Being on the equator, we really hadn't expected to be hiking in snow.
To be fair, though, we were at almost 4600 metres above sea level at the base of Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador's second highest peak.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We had arrived in Latacunga from Quito for the purpose of visiting Cotopaxi National Park on a day trip with Tovar Expeditions.
We had realised from talking to other people who had attempted to climb to the summit of Cotopaxi that it wasn’t something we wanted to try. But driving to a drop-off point at the base and then hiking an hour to a refuge? That sounded doable.
Having spoken to Fernando, the owner of Tovar Expeditions, the night before we left to visit the national park, I gathered that it would be a simple hike, if rather tiring given the altitude, and that no special equipment would be necessary. Of course, we were wrong and we should have packed those gifts for hikers we recently received from our family.
We were picked up in the morning by Marciel, our energetic guide and Alex, our laconic driver, promptly at 8am and we loaded into the van for the hour drive northeast of Latacunga to the National Park.
As we got further away from civilisation, Marciel became more animated, clearly feeling at home in nature. We drove through the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park (which, like all national parks in Ecuador except the Galápagos is now free to enter) and Marciel explained that it used to be much larger, but parts of the outskirts have now been bought up by business owners to plant non-native trees like pine, that can be sold for their wood.
It rained the whole way.
We then arrived at the interpretation centre for the park, where Marciel took us around a small garden of native plants, which seemed to enjoy the rain a lot more than us.
We then thankfully moved inside to a small museum that explained the geology, fauna and flora of the area. We learnt how, in just 40 years, the glacier on top of Cotopaxi had receded by several hundred metres.
The rain had let up when we came out, and so we piled back into the van and drove on to Lago Limpiopungo, from where, on a clear day, you can see the volcano. This, unfortunately, wasn’t a clear day.
Nonetheless, we walked around the lake for a few minutes, which was quite pretty. It reminded me of the Scottish highlands.
Marciel told us more about the flora in the area. He seemed particularly pleased to show us a thistle-like plant known as Chuquirahua or Queen of the Mountain, apparently so called because the flower looks like a crown.
The next stop was the big one. Alex, our driver who had been waiting patiently in the van for us, now got to do his thing. The ride up to the drop-off point at the base of Cotopaxi was straightforward at first, but soon, there was snow all around us and we were swerving, in slow-motion, uphill.
After a few particularly sharp turns, Marciel announced that we’d get out there and start hiking. We were in fact only round a bend from the drop-off point, so it was no hardship.
“There wasn’t snow yesterday,” Marciel informed us, only slightly perturbed. “Usually there isn’t snow below the refuge.”
Uh-oh, we thought. Zab and I looked down at our shoes. When I had asked Fernando if we needed to bring anything, he had just said water, scarf, gloves, hat and hiking boots. He certainly didn't mention anything about snow or us needing hiking tights to keep warm.
We had all of the former, but what we had on our feet, while they had been perfectly adequate everywhere else we’d been so far (including hiking in Patagonia) were not hiking boots. I had been foresighted enough to be wearing my waterproof socks, and indeed they turned out to be quite necessary.
We started up the trail, which at first was not obvious to us, though Marciel clearly had no trouble finding his way up the winding path, and guided us confidently through the indistinguishable whiteness.
When he turned around to check if I was alright (since, given my inadequate footwear, I was by far the slowest), I must have looked especially cold and sorry for myself, as he immediately whipped out of his bag a bright red poncho.
“Here,” he said. “It will stop the wind.”
Little did I know it had the added bonus of being super sexy.
We trudged on, Marciel stopping us regularly to make sure we didn’t push ourselves too hard, and give us a chance to catch our breath. Sometimes of the cloud around us parted, giving us a sense of how far we’d come.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only an hour, we arrived at the refuge that served as the base camp for those brave and/or crazy enough to attempt climbing to the summit.
After posing for the obligatory photo near the entrance to the refuge, we huffed and puffed into seats, and opened up our packed lunches. For warmth, we bought coca tea and hot chocolate from the small kitchen.
After about an hour, it was time to descend. This time, Marciel lead us down a much straighter path that cut almost directly down to where Alex and the van waited for us. The surface was also quite different than on the way up; we were walking down on soft, black, volcanic sand that gave beneath our feet and we were back in less than half an hour.
Alex cheered us into the van, which he had managed to get round that impossible corner into the drop-off point while we’d been away, and whisked us off, returning us to civilisation. Thankfully, they didn’t play music in the van at all, and we were able to slump into weary piles, half dozing the way back to Latacunga.
Overall, we enjoyed the experience and found it to be worthwhile, and we would recommend Marciel's excellent guiding skills to anyone.
This tour (the day tour of the North face of Cotopaxi) leaves at 8am and returns to Latacunga around 4pm. It includes transport, guide and a packed lunch (vegetarian option available) and costs $40 per person. Don't forget to bring water, wear sunscreen, decent hiking boots (they will get wet and/or dirty), a scarf, hat, gloves and a waterproof jacket. Finally, remember that you start the hike at almost 4,600 metres, so don't come straight to Latacunga and try doing it the next day if you haven't already been at high altitudes for a few days.
Latacunga is about 1.5 hours south of Quito on the Panamericana. Buses depart from Quitumbe station in Quito every 30 minutes or more and should cost around $1.70.
We stayed at Hostal Tiana, where a double room with private bathroom cost $32 including wifi, breakfast, free tea and coffee all day and use of the kitchen. Unfortunately, our room did not have any external windows (except in the bathroom), but it was otherwise clean and quiet. We organised and paid for the tour with Tovar Expeditions through the staff at this hostel.
There's not a huge amount of choice of food in Latacunga, but there are two places we can recommend: for good Mexican food (with some vegetarian options), try Guadalajara Grill, literally just around the corner from Hostal Tiana, and for generous pizzas, we recommend Pizzeria di Angelo.
Many thanks to Fernando of Tovar Expeditions who kindly arranged a discount on this tour for us. He did not request that we write a favourable review, and our opinions are, and always will be, our own.