From the Sea to the Clouds

Day 153 – 2 Aug, 2015

Perhaps the decision to spend 2 weeks at or below sea level (in the jungle) right before entering Cotopaxi National Park (at 11,000 ft) wasn’t such a good idea. Trying to manipulate all the pieces to this puzzle of where and when to go to various places is challenged further by my complete lack of planning. In my real life, I plan everything down to the last ice cream detour.  But in this life (which is no less real by the way), in this life I have dreamed for myself, I can only manage to plan about 12 hours in advance. There are way too many moving parts to know where I’ll be next week or next month. I’ve even had 2 occasions when I decided where I was going next the very morning that I needed to leave. 

So this brings me to the high altitude national park, named after the famous volcano. Several weeks before I was due to arrive in Ecuador, Volcan Cotopaxi was showing signs of activity. There was a thin line of smoke visible just from the tip of the cone and volcanologists had reported seismic activity in the area. Like Volcan Villarrica in Chile from earlier in my trip, this meant the park officials were beginning to limit tourism in the area. I thought I had wanted to climb all the way to the top, the summit just more than 19,000 feet. I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft) in 2012 and I’ve often said that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Climbing Kilimanjaro takes anywhere from 5-12 days, allowing time for acclimatization. Climbing Cotopaxi is done in 2 days. Anyone see anything wrong with my idea? Assuming I was traveling at altitude in the Andes in the preceding weeks, it might have been possible, but I went to the Galapagos and Cuyabeno, effectively erasing any acclimatization I might have earned before. 


By the time I reached the park after a bumpy ride in a 4×4 from Quito, I knew that a summit attempt was out of the question. Even though the volcano was still smoking, the voracious park officials were still encouraging climbers to spend their dollars and climb to the top. The day I arrived 2 Canadian guys reached the summit amid a snowstorm and poor visibility. I, on the other hand, was already suffering from classic altitude symptoms. 

I was staying at The Secret Garden Cotopaxi, an eco-friendly hostel that is more similar to a bed and breakfast, with big cozy sofas in front of a wood-burning fireplace, several family dogs to snuggle with, and a big communal table for all of our meals. It’s not uncommon for travelers to stay there for weeks, perhaps joining the staff for work or just staying for the serene beauty of it all. The night I arrived there was a bonfire and live music, but usually it’s a quiet place to relax and enjoy nature. 


There are tons of hikes to do inside the park, most of them more beautiful than to climb on the volcano itself. But I’m stubborn. I came to walk on Cotopaxi. Even though I couldn’t go to the summit, it’s possible to be driven to the parking lot at 14,500 ft, hike first to the lodge at 15,900 ft for a break, then continue to the base of the glacier at 16,200 ft. Easy right? The whole circuit takes about 3 hours. Afterward, you can bike down from the parking lot, all the way to the entrance of the park. 


Whether it be 3 hours or 3 days, any sort of climb at altitude is taxing. This was no exception. The ground was loose volcanic rock that would slide when you stepped on it, so that you take one step forward and half a step back. Snow and ice pellets blew through the air – it was unclear if it was new precipitation or if the constant barrage of wind was blowing it from the ground. Most of the time, I couldn’t see anything more than 10 meters away, only snow and rocks. My flimsy cotton gloves were hardly sufficient. Upon reaching the glacier, I took a few hurried photos to remind myself not to do this again and jetted back to the car, well ahead of my guide and 3 other hikers. The downhill biking option that had sounded easy at the beginning of the day, was much less appealing when your fingers are frozen and you have dust in your throat and eyes. I opted out. 


Arriving back at The Secret Garden, it was a welcome retreat. An empty hammock and a healthy vegetarian lunch of Indian-spiced garbanzos awaited me. I quickly decided the view is much nicer when you’re holding a cup of warm coffee and reading a good book. 


Less than 2 weeks after I stepped foot on Volcan Cotopaxi, on 14 August 2015, it erupted in a fiery display of magma and nature’s fury. Even today, the park remains closed to tourists. The Secret Garden lies just outside the park and is open for anyone wanting a panoramic view of the show.