One of the most recognizable peaks on the Panamerican highway, Cotopaxi, has been calling to me ever since I arrived in Ecuador. Literally meaning “neck of the moon”, it is the world’s highest active volcano and stands at a mighty 19,347 ft above sea level. For a while, I had entertained the thought of trying to summit this beast, but my lack of technical skills involving crampons and ice picks convinced me to scale back on my ambitions. Hence, Sunday found me and a few friends on a guided trip up to the snow line and around the national park.
On a clear day, you can see Cotopaxi’s snow-capped peak from Quito. Unfortunately, Sunday was not a clear day. Oh well. Onward and upward we went in the bus through the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park and to the parking lot, where we would start our ascent to the base camp at 16,400ft. The wind was howling and icy rain was pelting us from all sides as we trudged along the path covered in volcanic ash. With the fog closing us in on all sides, it felt like we were on another planet. Certainly not Ecuador, since it seemed pretty strange to be seeing snowflakes so close to the equator. Even though I’d been hitting the gym pretty frequently, it was still difficult to breathe at that altitude. We finally reached the Base Camp refuge after an hour of hiking and were treated to lunch and hot tea. Everyone in our group was soaked and freezing, but we sat around the table animatedly swapping stories and sharing travel tips with fellow volunteers and other backpackers from a handful of countries around the world. I think everyone was secretly relieved when our guide told us that the visibility was too poor to continue our hike up to the glacial line. Instead, we scrambled back down to the parking lot to pick up our bikes and zoomed down to Laguna Limpiopungo, about 8 miles away. Freezing hands aside, it was a great ride and once we emerged from the clouds there were some spectacular views. It’s amazing that a country as small as Ecuador can have such diverse landscapes; the sparse vegetation and craggy mountains were a stark contrast to the lush cloud forest and humid coast that I enjoyed the other weekend. Sometimes I forget that I’m living in the Andes mountains, and this trip served as a reminder of what an amazing part of the world I’m calling home for a few more weeks.