South to Cotopaxi

Friday, 6 July (Part I)

A good night’s rest did wonders for restoring our energy levels, and we were up and running for another day of exploring areas outside Quito — this time south of the city.

Chowing down on the simple breakfast ingredients we bought from the supermercado, we prepared for the day ahead, taking time to check and send emails, and use our TruPhone app to call family in Turkey before we lost the internet connection that was included in our room rate.  Not that we were checking out of the Marriott, but today was the day the Celebrity package was kicking in.  Same room, but no internet unless we pay for a package, or use the computers in the business center.

At shortly before 7:30a, we went down to the lobby to wait for the driver who was going to pick us up and take us to meet Lincoln as he couldn’t drive into the city between 7:00-9:30a due to the license plate based driving restrictions implemented to alleviate the traffic congestion.  (We saw heavy police presence at the point where the restrictions go into effect; lots of ticket-writing for those trying to sneak through.)

By 7:45a, the driver a no-show, we decided to call Lincoln.  Just then the valet called our name.  It turns out Lincoln was calling to make alternate arrangements to have the Marriott car service take us to the meeting point because of some mix up with the other driver.  Not a problem.  Within 15 minutes we were at the meeting point.

We had a beautiful, sunshine-filled day for the 42-mile (67 km) drive to our destination.  Again, the scenery was breathtaking and I was happy to sit in the back and enjoy the landscape, tuning out whatever conversation Mui and Lincoln were having.

Just before we left the city behind, Lincoln pulled over at a spot on the highway to give us a bird’s eye look at Quito.  It’s a crowded city; no doubt about it.  No way to capture it with a still camera, so here’s a 13-second video clip from Mui.  From this vantage point, it was easy to see the long and narrow layout of the city on the valley floor.

Despite the slight smoke haze from a nearby fire, we enjoy the views of the city.

About an hour into the drive, we stopped roadside to check out the Ilinizas, and the rural landscape.  Iliniza is the Kunza word for “masculine hill.”  At one time, the two mountains were a single volcano.  They were eventually separated by a saddle that is a little over ½-mile (1 km) wide.  The south peak is the sixth highest mountain in Ecuador, while the north peak is the eighth highest.

The Ilinizas are dead center in this photo.  With its glaciated peak hidden behind
the clouds, Iliniza Sur (south) is on the left; it is 17,267 feet (5,263 m) high.
Iliniza Norte (north) is on the right; it is 16,818 feet (5,126 m) high.

These volcanic mountains are all part of the western cordillera of the Andes Mountains.

plowed fields stand in contrast to majestic mountains.

The rest of our drive was uneventful, and soon Lincoln was turning onto the unpaved road that runs through Cotopaxi National Park to the parking lot that serves as the launching point for hikes up the volcano by the same name.  That was our main destination for the day.  On the way there, I kept an eye out for wildlife, but none were to be seen.

Except … yes except for a pair of Andean condors in flight.  They were a surprise to see, especially since Lincoln had just finished telling us that they nest on the other side of the mountain.  I guess these birds didn’t get the memo.  In any event, there was no time to get out the long lens, so I enjoyed the sighting, watching them until they became mere dots on the horizon.

(I later spotted another condor, but it was at a considerable distance.)

I did not come to Ecuador with the expectation of seeing condors in the wild; this was very much a bonus — picture or not.  (Both these photos are from this Wikipedia article.)

We’d been watching the beautiful Cotopaxi Volcano all along our drive in the park.  It stood out in all its majesty, the landscape around it as barren as the pictures I’ve seen of the moon.  It’s name is said to mean “Neck of the Moon” — quite appropriate, I thought.  Though this third largest active volcano in the world may have had a minor eruption as late as 1942, the last recorded major eruption was in 1903-04.  There were no rumblings today :-)

As luck would have it, the mountain was not shrouded in clouds, but we knew that would not last long.  It never does with mountains of its size — 19,347 feet (5,897 m) high.  So, when we spotted the clouds moving in, we stopped to take our photos.  A good thing we did; by the time we arrived at the parking lot, the peak was socked in.

Majestic Cotopaxi with boulders from its last eruption strewn about in a field.
This mountain is topped by one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world.

Of course Two to Travel needs to document this moment.
you can tell from the BALLOONING of our pants that the wind is strong;
this will play an unfortunate role in the rest of our plans.
[photo courtesy of Lincoln guaman]

Our plan was to drive to the parking lot located at the 14,763-foot (4,500 m) mark and hike up to the José Rivas mountain hut at 15,748 feet (4,800 m) to have some hot chocolate and enjoy the views.  And then perhaps continue onto the glacier at 16,404 feet (5,000 m).

I’ve marked up this image, taken from about 12,565 feet (3,830 m), to show (1) the
parking lot (tiny white dots between the two red arrows); (2) the yellow mountain hut
(circled in red); and (3) the approximate location of the main trail up to the hut (green arrow).

The elevation gain up to the hut was a bit daunting — about 985 feet (300 m).  But, having hiked at similar elevations at Lake Titicaca in Peru a few years ago, we decided to give it the good old college try.  Bundled up against the brutally cold wind that was blowing hard, we gamely set out behind all the other hikers going up the steeper of the two trails — a quarter mile long, vs the half-mile zig-zag trail.

Look at how the wind is puffing out Mui’s windbreak as we begin the  climb to the
mountain hut at 15,748 feet (4,800 m); it’s the tiny dot barely visible through the clouds.

I think we might have succeeded in reaching the hut — not sure about the glacier — under different circumstances.  Sure, the air was thin, but taking it slow was the key to managing that aspect of the hike.  The wind was another matter.  For every three steps we took up, we felt like we were being pushed back one step.  The loose, sandy ground didn’t help matters either, even when we tried side-stepping our way up.

In hindsight, we should have taken the longer zig-zag trail.  Oh well.  Since we’re not into doing things for the bragging rights, but rather for the fun of it, and no amount of hot chocolate was going to be reward enough, we decided to turn back.  Sometimes you just need to know when to call it quits.  If my notes are correct, Lincoln said we made it to 15,173 feet (4,625 m), our highest hiking elevation to date.

View from where we decided to turn back.
the parking lot is behind the pile on the left; visible beyond is the road back down the mountain.

Our day, however, was not a washout by any means.  With plenty of time now on our hands, we could do something we’d had to scratch off the list — a stroll around Laguna Limpiopungo, the shallow lagoon that sits at the foot of Rumiñahui, another dormant volcano.

Rumiñahui gets its name from Quechua; it means rock eye.  It is 15,489 feet (4,721 m) high.
The laguna is barely visible at the base.

The lagoon, located at 12,565 feet (3,830 m), is rimmed with totora reeds and rushes, making it an excellent nesting place for small birds and waterfowl.  We saw some Andean lapwings, coots, and teals at a distance, and Mui caught glimpse of what we think was a cinclode (at least that’s what it looked like in Lincoln’s bird guide), but that was it for winged friends.  We didn’t expect to see much since it was past noon when we set out for our walk.  Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable stroll and we were glad for the chance to stretch our legs on an easy, level path with magnificent scenery to entertain us.

Cotopaxi from the trail around Laguna Limpiopungo.

From one end of the trail to the other, the landscape changes.

From a very patient lizard that stayed still for his photo-op (top center) to the
national flower of Ecuador, the Chuquiragua (bottom center), there was plenty
to entertain us on the path around the lagoon.

Where there’s water, no matter how shallow, there’s always a chance for doubling our viewing pleasure with reflections.  Limpiopungo did not disappoint us, and Cotopaxi cooperated, too.  I understand the lagoon is being used for irrigation purposes and is at risk of disappearing.  In the not too distant future, there may be no water for birds and waterfowl, and other fauna, nor for reflections.  I hope that does not turn out to be the case.

At the far end of the lagoon, we  find the reflections I’ve been hoping for.
[the two to travel photo-op is courtesy of Lincoln.]

The path around the lagoon is a little over a mile (~2 km) in length.  So, not long at all, but it was nearing 2:00p when we were finally in the car, heading out of the park.  Blame our slow pace on the altitude and the photo stops we made along the way :-)  Or on our enjoyment of being in such a beautiful place and having it all to ourselves.

We still had more on today’s agenda, not the least of which was getting something to eat.  Our lunch was now going to be an early dinner.  So, while Lincoln negotiated the drive back out of the park, we snacked on our quinoa bars and sipped the gatorade we’d filled in our Camelbaks … more in the next post.


  1. Magnificent. What a day!! And bonus Condors ?!?
    I’m speechless.
    (mz speechless? Nah, not really ;)

  2. It's hard to think of something to say about the exotic beauty of the places you visited this day.

  3. Those mountains...oh my goodness. I would have trouble breathing just from the sheer beauty of the landscape - not to mention the thin air. Glad you had the wisdom to turn back when you needed to.