"La Entrada de Cotopaxi!" The bus attendant called.
We looked around and didn’t see anything resembling the entrance to a national park. The bus didn’t slow, but we walked to the front anyway, thinking we might have to duck and roll to get off this thing. The bus slammed to a halt and the door opened. I looked outside and saw nothing more than open road.
"Where is the entrance?" I asked in Spanish.
The attendant pointed somewhere as the bus roared off. Cary’s pupils dilated to full moons as they darted around looking for anything at all. Finally we spotted the sign. Cotopaxi. Across the Pan-American Highway. We were going to have to run across six lanes of highway traffic to get there. We slung our jackets back on, grabbed our day packs and sprinted into the middle, where a police officer was "directing traffic". A few moments later we darted through a gap between trucks to get to the other side and enter the park.
It had been a hell of a morning.
We had woken later than expected, and had breakfast with Esteban and Isabella, a couple that had just arrived from Banos. They were making a very long vacation out of a work engagement that Esteban had in the area. A white-haired architect, he recently gave a conference for the locals regarding the design of hospitals in the area, and was working with Luis on a project to turn his farm into a countryside tourist retreat.
One of the things I love about hostel and haveli lodgings is the interaction with other travelers, learning from their experiences and taking in their advice. We spent longer than we had working out the details of our trip with Esteban and Isabella. Having just come from the south they had plenty of recommendations on where to stay in Banos and Cuenca, where to eat and what to do.
Our late start padded with friendly conversation, we left for our one and only destination of the day: Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi is the second-highest but assuredly the best volcano in Ecuador. Located right in the middle of the country, it towers almost 6000m above the earth and represents some of the finest climbing in the Andes. We walked out of the hotel thinking we were well-prepared for the trip, and found out just how wrong we were.
Transportation planning is the most difficult part of any trip. Figuring out when you need to go, how to get there, and communicating changes in plans to your driver are extremely difficult. We had let Luis and Esteban convince us that the easiest and cheapest way to Cotopaxi was by bus. Furthermore, they suggested, taking the city trolley to the bus was also quick and cheap. Cary and I nodded and said ‘Si’ thinking we had it all under control, and walked our spanglish-speaking asses right down to the Plaza Grande trolley station.
$0.50 later we were crammed into a standing room only trolley that made a Japanese subway car look roomy. Dressed for hiking the Andes, we spent 45 minutes sweating in the trolley before arriving at the bus station. Cary was showing signs of breaking in the heat, but we wandered around the bus terminal until we found the counter for tickets to Lasso. It wasn’t our destination, but Cotopaxi was on the way and we were told they would "drop us off". After wandering around a helpful bus attendant pulled us over to what was evidently our bus (though no markings indicated it). We sat, and after the bus was filled we took off. Things were improving. We were on the bus on our way to Cotopaxi. A little later than expected but on the way nonetheless.
Then shit started to get weird. We made several unexpected stops, picking up along the way additional passengers, food vendors, and a guy selling a DVD. Very loudly. Then we arrived at a toll booth, at which point the bus attendant rushed around trying to get all of the standing passengers in a seat, or at least pretending to sit. It turns out those extra passengers weren’t exactly regulation. Not too long afterwards we hit a traffic jam so bad that every car on the road was stopped, and food vendors were walking the five lanes trying to make a few sales. Ecuadorian drivers resemble Indians in that their total lack of patience for standing still requires them to drive on the other side of the road to get around other cars. Five lanes of traffic quickly turned into eight then nine, and oncoming traffic could not get by. Thus creating more traffic. Eventually we made our way through the chaos.
Only to have to sprint across the Pan-American into what we hoped was the entrance to Cotopaxi.
After reaching the other side, we discovered that the entrance to the park is a full 16km off the Pan-American, and the only way in is to drive your own car or get a guide to take you back. Obviously we had no car so we hired a reasonably priced guide. Minutes later a single cab Toyota truck pulled up, and our guide opened the passenger door. We peered inside and the stout, wrinkled Ecuadorian with nearly a full set of teeth waved back at us. The guide directed us with a wave of her hand to step into the truck. Cary and I stuffed ourselves into the cab next to the driver, Cary taking the middle seat next to the floor-board shift stick, with myself pressed so hard against the passenger door I literally fell out every time it was opened. Which had to be done from the outside since nobody in the cab could move enough to open it from the inside. Our guide hopped into the bed of the truck. which I presume was more comfortable.
It was the rainy season and all of Ecuador this side of the Andes felt perpetually overcast. As we made our way down the gravel path into the national park the bottom of the clouds fell out and a steady rain began to fall. I didn’t notice at first, but after about five minutes of rainfall it became impossible to see out of the truck. Our driver muttered something in Spanish and then reached for a pile of newsprint on the dash. He rolled up the old news, rolled down the window, and began to try and wipe as much of the moisture from the windshield as possible. The attempt was futile and the droplets were merely pushed around. The driver laughed and said something unintelligible in any language to us. Was he was trying to tell us that the wipers were broken? Cary and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
As we continued wiperless towards the volcano we made a few stops along the way. First to register; anyone entering the park must do so, and it costs $10 per person. Our guide’s fee covered it; hiring one just became even more reasonable. From there we headed to the visitor’s center, which held the typical visitor’s center fare; examples of flora and fauna, maps of the area, and information about the mountain including dates of eruption. Cotopaxi is still active, and it’s most recent major eruption in 1977 destroyed the nearby city of Latacunga.
Driving onward the rain began to worsen. Our driver had grown tired of his newspaper windshield wiper and took a new tack. At some point along the way he had filled an empty 2-liter coke bottle with water, and was stopping to pour on the windshield at regular intervals up the mountain trail. I’m still not sure what the point of this was, as it seemed to just add insult to injury, but if it helped the driver see in the rain so be it. I focused my attention on the stones and boulders strewn across the plain at the base of the volcano.
About halfway into the park we arrived at Limpiopungo lake. The lake is located at the base of Cotopaxi, and is home to many of the volcano’s birds. It’s also only a meter deep, making it more of a really big pond than a lake. Still, its an example of glacial melting producing bodies of water, and an important part of the park. We took in the sights then packed back into our ride. Our final stop was the hiking path to the top.
The road up the mountain began to get treacherous. The rain was slowly replaced with a driving snow as we rounded the switchbacks and hairpins up the slope of the volcano. The driver didn’t have any new inventions to deal with the increasing moisture, but the density of the clouds made seeing through the snow on the windshield irrelevant. The temperature outside began to seep into the cab of the tiny truck, and even being crammed together couldn’t prevent us from growing cold as we ascended.
Finally, we arrived at the last parking area before the climb to the top. We weren’t prepared to summit Cotopaxi as it requires the accoutrements of ice-climbing. To summit the volcano you must also leave in the middle of the night to make it up by dawn. We agreed that to go as far as the refuge, and that we’d make summit on the next trip. We hopped out of the old Toyota, pulled on our hats and hoods and started the slow, breathless hike up to 4800 meters.