The beauty of Cotopaxi National Park

As the van ambled down a rocky dirt road, I took out my phone to send a quick text to Kevin that I had nearly arrived to my hostel. I stared at the upper-right corner of my phone’s screen that showed there was no cell service. Brushing my initial panic aside, I reassured myself that there would be service upon arrival.

We drove past quietly grazing llamas and sheep, and finally pulled into a gravel driveway in front of a garage and several low buildings. My eyes were drawn above me where, built into the gently sloping hill were three hobbit homes. Yes, just like in Lord of the Rings. Except this wasn’t the movie set in New Zealand. This was Ecuador, and I was at the Secret Garden Cotopaxi Hostel, roughly two hours from the capital city of Quito .

As the other passengers in the van unloaded and disembarked, two smiling men reached us. One held out his hands and exclaimed, “Welcome to paradise!” (This was to be a common refrain over the next three days of my stay.) We’re ushered inside the main house, where we’re given vino hervido (mulled wine) and an overview of hostel rules, including activity and meal times.

Aside from being able to grab wine or beer whenever we wanted (honor system that we wrote our names down to be charged at the end of our stay), the orientation felt like my first day at 6th grade summer camp. The excitement of this helped ease some of the heartache of not having Kevin with me. He had stayed in Quito because there wasn’t Wi-Fi, and he needed a reliable connection to work on his computer and make phone calls. Except that I soon learned that they just didn’t have Wi-Fi—they didn’t have any cellular service at all. This meant I couldn’t contact Kevin at all for the next three days. They did have a computer (with internet connection) on-site, but the staff adamantly iterated that it was for “emergencies only”. Suddenly, the next three days seemed unbearably long.

After orientation, I was brought to my room, or hobbit home #1. The views were extraordinary. From the bed, I could look out through the window and see the bottom outline of Cotopaxi, a snow-capped volcano and namesake of the nearby national park. The top half was covered with clouds, and the surrounding countryside looked exactly like Middle Earth. The room itself was simply decorated: a large bed, end tables, a chair, and a space heater (which proved to be incredibly necessary at night). After settling in, I went outside to meet the llamas I had seen on the drive in.

Akin to horses and apples, llamas love banana peels, and the llamas that live on the property are very friendly in hopes of a delicious yellow reward. Luckily, the kitchen staff had made banana bread earlier, so I had swiped a banana peel when I was in the main house for the orientation. As soon as I took out the banana peel, one of the llamas came over and was agreeable to taking selfies. This isn’t so bad, I thought. I could get used to this.

An hour later, I trudged out on my first activity, a hike to a nearby waterfall with the other 20 guests who had arrived on the same day. It was a welcome activity—a way for people to get acquainted with the area and with each other. Most of the guests booked the same 3-day/2-night package that I did, so there would be a lot of familiar faces over our stay, especially since everyone ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the main house at the same time, and many of us would be going on the same activities.

The hike was short, perhaps about an hour to get to the waterfall. We were able to borrow rain boots, which were helpful when navigating the low current of the rocky river. The most difficult part was climbing up and around a few narrow ledges to avoid a section of deep water. It was an easy hike, and conversation turned to which activities people were choosing for the next day. The most popular option was hiking to the Ribas Refugio on Cotopaxi, located at 4,800 meters, or 15,750 feet. Wanting to be on a tour with a lot of people, I decided to choose this activity too, although I didn’t have much idea of what it entailed.

The next day, I said hello to Cotopaxi through the hobbit home window and dressed for my morning hike: Lululemon leggings, a long-sleeve tee, rain jacket, and athletic shoes. Our guide remarked that it might be cold, so I made an extra trip to my hobbit home to grab a beanie and gloves. We shuffled into a 4WD for the 45-minute drive to the mountain and our group of six girls made a pact to all ride mountain bikes through the park after our hike. Once we arrived to the makeshift parking lot near the base of the volcano, we realized our mistake.

The weather, which was so pleasant at our hostel, was markedly different on the mountain. The harsh, cold wind bit into my skin, blasting tiny ice particles everywhere. The fog blocked from view anything more than fifty feet away. My running shoes seemed to melt into the sandy volcanic red gravel, and it was difficult getting enough traction to move forward. The rapid ascension and lower amounts of oxygen made every step feel like more hazardous than the next. Finally, we reached the Refugio—a small lodge tucked into the side of the volcano.

From there, it’s possible to reach the glacier (another 40 minutes), but the weather was so bad, our guide recommended that we not go. Shivering, I curled up next to the heater and nursed a hot cup of coca tea. Once we went outside to make the return trek back to our Jeep, incredibly—the clouds parted, letting the sun shine through. The view from Cotopaxi, which means “neck of the moon” in Quechua, provides an incredible panorama of the valley below.

Once we arrived back at the Jeep, we unloaded our mountain bikes and suited up with knee pads and helmets. I’ve done this same activity on Mount Haleakala in Maui before, but this was much more dangerous. Rocks and potholes littered the road, and there were no guardrails for any of the turns. We biked roughly 10 kilometers (approximately 6 miles) down Cotopaxi and back towards the park entrance. It was scary but exhilarating, and because I took a lot of stops for pictures, I fell behind the other riders and biked alone much of the way. This, strangely, felt incredibly right. I wanted to be alone, as it seemed the immensity of the landscapes demanded my full attention.

The next day, after waking up to the beautiful sight of an uncovered Cotopaxi, I dressed warmly (lesson learned), and signed up for the easiest activity—horseback riding. After the harrowing agony of the previous day, I knew I wanted a chill day. Because it was my last day at Secret Garden, I checked out, and saw that the staff was using their computer for this. Despite not wanting to be annoying, I begged them for the use of their computer to send an email to Kevin. I told them I just wanted to let him know what time I was coming home. They agreed but gave a stern warning: “If we see Facebook, we will shame you.”

Once we got to the stables, I asked for the most tranquilo (“relaxed”, “calm”) horse, and was given Malvavisco (“marshmallow”), who was indeed the slowest and oldest of the group. I soon learned that Malvavisco marched to the beat of his own drum, and there was no way I could get him to go faster. This meant we soon dropped behind the rest of the riders and horses, and again I experienced the quiet and still beauty of Cotopaxi National Park alone.

The overcast weather and open grasslands reminded me of Middle Earth, but what was initially bucolic soon turned eerie and reminiscent of Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor. I dropped so far behind that I could not even see where the rest of the pack went. Thankfully one of the guides came back for me and helped guide me to the rest of group. We looped around the park and galloped back to the stables. Malvavisco maintained a good speed for a few minutes, but then settled back into a slow trot.

After the short drive back to the hostel, I said a quick goodbye to the Secret Garden and its’ llamas, as I was able to catch the early van back to Quito. What had initially seemed like a long three days actually went by fairly quickly, but I was eager to return home in Quito and recount to Kevin all of my adventures. If you’re looking to visit Cotopaxi National Park, I recommend staying at Secret Garden Cotopaxi, and I’ve provided additional tips below.

 

What to know:

  • Although they have other lodging accomodations available, it’s recommended to book their hobbit home for the unique “wow” factor. Make sure to book early as they tend to sell out. Note that private bathrooms are located outside of the hobbit home.
  • All stays at the Secret Garden include all meals (breakfast, snacks, dinner), drinks (coffee, tea, water), and use of their facilities (including a hot tub!).
  • They have a 3-day/2-night package deal which is recommended as it includes a private shuttle to the hostel and the Pasochoa summit trek. If you don’t end up doing the Pasochoa trek, they just remove the cost from your total bill at the end, so you’re free to choose any other activity—just know you’ll pay extra (~$25 USD/activity) for it.
  • As is the case with most Latin American lodgings, you pay for your entire stay (room + activities + additional costs such as beer or wine) in cash on the last day. Be sure to bring extra cash for return transportation just in case.
  • They do offer shuttles back to Quito, however the cost and availability is dependent on how many people are going back. I was lucky that a large group of people was also going back to Quito the same day as me. Some guests may go on to Latacunga or to Baños, however the staff will ask in advance where you’re planning on traveling to.  So they’ll put similar travelers together and help work out a travel plan (e.g. van to Machachi and from there, you’ll need to find your onward transportation).
  • Due to the remoteness of the location, and the lack of cell service, it would be difficult to arrange an activity with a different provider than Secret Garden. However all of our guides were excellent, and I felt the horses were well-cared for.
  • Last but not least, be aware that there is NO wifi or cell service. There is a landline on-site but it can only call domestic numbers. Prepare accordingly!

 

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