Driving south of Quito on the Panamericana highway, we already get glimpses of Cotopaxi, which actually seems very close. Other volcanoes come into view: we are driving along a chain of volcanoes, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Cotopaxi stands out: it is one of the highest active volcanoes of the world, holds one of the few equatorial glaciers of the world, and is the second highest peak of Ecuador. But better than these statistics, is to actually experience this impressive mountain. When we get off at the junction west of Cotopaxi, we see the white, conical shape of Cotopaxi on our left, and another, much lower, and inactive volcano to our right. A 4WD pulls up, and we strike a deal with the friendly driver Victor to take us up the Cotopaxi. It turns out he lives close to the revered mountain, and speaks in awe and with respect about the volcano that was considered sacred in pre-Incan times.
The views from the west side are a little hazy, and the ice cap on the slopes is visibly lower than what we have seen from the north side. Victor confirms what I have read: the glacier covering the summit is rapidly melting: some 40% has already been lost in the last few decades. Victor remembers how the ice cap would extend much lower than its present 5000m altitude. Cotopaxi is still active: a steam eruption in 2015 lasted for months, and the authorities have since banned climbing to the top. We drive around the base of the volcano, which allows views of the spectacular landscape. It is clear to see how eruptions have carved out the landcape below, with valleys created by mudflows, and fine ash accumulated by the various eruptions of Cotopaxi everywhere. Victor takes us to a parking lot at the end of a gravel track, and we climb the steep slope leading up to the mountain hut. The loose grit combined with the high altitude (we were at sea level just the day before) makes this more difficult than what it looked like.
From the mountain hut, at 4864m altitude, we take the time to enjoy not just the views of the landscapes stretching out below us, with several other volcanoes like Antisana and Ruminahui, but also the colour combination on the Cotopaxi itself. The brown-red of the slopes, the black of the volcanic rocks, the blue of the sky, the grey and white of the glacier that not long ago extended all the way to the hut, but which now is around 200m higher up: it is a breathtaking sight of sheer, pure, untamed beauty, a wild creation of Mother Nature. On our way down, we take the zig-zag route, frequently turning around for yet another view of the white summit with clouds constantly swirling around it, covering it, then moving away again. At Limpiapungo laguna, the wind is too strong for the nice reflection views I had hoped for, so we continue on our way down to the Panamericana highway again. Just before we board the bus that will drive us back to Quito, we turn around again for a last view of this magnificent mountain.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Cotopaxi (Ecuador). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Cotopaxi. Read more about this site.