Exploring Cotopaxi and Quilotoa

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November 14th 2013
Published: November 16th 2013
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One of the highest (5897 meters) active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi, is also a picture perfect conical volcano. It is also the second highest volcano in Ecuador. As we wanted to see it more closely we booked a combined two day tour from Quito to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa, a crater lake nearby. We did our bookings from Cuenca where we traveled lightly, and as we only had our Kindles to explore our options with we went according to tripadvisors recommendations and booked the tour with a company named Gulliver travels.

The tour started early morning with a rendezvous at a café in central Quito. There our bus driver picked us up, and drove to a hotel near Cotopaxi where we left our big backpacks, tried out our bikes and got a few more people on the bus. The plan was to first hike up from the parking lot at 4500 meters to the refuge from where climbes to the summit of the volcano starts, and then, weather permitting, continue to the edge of the glacier at 5000 meters height. After that we would return to the parking lot, get our bikes and drive down to Limpiopungo, a small lake at 3800 meters.

The weather had been gray in Quito, and when we got closer to the volcano we drove into thick fog so we had no visibility of the volcano from the viewpoints along the road. Luckily the weather cleared a bit when we reached the base of the volcano, and at the parking lot the weather was still gray, but at least not foggy any more. We started to climb and almost immediately got out of breath. The air at this height is really thin, so the main challenge didn't seem to be that it was heavy to climb the slope, but rather that it was really difficult to get enough air during the process.

While climbing the weather improved. When we reached the refuge at 4864 meters the sun was already shining, and a after a short break there we continued towards the glacier edge. It was a clearly steeper climb than the hike to the base camp, but on the way we were rewarded with 5 minutes of clear sight to the top of the volcano. When we reached the edge of the glacier it was like reaching any tourist attraction. During the climb there had already been a lot of other people hiking, and everybody stayed at the glacier edge for picture and a short rest before descending. We queued a little and got our obligatory picures of us at the edge of the glacier, and after maybe 15 minutes started the descend. The gray weather was back, and it also started to rain a little just before reaching the parking lot, but the descend went quickly and without feeling like you had ran 5 km every time you took a few steps.

Despite of the rain we got our bikes off the roof of the bus and started the journey downhill. Of the other people on the tour two stayed in the bus and three set of with full speed down the road. We also started downhill, slowly, but the road was so bad and steep we had difficulties controlling our bikes, so after 100 meters we decided to take the bus down a bit to where the road was smoother and a little less steep. At this point the rain also had stopped, and the weather cleared up a bit so we got some nice pictures of the landscape and the volcano while driving down towards the lake. We put our bikes back up on the bus a little before reaching the lake, and drove the last part of the journey to the lake in the bus.

After quickly viewing the lake we continued back to the hotel where we were served a late lunch. We both had gotten a bad headache, either because of mountain sickness or because of the (too) early wakeup, so we retired to the room and spent the evening reading and drinking a lot of water, and went early to sleep. The hotel would have had jacuzzi and nice looking sofas in the common room, but we were just too tired to be able to enjoy them.


The next morning we woke early, and after having spent 14 hours in bed we were feeling much fresher than the previous morning. On the agenda for the second day was visiting the indigenous market in Saquisili, visiting an indigenous family at their house and hiking to the Quilotoa crater lake. We had the same guide as last time, he started the guiding with the same stories and the same jokes as the previous day, luckily it was only the general information about the area that was the same.

The market in Saquisili turned out to be several separate markets. We visited three of them, the animal market, the food market and lastly the artisan market. The animal market is where bigger animals like sheep, lamas, pigs, cows and donkeys are sold. The animals were handled like things, sheep bound by the feet were thrown onto pickups and squeeling pigs dragged around by ropes. The whole place was so crowded with people and animals that it was sometimes hard to get forward.

The food market turned out to be a kind of general market. There were of course fruits, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs and fish sold there, in addition to this you could buy doors, stoves, pirated clothes and different kind of tools. Also at the artisan market fruits and vegetables were sold, but mostly it contained handmade clothes, hats, paintings and carvings, some of them really nice. Due to our limited capacity to transport stuff back to Finland we however only bought some fruits as a snack.

We had low expectations for the visit of the indigenous family, but were positively surprised. The family we visited was one of the highest settlements in Ecuador, and the house was made of wood and highland grass. It takes about a week to build such a house, something to consider for our friends and family in Finland spending months or even years building their home. 😊 When we looked inside, we found that the floor of the house was crowded with guinea pigs. We learned that the guinea pigs are not only there as a convenient lunch, but they also warm the house (it was noticably warmer inside the guinea pig filled house than outside) and are used for medicinal purposes (if we understood it correctly a shaman rubs the guinea pig all over the ill person, and then cuts it open and from there finds out what is wrong with the person).

Our last stop for the trip was the main reason we wanted the extra day to the Cotopaxi trip, the crater lake of Quilotoa. The day had been gray until then, but just as we arrived to Quilotoa the clouds parted and the sun appeared. The rim of the crater where we arrived with the bus is at 3800 meters height, and the lake itself is at 3500 meter, so the plan was to walk down along a road the indigenous people managing the park had built. Just when we were to start our way down a worried indigenous lady came over and told us the road was under construction so that we could not use it. We thought this was final, and our trip was reduced to only seeing the lake from above, but as we approached the rim to view the lake another guy approached us and told us there is a separate path that we could use, however narrower and steeper. This didn't stop us, so after ordering mules for the ones who wanted to ride on the way up we started our descend.

The descend was steep, dusty and often going through loose sand. It is however always easy to go down, so after maybe half an hour of hiking we got down to the lake. There was the option to go kayaking, but noone of our group of 14 persons were interested, so after half an hour when the mules were ready we started up again. Johanna had, like most of the group, rented a mule, I had opted to walk as I felt more secure on my own feet than on the back of a donkey. The hike up took 45 minutes, and as the mules got started maybe 10 minutes after I started my hike I managed to get up to the rim before the mules. Again the problem was not that the legs would tire, but that you got out of breath after a few meters. Johanna reported the donkey ride was easy, at a few places she had to get off the back of the donkey, but other than that it went smoothly. Once up we were rewarded with a set lunch after which we started our journey back to Quito through the astonishing mountain landscapes illuminated by the evening sun.

Additional photos below
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22nd July 2015

Sounds great what you guys have experienced! I have also recently done tours with the same agent and am super satisfied. I made it to Cotopaxi´s summit! Isn´t it a great feeling. Everytime I think back I get goose bumps- but also I really reached my limits. I guess without the guide I would have turned around many times before:-)-
22nd July 2015

Sounds great what you guys have experienced! I have also recently done tours with the same agent and am super satisfied. I made it to Cotopaxi´s summit! Isn´t it a great feeling. Everytime I think back I get goose bumps- but also I really reached my limits. I guess without the guide I would have turned around many times before:-)-

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