About a week before I had to leave Quito, Pearl and I signed up to go on a tour to the Cotopaxi Volcano. At 5,897m it is one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world. Its snowy peak can be seen from Quito and the volcano dominates the plain that surrounds it. Moreover, I have just read that it is a part of the so-called “Pacific Ring of Fire” (the chain of volcanoes around the Pacific Plate) and that it has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. Anything that is in something known as the Ring of Fire wins in my book.
So I really wanted to go.
I rarely go on organised tours but this one was fun. For the first time I had the very strange experience being on an English-speaking tour surrounded by Europeans after what had been a predominantly Spanish-speaking few months. None of them spoke English as a native language but Germans, Dutch, Austrians and Swiss have a tendency to speak English better than most native English speakers so it made little difference. The tour also involved breakfast and lunch, which made me happy.
We made the trip up to the volcano in stages, stopping for 10 minute breaks to acclimatise to the altitude and once for 20 minutes thanks to a most spectacularly stupid car crash two cars in front of us. We were encouraged to eat lots of chocolate (definite bonus) and drink lots of water. It was also my first time drinking the famous coca tea to help with the altitude, which tastes a little bit like nettle tea. Coca tea became a staple in the next few weeks in Peru and the coca products extended to coca toffees, coca sweets, coca leaves, and coca chocolate (Never eat coca chocolate, it is disgusting. I only bought it because I thought it might be green. It wasn’t.)
After ooh-ing and aah-ing our way across the plain towards the volcano we arrived at the car park at 4,600m, from where we were to begin our initial trek to the refuge 200m above. At first I scoffed at the guide’s estimation that it would take us at least 45 minutes to reach the refuge. Oh how wrong I was. After 15 minutes struggling to get footholds on loose sand and wheezing like a maniac I realised that 4,800m is high, even when you start at 4,600m. I had also only gone about 1/4 of the way and had a splitting headache, a dangerous sign at altitude. I almost went back down, but instead gave myself a long break and continued on at the fraction of the speed of a snail. I stopped every 10 steps. I was the very definition of slow. To give you an idea of the time scale: by the time I reached the refuge Pearl had arrived and ordered and eaten a hamburger. I collapsed in a heap at her table and didn’t move for 15 minutes until it was time to continue to the bottom of the glacier at 5,000m.
The last bit was still hard but I was much more mentally prepared for it and took it slowly. When we got there I was so glad I hadn’t turned back. The views were breathtaking (not just because of the altitude) and the glacier was incredible*. I was so proud and elated that I practically skipped my way back down, grinning madly and feeling like I could do anything..
…Except for ride a mountain bike back down from the car park, I chickened out of that. Most of my cycling experience has involved me screaming “Get me off! Get me off!” One step at a time.
I definitely recommend a trip to Cotopaxi. There are lots of organised tours and expeditions (try Gulliver Tours) but you can also go independently. There’s a hostel there called the Secret Garden which has a twin of the same name in Quito. Apparently it has a hot tub. The Secret Garden hostels have a weekly transfer or you can go by bus to the entrance to the park. From there you have to hitchhike in.