Camera-shy Cotopaxi

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February 27th 2011
Published: March 7th 2011
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Our first and only clear view of the day!
It is a fact universally acknowledged that every visitor to Ecuador is in want of that perfect cloud-free shot of Cotopaxi. Unfortunately Cotopaxi herself also seems to know this and so, according to every Ecuadorian you ask, hides from tourists. Only nationals it seems are permitted to see her.

I initially though this to be another joke at the expense of foreigners cleverly doubling as a get-out-of-jail-free card for tour guides when irate tourists berate him over the fact that their countless photos of their trip to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi are of the black base of a mountain completely shrouded in clouds.

Still, we set out on beautifully clear and sunny Sunday at the crack of dawn in order to get a photo of this rather elusive Ecuadorian icon. The most amazing sight of all was the completely empty streets of northern Quito. Obviously I didn't expect many people to be up at 5.30 am (I thought we were crazy enough to be) but it's a slightly surreal feeling to see a street it usually takes a taxi at least 15 minutes to get from end to the other completely empty.

Leaving Quito we were confronted with a beautifully clear view of the snow-capped Cotopaxi. Feeling confident that we were going to be lucky today and therefore didn't need to hurry, we decided to stop off at Pasochoa before we headed to Cotopaxi. Pasochoa, an extinct volcano located in the Guayllabamba river basin a miles before Cotopaxi.

What the guide books don't tell you when they say to stop off at the nature reserve is that a jeep and nerved of steel are needed to even get there. Leaving the road and following the signs towards Pasochoa we were confronted with a dirt road liberally scattered with rocks which hindered far more than they helped.

8 kilometres of bumping, sliding and scraping the bottom of the car later we finally arrived at the Pasochoa Refuge where someone promptly popped out of nowhere to yell at us for parking in the wrong place.

Seeing as the 'carpark' was actually a mudy field in fron tof the refuge I'm not quite sure what was wrong with the spot we had chosen but I've long since learned not to argue with Ecuadorians who choose to feel officious and make the most of their power - an argument rarely ends well.

Despite being a volcano I couldn't actually work out where the top of it was due to its last eruption which destroyed the crater and one side.

Now it's a nature reserve containing one of the very few remaining original Andean forests. Also apparently home to pumas although unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) we didn't encounter any.

We decided to be lazy and took one of the shorter routes through the park - the longest being approximately 8 hours!

Despite it being such a beautiful day it had been raining heavily over the past few days so the paths were flooded in places and getting down the 'steps' (this being a rather generous description of the hacked-out spaces in the muddy mini-cliffs) was somewhat interesting.

Having got delightfully muddy we got back in the car for the bumpy 8km ride back to the main (ie. actually surfaced) road.

Onwards to Cotopaxi which was still showing clearly without a cloud in sight. Turning off the Panamericana where a tiny sign announced we'd finally arrived (we actually managed to drive past it at first and have to attempt a rather scary U-turn to get back.)

It turned out not to be the main entrance to the park but we figured we might as well stop and buy our entrance tickets here. It seems the pricing has been changed to $2 for everyone, Ecuadorian or foreigner. Slightly disappointed I didn't get to yell at the guy about Censo - it's good stress relief as no-one is happy to accept that I am offically a permanent resident unless I yell.

Still, we bought the tickets and headed out to the train tracks and the llamas which Cotopaxi is so famous for. These were actually penned in - something about yearly vet checks and montioring but at least it meant we could get good photos.

After a brief stop in the part of the park from where you can't actually see the volcano, we headed onto the main entrance. After stopping to buy the compulsory llama-wool hats (and actually quite necessary as the temperature was freezing despite the sun) and brunch (complete with cinnamon coca-leaf tea to help with the altitude) we finally entered the main park.

People at the entrance were a bit dubious as to whether we'd be able to get anywhere in the car as the rain had caused more damage to the roads here but we were not going to pay the extortionate $40 they wanted just to drop us off at the base of the volcano in a jeep so we figured we would just brave it.

The road started off fine but we soon realised the problem when we arrived at a river crossing the path. Apparently this is normally just aa trickle but the rain, combined with melting snow, had made it into a bit of a problem.

By the look of the number of cars parked by the near side of the river other people had just given up and walked. One poor car had obviously crossed over very early in the morning and was now returning to find the river had increased in size.

They finally braved it and drove acrosss - getting very wet in the process but they did manage it - so we assumed we could do the same.

Well, we got across in one piece but certainly not the smoothest test ride for the new car. Poor thing is going to a mechanic when we get back.

It took an impressive half an hour to even get within sight of Cotopaxi - I hate to think how long the people from the abandoned cars took to arrive! Having seen how bad the road to Cotopaxi was we concluded we wouldn't be able to get up to the refuge so we settled on going to Laguna Limpiopungo, in front of the volcano, instead.

We had had our last clear view of Cotopaxi upon entering the park, half an hour later when we finally arrived on the plain in front of it - it had disappeared. Completely. Typical.

Still, the scenery in the National Park is incredible even ignoring the now cloud-capped volcano. We set off on a walk around the lake - even muddier than the road but far more fun.

No sign of the wild bulls that supposedly inhabit Cotopaxi apart from copious amounts of poo surrounding the lake. Still, I think bulls are one animal that live in the park that I would not want to be confronted with. We were lucky enough to see white-tail deer and llamas though.

Almost at the end of the loop we found ourselves in a bit of difficulty. The bridge that spans one part of the lake was flooded leaving a large expanse of water on each side. Short of hopping from rock to rock (which would doubtless get us soaked anyway) the only logical thing to do seemed to be to go paddling.

This proved to be a little difficult as I'd followed the advice about wearing tights under my trousers to keep warm. Oh well, nothing but ducks to laugh at my contortionist act of getting the tights off.

The water was surprisingly warm, if delightfully squishy with mud, plants and god knows what under the surface. We finally arrived on the other side and decided, wet as we were, to just walk back to the car barefoot.

Upon arriving we were caught by a park official who yelled at us for going in the water. We explained that the path had been flooded so we didn't really have a choice, to which he replied with another rant on how it was prohibited. Not quite sure what he expected us to do!

Cotopaxi was well and truly covered in clouds by this point, and we were slowly freezing so we headed back to Quito for hot drinks and bed.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


7th March 2011

Finally a new blog! Fantastic photos despite the cloud - at least the llamas were happy to pose for you!
7th March 2011

Beautifully written with stunning photographs! Just love those llamas.
20th April 2011

I really enjoyed this blog
Nice writing and photos.

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