I had heard of Cotopaxi and all its fame before even realizing it was in Ecuador. Maybe the brand with the same name is partly at fault for that, but it has long been on my bucket list nevertheless. I was bummed when I arrived in Ecuador and learned that the national park surrounding the volcano has been closed due to the volcano blowing ash, and crossed my fingers that eventually in the semester I’d have the chance to go. That chance came during the first day of our mid-semester break, when three other friends and I decided to stop by Cotopaxi on our way south.
Cotopaxi is surprisingly close to Quito. I’ve been able to marvel at it on the walks I take around my neighborhood on sunny days and can see it peaking through the mountains in the distance. Given its proximity, we chose to just split an Uber to our hostel near the park and ended up arriving in under an hour and a half. It was a rainy day, so we couldn’t see the volcano that would supposedly be in grand view if there were no clouds. Despite the rain, we took a walk around the area our hostel was located in, enjoying the trees, the fresh air, and all the friendly dogs that we had to try really hard not to pet. After our walk, we enjoyed dinner at the hostel and made plans for our trip to the park the next day.
Unable to sleep much from excitement, I woke up early in the morning and immediately ran to the window in hopes that the clouds had dispersed and I could see the volcano. Unfortunately, it was still foggy as ever, but we all got dressed and piled into two trucks with guides that would take us to the park. As we drove, our guide told us the park hasn’t seen many visitors since a lot of people still believed it was closed from volcanic activity. Even while planning the trip, I myself didn’t even know if the park was open but wanted to go to the area anyway to get as close as I could to the volcano. As we drove, we got closer and closer and as we crossed over to the north face of the mountain, the clouds started to part, the sun came out, and the snowy summit of Volcán Cotopaxi started to reveal itself. It was thrilling. The landscape was clear of trees and wild horses roamed through the pastures beside us. Our guide told us that this was the first time she saw the sun in two weeks. We had gotten lucky.
After ascending the winding, rocky road we finally reached the trailhead. A viscous wind grabbed us as we got out of the car and prepared for the hike. Our guides tied up the bikes we would be riding down the mountain on our way back after we completed the hike. I was a little unsure about biking in such strong winds, but that was a problem for later. It was time to hike this volcano.
As we ascended the trail, the rain and wind turned to hail and we quickly got soaked. Luckily the difficulty of hiking at 16,000 feet kept us warm and the trail to the mountain hut wasn’t too long. We arrived in less than an hour and ordered hot chocolate, coca tea, and ate snacks to try to warm up. Unfortunately, sitting in the refuge in our wet clothes felt even colder than being outside, so we didn’t stay too long. We signed the American flag, one of many different banners from around the world in that mountain hut, and got on our way to hike up to the glacier. It was no easy feat hiking even higher, and feeling beat from the brutal weather, we decided to turn back. We passed the hut again and descended to the parking lot to hop on the bikes and find warmer terrain.
The thrill of riding fast down one of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen was unmatched. I had missed biking tremendously, and getting back on the saddle in such an epic location is something I will cherish as one of the best moments in Ecuador. We bounced over rocky terrain, shaking our hands every few minutes from the cold, and stopping every now and then to admire the incredible peak behind us. With the distance that was now between us and the summit, we could even see the clouds of brown ash that were blowing out of the crater. We had just hiked an active volcano.
The sun continued to shine brighter and it warmed up enough to shed some layers and just cruise. We made it to a peaceful lagoon on our way out, which felt like a calm reprise in the middle of our high-energy adventure. We stopped for a moment in the gazebo and admired the birds in the lake and the moving clouds. Quickly, though, we got cold and decided to keep moving. Gliding up and down rugged and paved roads, the forty kilometer trip was thrilling and intense. We were moving fast and seemed to cross a new climatic zone every dozen kilometers. I was so excited by the way the mountain just carried me away on my bike. Without even realizing it, I lost my friends and found myself back at our hostel all at once.
The thing about studying abroad is that time seems to move slower in the moment, but when you look back you have no idea where all the time went. It’s filled with extremes that feel so all-encompassing that time stops, but then you’re somewhere else in a flash. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether to let the mountain carry you away or take the time to look back and enjoy the view. Laying my head back on the bus that evening, I could feel the thrill settle in as I lived through the memory.
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My name is Elise Fuente and I'm a senior at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. I'm studying International Affairs with a concentration in International Development and I have a keen interest in Latin America. I'm studying in Quito after a semester in Buenos Aires and I hope to keep exploring the region as much as possible! I have passion for sustainability, service, languages, and the outdoors, but sometimes I still dream about being a chef. :)