Trekking Around Cotopaxi Volcano12/03/2012
Our trek around Cotopaxi was an adventure and we couldn't have done it without Seth's navigation skills, our compass, GPS and topographic maps. That said it was well worth the effort and definitely among our top 3 treks of this trip.
The main problem we had was the lack of information. Despite being described as one of the best treks to do in Ecuador, and apparently being very popular, finding information out about the trek was difficult. We also didn't follow the advice to get all four topographic maps, and instead just got the two main ones. This meant that we didn't have a map of the start of the trek (or the very end but that was less of an issue for us when we got there). The description we had described how to get to the village where apparently the trek starts, and we assumed that from that village it would be easy to find the start of the trek. Sadly we were wrong.
We got a bus from Quito to Machachi no problem, then got a taxi to take us to Pansaleo village where we were meant to start. The taxi driver sadly then (we think) pointed us in the wrong direction and we never found the start of the trek. Instead we ended up spending our first day walking, trekking through fields and farmland and trying to find something that looked like a track that was heading in the right direction. We didn't find the path, but we did find a road that didn't seem to be used too often, and a nice area beside it were we could camp. So we bedded down for the night and tried to work out what we were going to do about the lack of path to follow. In the end we decided that it was stunning mountain countryside and we could enjoy a beautiful walk whether it was on the right path or not. All we had to do was make sure we monitored our food supplies and kept an eye on how to get out of the area, and then keep walking. Easy!
So the second day we headed off on what looked like some sort of path used by trail bikes and horses and we decided to follow it. It took us up, up and up over a mountain pass and through volcanic ash close to the summit of Volcano Ruminahui and then down into the valley below. At this point we finally got onto our topographic map and it started to look like the original trek was back on. In fact, shortly after lunch (pasta and soup of course) we started to see where the trail was and how to get there. By evening we were on the path and we had seen Cotopaxi for the first time. It was an awesome sight. Cotopaxi looks exactly like a volcano should look, with its cone-like shape and almost perfect symmetry, the snow on the top and the clear signs of lava flow down the sides and the occasional little rumble to remind us that Cotopaxi is an active volcano. Incredible. That night we slept well at the base of the mountain within meters of the path.
On day 3, after a bath for Seth in the canal (I'm afraid it was too cold for me so I settled for using the baby wipes we had brought with us) we set off along the path for the first time since we had started the trek. The route followed the canal for most of the day and was a gentle meander through the national park on a very gentle uphill slope. It was a bit of light reflief after the first 2 days and very welcome so we made speedy progress, using our map, compass and GPS to encourage ourselves along the way as we walked onto the land covered by our second map. Now we were on the right path it was actually relatively easy to follow all day, and by evening we had made it from the north-west side of the volcano to the eastern side.
Feeling satisfied with a good days work we started to set up our tent on a little island we found caused by a strange flow in the rivers course (by this time we had left the canal). As we started to put up the inner tent we saw that a dog and owner were walking towards us so we delayed putting up the outer tent assuming he was going to tell us we couldn't camp there. It was starting to get a bit dark and the idea of having to trek on to find another campsite didn't appeal. However our assumption was wrong, the man had come to tell us it wasn't a problem to camp there, but there was a problem - there are "Oso" in the mountains and we were in danger. We managed to find out "Oso" were big and scary but not much more as he offered to let us stay at his house to be safer. Not knowing what our enemy was we followed our new friend back to his "house" which turned out to be a sort of hostel. It was free to stay there so we accepted the kind offer of a bed and private bathroom with joy and made ourselves at home. Our friend then made us tea, and asked if we wanted soup and fish (which had caught in the river) for dinner. This was all very exciting and a great treat and even being told there was no hot shower didn't ruin the special occasion. After time spent on impressions and drawings, we discovered that Osos are bears to you and me and it was great news we weren't outside. Even better, the next day, after a cup of tea/coffee, we discovered that there was a hot shower. Amazing! No matter how much we both love to trek and camp, we still miss hot showers and get very excited when they are on offer again.
You would have thought that after a good rest in a comfortable bed, and a hot shower in the morning, life would be good the next day. However it started off badly, all because of me. First we set of early only to discover I had left the coffee filter behind and I had to trek back to our friend to get it back. Now running about 40 minutes behind our original target time, we went on until we got to a river to cross. There was one stone we could use to help us get across and Seth went first. He said something as he got to the other side but I didn't hear it. That was a shame as he had told me that the rock was slippery and because I didn't hear the warning I slipped straight off it and landed on my bum in the river, bag and all. Everything was soaked! After striping off all the wet clothes that could be replaced, we were on the road again but there was a big problem with my boots which were (obviously) also soaked through. Trekking through fields and across mountains in flip-flops isn't really an option (for me at least, to our friend Tyler it wouldn't have been a problem) so after about 20 minutes we stopped and cooked my socks dry, then wrapped my feet in plastic bags and put my boots back on so we could start again.
With all this drama we had lost about 2 hours of our trekking day but we were at least back on track, something I didn't think we would be when I first went in the river. Taking much more care to cross rivers (ie taking a big detour so we could cross at the bridge rather then risk slipping again) we trekked on. Cold and exhausted, physically as well as mentally (sleeping still being a big problem at altitude), we found ourselves walking through some pretty boggy areas of the park and walking uphill for quite a few hours in what felt like perpetual rain. Eventually though our hard work was rewarded with a perfect view of Cotopaxi and another Volcano visible in what is known as the valley of the volcanoes. We sat down and ate some fizzy worms and lapped up the views. How lucky we were and are to see such spectacle beauty.
Up again and to another pass, only this time we realised, only just in time, that we weren't going to make it down to the other side of the pass before the sun had set. Quickly we choose a relatively flat and sheltered spot and set up camp for the evening, watching the sun set behind the second of the two volcanoes we could see from our tent door. Amazing.
Waking up the next day we had no idea if we would make it back to Quito that day or not, but we did know it was highly likely we would be off our second map and back into unknown territory. However the path had been relatively clear and easy to follow since we had finally joined it so we were hopeful we wouldn't get lost again. In fact we made fast progress again and by lunchtime we were off our map and heading for the last two towns we had the names of. As luck would have it when we got to the first "town" (I think there was a house there, we only really saw a farmer) a local farmer had run out of petrol and was being given some by a friend who was then driving back our way and offered us a lift. After 5 days of trekking, 4 nights of interrupted sleep, and with my feet still in plastic bags, we gratefully accepted the lift. I am glad we did as it turned out to be much further then we thought, and all up hill. The lady then dropped us somewhere slightly random but we managed to get another lift to the town of Mulalo where our (not very detailed) instructions told us to get a taxi to the Panamerican highway where we would be able to get a bus back to Quito. It all worked very well and by 3pm we were back in Quito and checked back into our hostel with a hot shower and McDonalds within easy reach - a welcome treat after 5 days of pasta and peanuts.
It was an incredible trek that varied considerably from the others we have done and proved that maps, GPS and a compass are essential trekking tools! Oh and Seth's amazing sense of direction!