Ecuador: Cotopaxi

We were leaving the dense, steamy Amazon behind and heading for altitude. But first we said goodbye to one of the prettiest waterfalls I’ve ever seen: Cascada San Rafael. I included a photo of it in our previous post but this thing deserves a closer look. It’s stunning.

 

 

And then we hit the road and began climbing. We also crossed over the equator, which was a pretty monumental event. Unfortunately, we were told there was an official marker but could find nary a sign. There is a giant one on the Carretera 35 but we weren’t willing to backtrack two hours for a quick photo.

Up and up and up! 4004 meters = 13,000 feet. Hello Andes!

 

And we saw our first llama! Llama, llama, you’ve lost your red pajamas. (We read a lot of llama kid books, weirdly). Unfortunately the kids slept right through our first sighting. 

We zipped by Quito, a city perched at 9,000 feet, before pointing the truck to less-populated areas.

We were headed for Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador’s second largest and second busiest park after the Galapagos.

We expected it to be packed but there was nobody there.

The park, of course, is named after the Cotpaxi Volcano, which is a big hulking monster that was mostly hiding behind clouds when we arrived. And while it looks to be peacefully slumbering under its blanket of snow, that hasn’t always been the case. According to Wikipedia, the stratovolcano has erupted more than 50 times since 1738, the most recent episode in August of 2016. It was only reopened to climbing expeditions in October of 2017. The nearby town of Latacunga has been leveled thrice by lahars (volcanic mud flows) and material has flowed over 100 km to the Pacific Ocean.

 

Our first impressions were that the area was a bit desolate in a starkly beautiful kind of way.

We were also gunning up dirt roads in an attempt to make it to the guard gate before they closed for the afternoon. Overlanders, take note: the park shuts at 3pm, plan your arrival accordingly otherwise you’ll be camping outside until it opens the next morning. 

 

We arrived at 3:03pm and the ranger was nice and granted us entrance. Whew. The park (when we visited in Nov 2017) was free but there wasn’t much in the way of maps or information. And because our gps struggled with roads through the park, here is a picture of the park map, should you decide to tour yourself:

We entered in the small north entrance (Control Norte) and exited at Control Caspi (South/Main Entrance), essentially following the main road in the southwest direction.

 

Despite the grey clouds and treeless expanses, the park slowly began to grow on me. It certainly wasn’t barren or colorless. 

It actually reminded me a bit of Iceland (including the temperature: CHILLY).

The first night we camping in a lovely, lonely valley near the Limpiopungo Lagoon and the second night was in the park’s formal campground, about 20 minutes south.

Campsite #1: One of our favorites of the trip.

The weather was fickle: blue sky one minute, cold and foggy the next. We would learn the following day just how changeable this area can be. 

At last: Cotopaxi in all its bright sun-shiney glory. 

That is one heck of a sunset. 

The next day we headed to the nearby Limpiopungo Lagoon for a short hike.

 

It started out well enough. We crossed the river and spied a herd of grazing horses. 

We walked along, admiring the ducks in the lagoon.

We walked a little more and it started to rain softly.

And then, in the space of about two minutes, the heavens opened up in a torrential hail downpour. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. 

It was wild.  Ben was a trooper and Emma looked like a little monkey clutching onto Chris for dear life as we hoofed it back to the truck. 

And that was our first snow/hail experience of the trip! 20 minutes later someone flipped a switch and it abruptly stopped. Thoroughly soaked, we headed to our next campsite.

Mimi (Grandma) gave our tiny library a much need refresh during her visit in Panama. The kids (and the parents reading the same books over and over and over) were ecstatically happy. 

Camp life. 

We did a little hair trim. Stillness is not one of Emma’s strengths. 

Done! Not straight but who cares. 

Peekaboo mountain. 

Signs that are not comforting. 

We had our first bout of car trouble on the trip – but it was easily fixed without damage. Fingers crossed we continue to be break-down free.

Southern Ecuador is stunning: big mountains, low valleys, gorgeous vistas. Unfortunately the sunsets were also beautiful, most likely due to the fact that all the farmers were burning their fields and surrounding forests in preparation for the new planting season. It was not a happy place for lungs.

We spent one more night in the country at this lovely campsite, doing a little maintenance on the truck and playing with the (ever-present) pups. 

My kids have never met a puppy they didn’t love. Someone needs to teach them how to properly hold one, however. This one was a good sport. 

 

The lowlands near the border are occupied by endless miles of banana plantations, each bunch carefully bagged and waiting to be hoisted upon a conveyor that will trundle it off to the shipping facility. 

The border crossing to Peru was our longest to date. Our understanding is that Peru has an open-border policy with Venezuela; consequently many people fleeing that country are coming south in search of work in Peru. Everyone patiently waited for hours as the overworked (and understaffed) Peruvian border agents worked through the hundreds in line. Chris struck up a conversation with three guys that were bicycling from Colombia to Machu Picchu. Whoa. Color us impressed. 

 

We finally entered Peru that evening after darkness had fallen, driving south to hole up in a small campground for a few days and regroup. Northern Peru would bring its own set of challenges. Ecuador was beautiful and a study in contrasts from the humid jungles of the Amazon to the frosty slopes of Cotopaxi. We won’t soon forget it.

 

 

Recommendations 

Campgrounds

Cotopaxi Campsite #1: tucked in a quiet valley, it’s far enough away from the road so there are few interruptions. We saw rabbits, dear, horses, and birds moseying past. You can see the road, but there aren’t many vehicles (as the gates are locked at 3pm) and we felt exceptionally safe. Within 10 minutes by car of the Lagoon Trail. Only downside? No view of the mountain. Also: no amenities.

Cotopaxi Campsite #2 (La Rinconda): This is the official campground in Cotopaxi (also free) and there is an area in a small copse of trees that is lovely. You’ll also have a spectacular view of the mountain in the morning, should the clouds cooperate. There is a small restaurant with bathrooms. Free (as of No 2017).

Southern Ecuador Campsite: Quinta Valdivieso Balneario. This spot on a little-traveled highway between Quito and Guayaquil is owned by a lovely family that run a pool/soccer field/restaurant during the day. At night they allow overlanders to camp in their parking lot and use the facilities. A great spot and excellent (inexpensive) food.

Activities

We liked the 20 minute hike down to Cascada San Rafael. There was talk that a massive upriver dam would forever silence the waterfall but it appears, at least at the time of our visit (October 2017) that it hasn’t been dramatically impacted. The park, like many in Ecuador, is free. We camped just outside the park in the bus overflow parking lot. We probably wouldn’t have done so had we known exactly how active the volcano is/was.

We loved Cotopaxi National Park – definitely one of our favorite places in Ecuador: it was quiet, windswept, and spectacular. We were there mid-week and it was virtually deserted. We liked hiking the short Lagoon trail; trekkers might enjoy hiking to the rim of the crater.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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