was Latacunga, which meant I didn’t have to catch another bus driving between Quito and Latacunga! The ride down was at times awkward, as they had to pull over a few times for their young son to vomit due to the altitude and stopped the car more than a few times to make phone calls, go to the bathroom, get gas, wait for the second car in the caravan to catch up, or try to eat dinner, each time promising me that yes, yes, we’ll be on our way soon. Being offered a free ride meant I couldn’t very well complain, so I sat in silence, making the occasional small talk. Around 5:30pm we mercifully reached Latacunga, which mean I could collect my backpack and be on my way to my next stop, Baños.
While my trip to Cotopaxi National Park skipped a large part of the park, it also involved a good bit of uncertainty and adventure, all for the low price of $1. I was shown kindness several times over by various South Americans, and honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way.