Chilling at Cotopaxi

Horseback riding and hiking in the shadow of a snowy volcano

Ecuador is a land of volcanoes. When we left Quito, we headed for the country’s most famous volcano: a perfect cone-shaped, snow-capped peak called Cotopaxi.

Our base near Cotopaxi was the wonderful Secret Garden hostel, a friendly, laid-back place full of international travelers. There, you can get room, board, and a volcano view for every budget: from $40 for a bunkbed in a cheery yellow dorm, to $100 for a private hobbit-hole bedroom with a round door set into a hillside, to $200 for your own house high on the hill.

The hostel organizes transport from Quito and lots of activities in Cotopaxi National Park, including the chance to hike to the 5,900-meter (19,000-foot) summit of the volcano for hearty souls not phased by extreme altitude and ice axes.

Backpackers lounge in a hammock with Colopaxi volcano in the background

We’re not such hardy souls. Other than a walk to a waterfall behind the hostel, we didn’t do much uphill hiking around Cotopaxi. The hostel is at 11,400 feet, which was high enough for us.

Instead, we took a guided horseback ride through the national park. The wind was cold, and bouncing on hard saddles for several hours was painful (at least for Chris, whose padding is in all the wrong places for riding). But the scenery was breathtaking—moonscapes of rocks and ash strewn by former eruptions, high rolling plains (called paramo) with hardly a tree in sight, tufts of billowy grass, clear streams, small colorful flowers, and of course the volcano itself.

Man in poncho on horseback on the paramo

The park is home to large herds of wild horses, which were beautiful to see running across the plains. We also spotted one cow grazing among the horses. We like to think it escaped from one of the nearby farms and headed to the park to live a free and wild life.

Chris and a friend on horseback
A cow walks among the wild horses

Another day we visited a lake near the base of Cotopaxi and saw all kinds of water birds (gulls, teals, coots, and sandpipers) unique to the Andes.

While walking on the trail around the lake, we had a chance encounter with a large Andean fox, which had presumably come to the water for a drink. It and Melissa surprised each other on the path, both looking startled for a few moments before the fox ran off into the grass. Between that and the condors we saw near Quito, we’ve been lucky with our wildlife viewing in the Ecuadorean Andes.

Fox in bushes

The area around Cotopaxi National Park is farmed with dairy cattle and potato fields. Away from the volcano, it’s a landscape of rolling green fields and jagged brown peaks. At the Secret Garden hostel, the landscape also includes grazing llamas, pretty flower gardens, and giant hammock-like nets where guests can hang out and gaze at all of that.

Blooming flowers and mountains near Cotopaxi

The hostel has no wifi or cell phone reception, so people have to rely on each other for company. A favorite pastime after dinner is gathering by the hammock nets to watch the sun set over the mountains and the stars come out. I haven’t seen such clears night skies for ages. Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades were the only constellations I recognized; the rest are Southern Hemisphere constellations I don’t know.

Mother and baby llama
Secret Garden has a herd of resident llamas

Every day, new guests would arrive at the hostel, so there were lots of interesting people to talk to and share travel stories with. That made a nice change after interacting only with each other during our long stay in Quito.

But after three days at Secret Garden, we were ready to climb back into our introvert shells for a little while. And we were eager to see what lay farther down the road in Ecuador.

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