A DAY’S EXPLORATION OF ECUADOR’S COTOPAXI NATIONAL PARK, PART ONE
We leave Quito early in the morning, following the city’s Eastern Ring Road, the modern Simon Bolivar Avenue. As we move on, new and amazing angles appear to our right (the west), of Ecuador’s capital city, its unique topography clinging along the foothills of the legendary Pichincha Volcano. We are surprised to see how much the city has expanded towards the south, reaching the actual foothills of the Atacazo Volcano. We are headed southbound, and in a few minutes we find ourselves already on the eight-lane Pan American Highway, the country’s main road backbone. What comes next is a mind-boggling explosion of greenery: the lush and fertile valleys and hills which form the Inter-Andean strip of Ecuador….
I play the teacher and my friends the students. The quiz of this morning is to identify the correct names of the volcanoes which form the Eastern and Western Ranges of the Andes as they cross though Ecuador from north to south. The Western Range has already shown us the beauty of the giant Pichincha Volcano, its two main summits, perfectly clear today and slightly sprinkled with snow. Next to be seen is the Atacazo and a few miles to the south an old Volcano, Corazon, with its heart-shaped rugged summit, which is exactly what “Corazon” means: “heart”. Right after Corazon we can already see the two sharp peaks, fully snow-covered, of the Ilinizas Volcanoes, most likely one old volcano broken by time and weather into two separate peaks. Looking towards the east, the Volcanoes’ lane is equally impressive: the magnificent Cayambe and Antisana Volcanoes, both well above 19.000 feet above sea level show us their snow and glacier’s covered summits. Then we identify the Pasochoa, Rumiñahui and Sincholagua. When we are reminded about the name given to this stretch of the Andes by Alexander von Humboldt more than 200 years ago, there is little wonder: “The Avenue of the Volcanoes”… Indeed it is an awesome Avenue or Boulevard of volcanoes, beautifully framing the Inter-Andean valleys and the Pan-American Highway in the center of Ecuador.
Just a little over an hour and a half since we left Quito, we now enter the realms of His Majesty, the Cotopaxi Volcano, one of the most beautiful mountains in the world and one of the highest active volcanoes in the planet. The day has become a bit cloudy and we cannot see yet the summit but we now we will see it later. We stop at El Boliche’s Recreation Area for a short visit to its small train station and to the equally small Interpretation Center which explains in wooden panels the geological story of the great volcano. We continue into the Main Entrance of the Cotopaxi National Park for the obligatory registration (presently there is no entrance fee charged to the visitors), but we do receive instructions from the Park’s wardens and staff about the do’s and don’ts while in the huge protected area which surrounds the volcano. We make a short visit to the pretty Handicrafts’ Shop adjoining the Park’s entrance, ran by one of the indigenous communities of the area.
While our driver Jose conducts the van, Isabel, Fernando, Victor and I begin a new quiz session, this time to identify some of the highland plants and to determine the vegetation zones which rapidly change as we climb higher. The old agave or century-plants and grasslands soon give pass to the pampas and moorland vegetation as we are steadily climbing in elevation. Suddenly the clouds begin to dissipate and for our excitement and happiness, the perfect-cone shape of the volcano begins to appear… We admire the reddish rock walls which reveal the existence of abundant iron in the rock structure of the volcano. In a few minutes the summit becomes totally uncovered and we can admire the magnificence of the colossus, its summit and crater, over 20.000 feet of altitude above sea level, displaying an incomparable sight of white glaciers and snow against a deep blue Equatorial sky, a view that leaves us without words.
We ask Jose to stop and rush for our cameras, to capture the glorious scenes (and some pictures of ourselves) for posterity. The wind moves the pampas grasses and we eagerly seek for a lucky vision of an Andean condor, but that part does not materialize… It is chilly at almost 15.000 feet and the giant volcano seems so close…. Yet, we do know that to reach the summit would require not only special training, acclimatization and equipment, but many hours and even days to reach the top. However, just that vision makes our day and, since our intention is not to climb the volcano but to explore its surrounding National Park, we continue with our day’s visit, about which we will tell you more on the next issue, not to be missed.