Sometimes you just need to get out to the campo. Or at least if you are like us you do. We get our energy from being out in nature and so a quick little weekend away on a farm near Cotopaxi National Park was exactly what we needed. An AirBnB find a mere hour plus away from home couldn’t have felt further from the city once we arrived and settled in.
Our hosts, Carmen and Guillermo, were extremely welcoming and made us feel like part of their family from moment one. Their farmstead, La Campiña, sits above the Rio Pita valley and directly faces the north face of Cotopaxi. From their house they can see Cotopaxi, Sinchalagua, Antisana, the slopes of Pasachoa, and to the north Quito, Pichincha and even Cayambe. With lovely farmland all around, it is a bucolic location perfect for slowing down and feeling the embrace of nature.
Their land encompasses two houses, a caretaker’s house, and a semi-stables building. Semi-stable because they have four horses and eight to ten cows, but they live out in the fields and only come to the building for milking and grooming. In fact, for humour, there is little better than watching a city slicker try and milk a cow! The caretakers will watch on with bemused looks of somewhat disdain as we harmlessly, but incompetently pull on the cow’s udders! But with kids especially, it’s a great experience.
Beyond milking cows you can also feed the cuy (guinea pigs), collect eggs from the chickens, and pull carrots and cedron from the large veggie patch. The latter is perfect in hot water with some honey for when you are feeling a little poorly. Doubly so in front of a fire when the wind and rain are crashing down outside!
We have now gone to this lovely spot five times – enjoying it with family and friends. Kids get horse rides around the house and a chance to really experience a small farm, without the true headaches of farm life! Adults get to relax and go on some lovely hikes. Or just drink whisky in front of a roaring fire! The views will spoil you, as will the hammock and jacuzzi tub – though so far only children have enjoyed it.
The location really can’t be beat with hiking at Condor Machay, a canal along the lower slopes of Pasachoa, Pasachoa itself, and of course Cotopaxi all very close. It is exactly what you want from a weekend escape – convenient, different, and beautiful. We haven’t been back in a while, but we will be once more before too long! Thanks Carmen and Guillermo for always being the perfect hosts, and thanks to all our friends and family who have enjoyed this beautiful place with us.
It is a constant in our lives. We see it from our bedroom, on our commute, and from the embassy. It sits quietly in the near distance, yet that potential for catastrophic eruption persists. It is impossible to be in Quito and not be drawn to its beauty. Cotopaxi is an iconic volcano, one that occupies a central part of Ecuador’s identity as a destination of natural wonders and adventurous spirits.
Reaching nearly 6,000 meters into the sky, Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador and one of the tallest volcanos in the world. Unlike the ‘active’ volcano of Pululahua, Cotopaxi was actively erupting from September 2015 until January 2016. This most recent eruption cycle caused mass evacuations of nearby towns, extensive emergency preparedness drills, and not a few ruined car engines from the ash clouds. Luckily a full fledged eruption didn’t occur, but the national park was closed at the time and the summit remains closed.
Eruptions of Cotopaxi would be disastrous due to the lahar mud flows that would follow. Basically an eruption would flash melt the glaciated peak and the resulting fast moving mud would engulf all surrounding areas, especially along the various river valleys. Past eruptions have twice completely destroyed the provincial capital of Latacunga and lahar once even made it to the Pacific Ocean more than 100km away! Most scientific models show the lahar flowing in the river valley immediately below our neighbourhood – about 50 km from the summit of Cotopaxi – with enough force to do significant damage. It is a form of nature that we would rather not see or experience.
Cotopaxi is a temptress though. It is a mountain with sacred ties to the indigenous cultures in the area – including beliefs that gods lived at the summit and it being sacred as a form of rain producer. That reputation for rain is not unfounded. A completely clear day, all day, around Cotopaxi is exceedingly rare. There are constant changes to clouds and light conditions, with rain, wind, sleet, hail, and snow all being common occurrences in the same day. The best conditions tend to be first thing in the morning or around sunset. Because of this we commonly inform guests that if the volcano is visible at first light, and clearly so, then we will rouse them and get them in the car by 7am in order to get to the park in time to see the summit properly.
The drive to the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park is only about an hour from Quito. After a short drive through some evergreen forests, you enter the rock strewn plains around the base of the volcano itself. Here there are great hikes available especially around Limpiopungo Lake or a well hidden spring fed stream on the backside of the park.
The true draw however is the road up the volcano to the carpark at 4,600 metres above sea level. Here the dusty slopes and intense winds can make walking rather difficult. For the more hearty you can walk up to the refugio which sits at 4,900 metres. This is currently the highest up you can go, but it used to be the key jumping off point for climbers attempting to summit Cotopaxi.
The snow line is usually above the refugio, but after extended periods of particularly wet weather, the snow descends down to the carpark. We had a particularly fun family outing during one of these times – complete with michelin baby Piper!
Most people drive up and down from the carpark, but there are tour operators who will drive you up and then give you a mountain bike to descend the rutted dirt road. Some really go for it on the descent and others appear out for a Sunday ride. Either way it looks like a great way to experience the volcano and environs.
Of course there is the option to walk, or even run down as well, and with our good friend Thierry, I did run down quite a ways. It is only a downhill run that is possible at that altitude – going up would require excessive amounts of training!
There isn’t a ton of flora and fauna up at that altitude, but the ground is covered in a wide array of flowers, lichen, moss, and grasses. Little spurts of reds, yellows, and blues pop out from the white lichen to add colour and texture to the plains.
There are over 800 wild horses in the park along with foxes, deer, rabbits, lizards, and of course birds of prey circling – maybe for gringos stupid enough to run down a volcano!
Beyond the aforementioned 800 wild horses, there are numerous options for horseback riding in, and around, the park. No matter whether it is an hour plod or a full day excursion, horse riding in the park is quite something. Cora and our friend Ruth went on a lovely hour ride from Tambopaxi, with me acting as a horse for Piper as she rode in her backpack alongside! Although the weather was quite overcast, it was lovely to wander out amongst the undulating terrain and really feel the true size and power of Cotopaxi. The ride took us off into some of the hidden corners and dry river beds that would be filled in seconds should an eruption occur. It was hard for this two legged baby pack heavy horse to keep up, but all in all we had a fantastic time.
You would think a behemoth like Cotopaxi would be sufficient to capture anyone’s attention, but there are actually several other volcanos surrounding, usually easily visible from the park. Ruminahui – a jagged dormant volcano reaching over 4,700 metres – sits overlooking Limpiopungo Lake.
Sinchalagua – an imposing 4,900 metre high peak is also easily overshadowed by its more famous neighbour.
On clear days, Antisana, the fourth highest peak in Ecuador, is also visible as are numerous other peaks in the area.
There are camping sites in the park, but only one indoor sleeping option – Tambopaxi. This haven for climbers is very comfortable and is on the track to the more rugged northern entrance to the park. Being in the park itself means that on a clear night or morning, you can go out and experience the star strewn sky over Cotopaxi or watch the sun come up. Both are truly magical to experience.
Outside the park borders are numerous other options – our favourite little find is La Campiña – a small little farmstead with wonderful owners (post to follow soon).
Cotopaxi is majestic and magnificent. Not a single day goes by where we don’t look for it. Sometimes I will wander out our front door for no other reason than to look southeast and see if it is visible. If it is, I will usually stand and look at it for awhile, immune from the visual distractions of the neighbouring houses and suburban detritus.
The park itself is one of our favourite places in Ecuador – rugged, largely empty, and with the mountainous surroundings that feed our souls. You can have spectacular experiences throughout Ecuador, but not visiting Cotopaxi would be to deprive yourself of the opportunity to truly experience the unique and amazing wonders of nature. Rain or shine, make an attempt and it will truly astound you.
Thanks to all of our friends and family who have helped us to have so many opportunities to visit this majestic beauty — Aarne, Mom, Heather, the Brooke family, the De Saint Martin family, Mom and Dad and Ruth!
Sometimes you don’t have to go far to find beauty and seclusion. A mere hour or so from our house into the Rio Pita Valley, and heading directly for Cotopaxi Volcano, we found Condor Machay waterfall.
The path to this 80 metre high waterfall takes you along the rushing river, through a green lush paradise with moss clinging to every tree and rock, tree branches overhanging the trail, waterfalls trickling down rocks and roots claiming ownership over the path.
Tucked into a deep sided gorge, you can see why the waterfall was named Condor Machay, which means ‘nest of the condor’ in the area’s indigenous language Quechua. Here you feel as if you are a million miles away from humanity, when really you are mere miles from the outskirts of Quito. It is intoxicating.
The path snakes across several bridges, some rather rickety, crossing the river as it cuts its way through the landscape. After a wonderfully leisurely, and yet full, hike, you get a quick glimpse of the surprise at the end, before diving back into the trees. Finally, the path opens into an expansive space full of mist from the water crashing down. The scale is hard to believe without a subject in front. With its ever changing light, the gorge feels like a completely different place.
Sitting here watching the water running off the rock face above, it is easy to feel a connection with the landscape and to ponder the monumental forces that nature can affect. It is almost enough to wander off into the wild and just stay out there!
Search for ‘Rumipamba Waterfalls Trailhead’on Google Maps (and open if Waze if you want). Be sure to go to this point and not where it is marked Condor Machay as you may end up on the other side of the gorge, or where there is no road/access. Park at the bottom of the hill and pay the parking attendant a few dollars. It’s fairly safe but make sure you don’t leave anything in sight in your vehicle as usual and lock everything up. There are two trails starting at this point – to the right is Condor Machay. To the left is also meant to be beautiful but about 20 minutes in requires a wet and sometimes deep river crossing so be prepared. It takes us an hour or so from Cumbaya to arrive, and about 1h40 minutes to 2 hours to get to the waterfall itself. Enjoy!