Last step of our adventures with Hanna, and some definitely eventful and memorable ones! Let’s go first to Cotopaxi National Park (the second highest volcano in Ecuador) and then to Quilotoa’s sublime turquoise lagoon. And as always, all of this by our own means: hitchhiking, with the tent and some wonderful hikes!
A passion for petrol stations
Samedi 09 mars 2019
We left without any regret Cayambe, ready to hitchhike to get to Latacunga. We set up at a petrol station located around the end of the town, but still a bit too much in the centre. The buses and taxis kept on stopping for us and didn’t make it easy!
As time was getting limited until the end of our trip, we had planned on two days to go to Cotopaxi National Park and one day for Quilotoa Lagoon, before splitting. Therefore we really had to arrive in Latacunga (the starting point to go to these two places) on that day, if we wanted to have time to buy food for these expeditions.
As hitchhiking wasn’t working well, we finally gave up and took a bus to Aloag, which route was bypassing Quito (we really wanted to avoid entering again the capital, as we would have had to cross it to go to another bus terminal).
A bit before reaching Aloag, the bus driver dropped us off at a petrol station along the Panamericana (the main road crossing the country from the north to the south). There could be a quieter place but there was a green area behind the station, which would be ok to have our picnic.
Heading to Latacunga
Once full, we tried again to hitchhike for the last part of the trip, which was much shorter. I didn’t have so much hope given the speed of the cars on this highway, but a driver finally stopped for us!
He was in a minibus with which he had dropped off a group in Quito, so we had a lot of space 😉 He was very friendly and drove us pretty close to our hostel in Latacunga.
We then still had about fifteen minutes to walk and finally arrived in a hostel exactly as we like, with nice common areas, a warm welcome and some nice facilities.
However we didn’t stay long there, as we still had to do all the shopping for our trek. We went to the city centre to buy fruits, vegetables, rice, pasta, chocolate, peanuts… well, all the food supplies we needed to have the necessary energy for our next adventures!
Back to our hostel, we cooked (I couldn’t resist negotiating over-ripe fruits so we came back with a huge bag full of bananas and passion fruit to cook as a compote) and prepared our bags, so as to leave very early on the following morning.
Dimanche 10 mars 2019
We woke up early, finalized our bags, had our breakfast and then headed to the terminal, where we immediately took a bus to Cotopaxi.
We had read on the Internet and our hostel’s owner had confirmed us that it was mandatory to be with a guide to enter the park, which was also difficult to access without a taxi. But we had friends that had managed to go there on their own and were determined to try our luck too!
We arrived at the roundabout where the bus dropped us off and where all the taxis were waiting, and started to hitchhike. The park entrance was still far away and then there were still about thirty kilometres to get to the lagoon where we wanted to camp, so it was impossible to go on foot.
This time we were lucky, as we found some driver after only five minutes waiting. It was a very nice couple of enthusiast Dutch, with who we talked happily until the entrance of the park. And this was a simple formality, as we were not asked for more than our passport.
I can then confirm that A GUIDE ISN’T MANDATORY to enter in Cotopaxi park! It probably is for safety reasons if one wants to climb higher on the volcano (as it’s still an active one) but not for some easy hikes until the first refuge.
Our drivers then drove us to the Limpapungo Lagoon, where we had planned to camp.
The memorable ascension of Rumiñahui Volcano
We first looked for a place where hiding our bag, so as to hike lighter (the bags feel heavier with the altitude) and then headed to Rumiñahui volcano. It is 4 630 m high and is supposed to offer beautiful views over Cotopaxi volcano.
Unfortunately we wouldn’t have the view on that day, as the sky was completely covered (it was actually a very cloudy time of the year, which is not ideal to see the volcanoes in Ecuador). The clouds stayed stuck to the summit for the whole afternoon; and it got even worse by the end of the day.
We still enjoyed a lot our hike, which we started by admiring a fox for a long while. The low vegetation revealed how rigorous is the climate at this altitude (the lagoon is 3 800 m high). There were some dry grass and lots of bushes with some nice little orange flowers all around.
We started to climb in a perfect peace and didn’t meet anyone until our lunch break, which we did in an area protected from the wind; just before the last climb, which would be more difficult. Once we set off again, we came across some small groups of hikers that were already going down.
Among them, we even met a Finnish man, with who Hanna was very happy to talk for a while (it’s not the most common nationality among the travellers). He advised us to be careful for the last park of the hike, which was apparently very steep and sandy.
And indeed, this last ascension was pretty intense! It was really steep, full of sand and rocks… we had to climb almost on hands and knees and it was challenging. But we finally got to the top, feeling happy and relieved. The sky was slightly uncovered on the other side of the summit and the panorama was amazing. However Cotopaxi was definitely hidden by thick and big clouds!
We started to go down pretty quickly, as it was already getting late and we still had to set up our tents. This part was much faster and funnier, as we only had to let our feet slip and run down like crazy!
We had some little rain showers and hoped it wouldn’t get worse so as to set up the tent in dry conditions; but luckily it stopped.
Big fail n°1
Back to the lagoon at the end of the afternoon, we filtered some water and looked for our well-hidden backpacks. We didn’t have the strength to walk until the authorized camping area, there was no one in the park and we found a place that was pretty protected from the wind… why should we go somewhere else then!
We then put the tent, organized our stuff and I took the cooker out… but here was the tragedy: I had thought about everything but buying a firelight or some matches! We had everything to get warm around a nice dinner, but not the most crucial element.
Luckily we had enough food to get a (cold) snack, so we just went to hide inside the tent to be protected from the cold and freezing wind. We would have a good and long sleep, well protected under our sleeping bags and our warmest clothes; and would be ready for Cotopaxi on the following day.
Long live matches
Monday 11th March 2019
We woke up at dawn with some heavy clouds that were still hiding the volcano. Would we manage to see it today? We removed the tent and decided to go the parking place close to the lagoon to wait for the first cars. There should be at least one person with fire so that we could prepare a warm drink and our precious and necessary porridge!
Indeed, as we were about to give up and eat our bread reserve (which we had planned for lunch), a car arrived, whose driver had some matches to lend us. One needs to be patient to get the water boiling at the altitude but we appreciated a lot this breakfast! We ate it while the first hikers looked at us intrigued and amused. We then got our bags ready and went to hide them again.
View over Cotopaxi, at last
It was already 10.30 when we were finally ready to hike to Cotopaxi. There was a road climbing over about 12 km to the main parking lot 4 700 m high. From there it was possible to walk up to the first refuge 4 900 m high, and then to a small glacier 5 100 m high.
However, leaving so late made it complicated to reach the parking on time and then walk to the glacier. We had our fingers crossed, hoping that we would find some nice drivers to pick us up on the way!
After a few fails, a nice Ecuadorian-Argentinian couple saved us. And a few kilometres later, miracle: we discovered the summit of Cotopaxi! This thick layer of clouds / fog was actually stuck above the lagoon but once above, one could have the view over the volcano.
Once at the parking place, we left our drivers and started the ascent to the refuge. There was either a zigzag trail, or a path that was going straight but much steeper and sandier. We would keep this one to go down!
We protected ourselves from the sun (I had let the sunscreen in the bag hidden by the lagoon, but at this altitude it’s really burning so we had to cover our faces as much as possible) and started our slow ascent with perfect views over the volcano just above us.
We could feel the altitude but we were taking turns to carry the backpack and we made it in less than 45 minutes without pushing ourselves too hard (the park’s map indicated 60 minutes from this climb). We then continued to the glacier, climbing through some deep clouds that were giving a mystical and very special atmosphere. We were stepping on some reddish – brown – orange rocks and could hardly see a few meters in front of us.
Once again, the climb was faster than we thought as we made it in only 30 minutes. When we arrived, we could hear and perceive some impressive stone avalanches, which were sounding like a roaring river. Not so reassuring actually!
The wind was freezing and very strong so we quickly turned back. As we had supposed, going down was much faster than climbing, and it was a real pleasure to run down in the sand.
Once back to the parking lot, we started to go down the road, hoping once again on the generosity of some nice drivers that would pass by, as the road to the end of the park was really long!
The magic of hitchhiking
We hardly had time to walk a few steps and take some pictures (the views over the valley below were beautiful) when a car stopped by. It was an Ecuadorian couple that had lived for twenty years in Belgium and was now back to Ecuador, with their son and it’s girlfriends (still living in Belgium and visiting Ecuador at the moment).
Not only were they adorable, but also they also made a detour by the lagoon to look for our bags, and they also had four matches left, which they gave us… and thus we could go directly to camp in Quilotoa! We had indeed thought about going back to Latacunga in the evening to buy a lighter and then go to the lagoon only on the following day. But it happened that our drivers were precisely going to Quilotoa, and we were saved now that we had matches 😉
It was unexpected but we were then heading to Quilotoa, and what a joy! The landscapes were beautiful and we could fully enjoy in these good conditions and company.
After a short stop at the Mirador del Toachi (viewpoint over an impressive canyon), we finally arrived in Quilotoa. The sky was completely cloudless, the sun was shining and the view over the turquoise lagoon was breath taking.
Big fail n°2
We let our drivers go and started with enthusiasm the trail steeply going down to the shore of the lagoon. Maps.me indicated a campsite there; so let’s hope it would be right, as we wouldn’t have the strength to come back up!
The view over the lagoon was sublime all along the path, with a golden light making it even more special on this end of the day. Once on the beach below, we found the campsite. There were no facilities but it was free, huge and absolutely superb, a real paradise!
We chose carefully our spot to set up the tent and then went to filter some water from the lake, as our bottles were empty. But here came another tragedy: the lake’s water was salty! My filter couldn’t change anything about it and it was just impossible to drink. We could still cook with this water but drinking was out of a question; and we had already not drunk enough during the day…
Given the time, the distance to the village and our tiredness, we wouldn’t go back up to buy water; so we would have to take it on ourselves and be patient until the following day.
This incident didn’t prevent us from fully enjoying this great campsite, with the view over the quiet lake and the starry sky. We went to bed with our throats feeling dry but it would be ok!
A difficult climb
Tuesday 12th March 2019
We woke up with the first rays of sun, had our breakfast without anything to drink and left before the sun would get too strong.
The light was amazing and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the lagoon while climbing; but I was really suffering from dehydration. I felt the lack of oxygen, had no strength in my legs, was walking very slowly and kept on stopping to have breaks.
I ended up asking for water to some nice English girls that were going down, which saved me for the second part of this steep climb.
As we finally reached the village, we bought no fewer than six litres; with this we should be able to rehydrate ourselves properly!
Adventures around the lagoon
We poured the water in our bottles and flasks, prepared a bag to do the loop around the lagoon and left the rest of our stuff at the Tourism Office. We then left for this 10-km hike, feeling re-energized with all this water at hand.
We were very enthusiast, following this beautiful path that kept on going up and down, offering incredible views over the lagoon, which colours were changing depending on the clouds and the sunshine.
About 2h later, we had reached exactly half of the trail and found a perfect sport for our picnic lunch. This time we had brought the gas stove and our two last matches to make some coffee and catch up for the morning; and we really appreciated it.
As we left one hour later, some thick clouds had started to cover the lagoon and were announcing a cloudy end of the day.
We reached the crater’s highest point, more than 3 900 m high. Unfortunately, there was no view over the lagoon anymore, as it was now completely covered by the clouds.
I realized that Maps.me was indicating about two hours to reach the village, which was exactly the time left before the tourism office would close, and we had our bags there… so we had to accelerate! I was already ahead of Hanna and didn’t tell her about the short delays, sustaining my momentum.
I then continued in the fog that was getting thicker, turning over from time to time to check if Hanna was still following, until I couldn’t see her anymore. I was out of breath to keep this pace at this altitude around 3 900 m). I finally got lost at a one point that was a bit confusing.
As I was going back on my steps, I came across a Venezuelan guy that was also lost. Then arrived Hanna, who was in a big stress to have lost me and to be without the backpack (and therefore without water, jacket, phone… as we were sharing the same bag).
She literally blew up, yelling at me… but she was completely right and I really felt sheepish. Our bags were not so important; security came first! But for now, we still had to find our way so I would apologize later.
After a big detour, we finally found the right way (we couldn’t really follow the lagoon like at the beginning as the clouds were now hiding it). We arrived feeling and our legs sore and our heads empty this challenging and stressing end hike. The village was also covered by this fog, which gave it another appearance. It’s good that we finally camped there on that evening, as it wouldn’t have been so pleasant!
We took our bags (the tourism office was actually closing at 5 p.m. instead of 4 p.m…) and after receiving contradictory information about the bus schedule, narrowly took the last bus going back to Latacunga.
An underwhelming end of trip
The bus trip was the occasion to talk about our incident. I felt really sorry to have acted like this and it would definitely be a lesson for the future.
We arrived in Latacunga at nightfall, around 6.30 p.m. The streets were full with the kids getting out of school, people finishing work and the political parties protesting in the streets for the news elections… and about 10 minutes later, Hanna realized that her phone had been stolen; her jacket’s pocket had been cut right at the moment that she had taken her hands out of it.
We were under shock and took a taxi to come back to the hostel. We had had enough emotions for this day! After the attempt to steal her phone one week before in Quito, it was quite a lot for Hanna.
Snapping out of it
Monday 11th March 2019
I was supposed to leave straight away to go to Cuenca and get my visa extension, but I finally stayed one day more in Latacunga to get some rest and help Hanna finding a new phone (she didn’t speak a lot of Spanish).
I also enjoyed this day to do some necessary shopping, edit the pictures of the last days and have a well-deserved yoga session.
To be continued…
Bus Cayambe – Aloag: 5$
Bus Latacunga – Cotopaxi: 1,5$
Bus Quilotoa – Latacunga: 2,5$
Hostal Sendero de Volcanes: 7,50$ for a 2-bed room, breakfast included. Very nice hostel, with a spacious kitchen and some nice common areas at the last floor, with a billiard, a terrace and a bar. The owners are very welcoming and full of good tips.
Cotopaxi National Park: Free entrance. Its possible to go there hitchhiking from the main road to get into the park (it’s huge and impossible on foot, unless you have a lot of time). In any case, a guide is not mandatory, contrary to what everybody will tell you.
Quilotoa Lagoon: Free entrance. There’s a 10-km loop all around the lagoon. Camping is free on the shores of the lagoon, but be careful because there are no facilities at all, and the lake’s water is salty. One should anticipate and bring enough water supplies 😉