After three days in Quito, it was time to pack up and head south down the Avenida de los Volcanes. Aptly named, this is a long stretch of volcanoes between Quito and Latacunga which includes some of the highest active volcanoes in the world.
The departure from Quito was a struggle after a 6am finish the night before, but the hefty breakfast at the hostel did the trick to make me feel slightly more human. The Secret Garden Hostel had a sister version in the middle of an area known as Parque Cotopaxi – a 3 hour trip south, so I booked a room there as this was situated perfectly in a park at the basin of the main volcanoes. I shared a minibus from the hostel in Quito with an American girl called Joanna and an English girl Clare. As we headed toward the nearest town, Machachi, we were treated to some beautiful green scenery along the way. I hadn’t imagined Ecuador to be so lush, but the hills and countryside were en par with anything you see back home. Hidden in amongst the greenery, however, were droves of small shanty towns and dusty roads leading to real estate areas under development. The country was still under transformation, with mass engineering and construction sites seen all the way down the motorway to Machachi.
After stocking up with food and water supplies at Machachi, we swapped to a 4×4 Jeep and took a sharp detour off into the surrounding volcanic hills. Parque Cotopaxi is central to the huge dormant volcanoes, “El Corazon” (The Heart – 4,788 metres), Ruminahui (4,712 metres), Pasachoa (4,190 metres) and the dominating Cotopaxi itself which sat at 5,897 metres above sea level. Cotopaxi itself is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world but hasn’t gone off since 1940.
At the end of the road, we arrived at the Secret Garden Hostel at a nice lunchtime. The hostel was situated at the bottom of Pasachoa, smack bang in the middle of the Cotopaxi valley. The setting was magnificent with the landscapes a picture of the south-west of England, but with the dominating volcanoes as a backdrop.
The hostel was run by an Australian and Ecuadorian couple and it was a sweet little set up that they owned. Two volunteers – Sam and Ben – helped out for the season, with the family’s children and pet dogs also buzzing around. They had 2 Dalmatians called Oreo and Basil and two Dachshunds called Mash and Daisy. The dogs kept us company throughout the next couple of days, charging around the landscapes wherever we went.
After lunch, the hosts took us on a very rewarding trek up the nearby waterfalls and streams which gave me a chance to bond with a few of the guys that were staying there – Joanna and Clare as well as Will, Tyler, Sascha and Marta, the quadruplet coming from Canada. We also met Dale, a 50-year old nurse from the UK who was out on a sabbatical break from work in Australia. Clare was my main partner in crime for the day helping each other over the precarious jungle gym setting, with Mash, the tiny Dachshund leading the way out front with his pal Basil.
As we descended back to the hostel, we were then presented with a clear view of Ruminhua to our left with the snow-capped peaks of Cotopaxi also gleaming off in the distance.
With little to do in the evening, time was spent in front of a blazing fire after dinner playing games with a few drinks. All very peaceful and surreal and almost like we were back home in many ways.
The following morning, a few of us decided to go for some hiking around Pasachoa for the day, which was quite a brisk, if not long, six hour walk. Ben was the main guide who took us, again with the presences of the dogs, taking us right up to the peak of the volcano at 4,190 metres. The start of the walk took us through part of the waterfalls again before we swung a left up towards the peak. Wildlife was pretty scarce and as we headed up towards the peak, the fog started to pull in from afar. It got colder and colder at every step and once at the top, the winds and fog encapsulated us. We were hoping to get a view of the huge dormant crater, but the fog filled its deep crevice obscuring the view. Oxygen was quite thin at this altitude so a few of the guys really struggled with the weather and the steep walks. Half way down, the ultra-competitive Will and I decided to spice things up a bit and carve out our own little route away from the main walkway. We seamlessly bounced our way down the spongy greenery and at times had to build new tunnels through rugged terrain. Eventually, we got to the bottom, joined the rest of the group and headed back to the hostel.
That night, the clouds that had circled us throughout the day cleared to leave a beautiful night sky. The number of stars that I could see was astronomical – the most amount I’ve ever seen. So I spent most of the night with a beer and the guys, looking out into the night. The only strange thing about this whole experience though, was how we were completely isolated from local human life. We really could have been anywhere had it not been for the obvious volcanic surroundings!
The last day in Parque Cotopaxi was saved for a trek up Cotopaxi itself.Will, Tyler, Sascha, Marta, Dale, Clare and myself loaded up in the 4×4 Jeep with some bikes strapped to the roof. The day started off with clear blue skies, so we were all extremely excited to be trekking up the active volcano. However, as we approached the furthest point by road at the bottom of the hiking trail, the weather took a turn for the worst. The Jeep was surrounded by thick fog within minutes and as we parked up, huge gales and torrential rain pounded down on us, rocking the Jeep as we sat in it. You could hardly see a few metres ahead of you as conditions kept on deteriorating. The guys taking us on the trek then gave us the option – do we stay, or do we attempt the hike? We of course had to give it a go but I didn’t last more than ten minutes. I hate wind at the most of times, but the gales had picked up to hurricane levels of at least 100mph. I didn’t have a decent rain jacket on me, just a big poncho, so I put that on in the hope that would do the trick. After struggling to even get the jeep doors open, we started ascending the volcano face. There was absolutely no grip under foot with the red sands of the volcano just eating our feet away. The wind was ferocious and every step I took resulted in my poncho being filled up with air, lifting me off my feet and dumping me back five feet back from where I came from. At the top of the ridge where we were risking being thrown off the edge, it was like a movie setting where I eventually had to give up, shouting, “you guys go on without me”, like I wasn’t going to survive. My hands froze in minutes and I couldn’t feel my face as temperatures plummeted in the wind. Tyler and Sascha had already given up and head back to the Jeep, and faced by the intensifying cold winds, I decided to join them. Will, Dale and Clare kept on going towards to peak. After about an hour back in the jeep, the guys then returned frozen, wet and battered. They managed to reach the refuge hut a little higher up from the ridge, but were quite sensibly turned away back down the volcano by the rangers as the peak of Cotopaxi was experiencing electrical storms. As enticing as it sounded, they had a quick cup of tea and came back.
Chattering away, we made a move back down to camp. Half way down, we exited the hurricane conditions so took to the mountain bikes to head down the rest of the volcano. I managed to keep detaching my chain on the way down retiring about half way down along with a couple of the others who had just given up because of the uncomfortable feedback on the handlebars that cramped them up from the bumpy ride.
Then back at camp, it was time for lunch before we prepared to head off further south through Ecuador…
Avenida de los Volcanes
Secret Garden – Cotopaxi
More Photography :
“The Photography Collection” by Antematters