Cotopaxi Volcano

With only three weeks to go before our Christmas meet up, we finally headed out on untraveled roads to the south of the capital. Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, sitting around 9,000 feet and surpassed only by La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Despite the fact that we were well acclimatised to this altitude, it still wasn’t going to be enough for our next stop, Cotopaxi Volcano.

The other day, I stood on the roof of Alex’s house enjoying a 360 degree panorama of the surrounding hills, while he pointed all the volcanos. There are a lot of them, some more accessible than others. Cotopaxi is one of the more popular destinations, just a couple of hours south. When we had arrived in the country, the park had been shut as the volcano had been dangerously active. Now it was open once again, but with some restrictions. Camping is permitted at one spot only for a reasonable $3 per person. No pets allowed.

We arrived at the main gate, after climbing steadily through eucalyptus forests and signed in. We were wary of the fact that pets are not allowed inside but no one asked or checked the vehicle and we continued on.

I still couldn’t get over how much better the roads were in this country. We followed a smooth tarmac road for the majority of the remaining 12km drive. As the last few kilometres disintegrated into washboard dirt road, we continued on slowly, aware of our rotting suspension.

The campsite is a basic place. It seems that you could camp close to the road in a small outcrop of pine trees or continue up to the main site where there’s a restaurant and basic hostel. We drove down the road to pay and sign in but after wandering around we didn’t see any staff, just another couple tent camping. We drove back to the trees which offered some nice fire pits in a flat grassy field with what would be a stunning view of the volcano if the clouds cleared.

We hadn’t been there long when a ranger vehicle appeared. We went to meet him the car park in the hope of that they wouldn’t see the cats running around the van. It turned out that the tent campers wanted to hire our bikes, while I wouldn’t have minded, we felt obliged to warn them that they weren’t really suitable for riding volcanoes with. While the ranger who accompanied him wouldn’t take our money he told us that we could go pay the guy up at the restaurant. Having set up the van, we decided to walk up. We paid our $6 fee and bought a generous bundle of firewood for a further $5. It seemed like too long since we had had a fire and now at nearly 4,000m high, a warming fire sounded very appealing. The guy wasn’t too happy that we were camping down in the trees, saying that no vehicles were allowed in the green areas. He would rather we camped in the car park but in the end he let us stay where we were. We headed back with our firewood and made a nice hot chocolate, it wasn’t a sunny day and it was pretty chilly up here. The volcano still eluded us behind a wall of cloud.

That evening we had a nice fire. It was a struggle to get it going at this altitude and in the end we cheated and poured diesel on it. Even once it was burning, it didn’t seem to give out much heat but it was nice to be outside for a little while before the cold drove us back in. Last time we had been up at this kind of altitude we hadn’t had any heating, the Wallas in desperate need of a service. For some time before that, it had worked reluctantly. I was now happy to report that it worked flawlessly, firing up straight away and running perfectly throughout the evening. This was not the only pleasant surprise. Lee glanced out of the window and told me to my surprise the clouds were gone. Now the snow of the volcano gleamed in the bright moonlight, while a steady stream of smoke wound from the crater. Despite the evening chill, we had to go out for some photos.

While it was a most perfectly still and silent night, neither of us slept. This to me is one of the worst parts of altitude. In the day, I hadn’t really noticed it as we had been relatively high before. The insomnia though, is something else. A headache, something I always get at altitude, is annoying enough, but at least you can take some painkillers. The lack of sleep is not something I’m good with. The next day we had planned to go on a small hike, but we were both so tired that we opted to spend the day at the van Christmas decorating.

Another ranger had come over and told us off for parking on the grass and so we moved a little way onto the gravel to keep him happy. The volcano, which had been visible early on, had disappeared once again behind the clouds. Despite the cloudy weather up there, it was a nice sunny day here and we got into the Christmas spirit even more when some deer showed up to see us. Lizzie wasn’t so sure about Christmas, especially when we tested out her new Christmas jumper. She may not have enjoyed it, but we certainly did.

We hoped that our second night would be better as we would have acclimatised a little more, but it wasn’t meant to be. After another sleepless night, we decided that regardless, we would drive further up the road to the where it ended at 4620m. From here, you can hike a short (but slow) path to a mountain refuge and then onto the lower glacier. If you want to continue past that, then a guide and mountaineering equipment is required. We just wanted to get to the snowline, and so we set off. The first challenge wouldn’t be for us, but for Ruby to take us up nearly another additional kilometre, to the highest she had ever been.

The road is easy enough to start with, winding through this remote valley we could have almost been in Scotland. From the bottom here, we could see the small white shapes of coaches way above which marked the car park. It was quite the climb.

The car park was just visible, sitting below the snowline and cloud cover.

The road wasn’t too bad, but in places relatively steep and lumpy. This accompanied by the high altitude made it hard work for our engine and we pulled over several times to let the engine cool back down. This was a first gear all the way kind of ascent and despite the cold, Ruby was working hard. While I kept an eye on engine temperature, I tried to navigate the smoothest route that wouldn’t snap off the rear wheel. As ever, navigating a near 50 year old bus up a road like this takes a little doing. We were happy to make it to the car park and reach a new altitude record. Ruby earned a break and we took in the beautiful bleak view.

We debated walking to the mountain refuge, and despite being rather tired and cold I was nearly tempted. The clouds however partially obscured the building, which visible not far up the mountainside above us. If we hiked up there, we would have no view at all. We decided to sit in our warm van and enjoy the view a moment more before heading back down. Now an endeavour in brake management.
As much as I loved the campsite here, the thought of a warmer night where I might actually be able to sleep won. We continued on past the campsite and out of the park towards a hostel on the outskirts of the park entrance. It wasn’t a long drive, but a significant drop in altitude. The friendly owner showed us to nice field where we could stay and I knew already that tonight we would sleep well again.

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