RTW Post #12: Cotopaxi and the Secret Garden

09/19/13 - 09/23/13: The Secret Garden: Cotopaxi, Ecuador

You may not know it, but the highest mountain in the world is in Ecuador. Well, it depends on how you look at it…

The Earth isn’t a perfect sphere. It’s slightly oblong, widening ever so slightly along the equator, meaning the equatorial line sits closest to the sun. Mount Chimborazo is Ecuador’s highest mountain, which means it’s the furthest point from the Earth’s core and, consequently, the closest point to the sun. So, no, it isn’t the tallest mountain the world compared to sea level, but it’s still pretty impressive!

Did all that make sense? I hope so. If not, there’s always Wikipedia…

Mount Cotopaxi. One of the highest active volcanoes in the world.

I’d like to say that we hiked on the furthest point from the earth’s core and the closest point to the sun, but we didn’t. We hiked on the second closest point to the sun, Mount Cotopaxi. At the time, I thought we were climbing the furthest point from the center of the earth, because that’s what we were told, but this seems to be a common bit of misinformation. I would argue, however, that Cotopaxi is the prettiest mountain in Ecuador. Possibly even the world. As one guest at our hostel put it, Cotopaxi looks like how every child paints a mountain: a giant triangle of reddish brown with a pointed top covered in snow. As an adult, you know those types of mountains are rarely seen. Instead, we find ribbons of peaks strung together, making it difficult to discern one point from the next. But Cotopaxi fulfills that childlike vision of what a mountain should be: iconic, picturesque, and beautiful to behold.

Katie and I arrived at our hostel, The Secret Garden, after a long and extremely bumpy ride over disintegrating cobblestone roads. Thank goodness its sister hostel in Quito arranged our ride, because I would’ve felt awful asking a common taxi to take us there – they would’ve broken an axle! The uneven route threaded us through a wide valley covered in farmland with simple dwellings. Swaths of green cascaded over the landscape with shadowy peaks framing the edges. The Secret Garden was on the other end of this expanse, nestled at the foot of a hill. We were grateful to arrive.

The Secret Garden. Here you can see the sprawling view, the quaint grounds, and some of the animals - which I was happy to spend time with. Sadly, Cotopaxi is shrouded by cloud at the moment.

The Secret Garden was just that, a perfect little gem tucked into a beautiful valley that faces Mount Cotopaxi. From every point on the property you could see the handsome peak staring back at you. We chose this hostel because of the spectacular view, its unique seclusion, and the three meals a day included with the price! It was well worth the cost. The food was great and the comfortable lounging area, with its warm fireplace and hot cups of tea, was unbeatable.

Canela! Her name certainly suits her.

An unexpected wonder of The Secret Garden was their resident calf, Canela (that means cinnamon in Spanish). The staff found her abandoned, being attacked by condors at only one day old. They saved her and brought her back to The Secret Garden to recover. Now she’s a month old and sweet as can be. She spends her days with the three other house dogs, a dalmatian and two dachschunds. Consequently, she thinks she’s a dog. She moos instead of barks and scratches her ears with her back legs. She even goes on hikes and sleeps by the fire! Being a cow, I don’t know how long this love affair can last, but all the guests sure enjoyed her company!

While at The Secret Garden we stayed in the “Playhouse,” which is about as simple as you can get when it comes to accommodation. It’s called the Playhouse because that’s what it looks like – a kid’s playhouse. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you can order this structure online and build it in your backyard. It’s a small bi-level wooden box that shakes in a strong wind (of which there were many). Instead of describing it further, why don’t I let Katie show you around:

So yes, the Playhouse wasn’t much, but it was enough for us. And thank goodness for that, because on our first evening at The Secret Garden I started feeling ill. By nightfall I knew I was sick. Head stuffed up. Nose running. Throat hurting. Not two weeks into our RTW trip and I was already laid up with a head cold! This did not bode well. But on the bright side, The Secret Garden is about the best place to be sick on the road. I had 24 hours of unlimited tea at my disposal and three square meals a day. Nothing to worry about but getting well. So that’s exactly what I did.

That's me, sleeping off my illness in "The Playhouse." I hope they changed sheets!

Our next destination after Cotopaxi was the Galapagos Islands, so my goal was to be fully recovered by then, because the last thing I wanted to be was sick at sea! Aside from that, both Katie and myself were dying to take a guided tour to Mount Cotopaxi and hike to the glacier. Luckily, after three days of fighting off my illness, I was feeling much better. Yes, I was still sniffling and my sinuses were as dry as the Sahara (how are both possible?!), but it was a huge improvement.

Katie and I decided to book the tour and cross our fingers that this outing wouldn’t put me back on bed rest. Luckily, the day was pristine; Cotopaxi practically glistened in the bright sunlight, floating in a sky of clear blue. Such clarity was a rarity in these parts, from what the hostel staff told us. All this meant the best hiking experience we could possibly hope for. Katie and I were ecstatic!

We ate breakfast and headed out with Marco, our guide for the day. He didn’t speak much English, but enough that he was able to explain some of the facts about the terrain, wildlife, and all the peaks surrounding the valley while we drove to Mount Cotopaxi. I have to say that I now question some of the information given to us since I’ve done more research and found errors. For instance, the aforementioned “fact” that Cotopaxi is the furthest point from the earth’s core. It’s actually the second. Also, Marco kept saying the name Cotopaxi in Quechua means “cut neck,” as in decapitation. Since then, however, I’ve found both guidebooks and websites that say Cotopaxi means “neck of the moon.” Maybe they're wrong, though? Maybe Marco's translation is more accurate? But I have to say, "neck of the moon" sounds way more appealing.

"Baby Cotopaxi" in all its glory. We conquered it! (with a little help) Big daddy is in the distance.

On the way to the mountain we stopped at a boulder that had once blown out of Cotopaxi during an eruption. Marco called it “Baby Cotopaxi” and insisted we climb up it. Fat chance! There was no way we could get a foothold on this little giant. He then displayed his rock-climbing prowess by scaling it in a flash. From there he hoisted us up, took pictures of our triumph, and then helped us rappel down the side. It was an unexpected perk of the tour. Another reason for the stop, he explained, was to slowly acclimatize to the altitude. We were about to hike up to 5000 meters (16,404 feet), and it’s important to adjust to the elevation in steps. See, there are some things Marco was dead right about.

After a couple stops to acclimatize, we reached the Cotopaxi parking lot half way to the summit. We pulled on layers, including raincoats to break the wind whipping around us. We wrapped buffs around our faces to stave off the cold and keep dust at bay. Sunglasses covered our eyes to filter the glare. By the time we were ready to climb we looked like mummified hikers.

Katie and myself hiking up Mount Cotopaxi. "Concentration, concentration. Slow, slow." Words to live by.

Before even taking a step, Marco told us, “Concentration, concentration. Slowly, slowly.” He wanted us to breath in through our noses and out from our mouths, making sure to take our time as we followed him up the mountain. This, again, was due to the altitude. Altitude sickness is no joke. We’d already experienced symptoms of it in Quito, which was over 2,000 meters lower. You get headaches, dehydration, and you have shortness of breath when doing simple things, like going up stairs. Running up the side of this mountain would be a very bad idea. That’s why Marco was hiking at a glacial pace (so to speak). I felt like the tortoise and the hare, only this tortoise wasn’t feeling at her peak (wink, wink). I know, I know, enough with the mountain puns, already…

We climbed ever so slowly up loose rock. Marco checked in with us often, asking if we were OK and waiting for our thumbs up before continuing on. There were quite a few hikers on Cotopaxi that day. It seems to be a tourist hotspot as well as a great day trip for locals. We were in the company of kids and elderly alike, and I swear we were going slower than everyone around us. It felt good, though, not to pressure myself to go any faster. In fact, that plodding pace kept every symptom of altitude sickness at bay, for which I was grateful. Katie felt good, too, 45 minutes later when we reached the mountain refuge. The refuge sits at 4864 meters (15,953 feet) and houses a little café where we ate slices of cake and drank hot cocoa.

After the snack we continued up to 5,000 meters (16,404) where the glacier starts its icy ascent to the summit. We saw several Ecuadorians enjoying the snowy surface, even throwing icy snowballs at each other along the way. Most people from Ecuador never see snow since living on the equator means having a consistent climate that sits around 60ºF (16ºC) all year round. I can’t say we were enjoying the icy terrain as much as they were, but we were delighting its beauty. The glacier was a mosaic of ice crystals, and we could hear its babbling runoff cascading down the side of the mountain while we careful stepped on its slick surface. Marco was good enough to take several pictures of us tramping along the icy path and crouching under melting outcrops. I have to say, that even though some of his facts may have been off, Marco was a fantastic guide. He always made sure we were safe and having fun. I was glad to have him with us.

Katie standing center stage on a perfect Cotopaxi climbing day. Check out that view!

As you can imagine, the view at 5,000 meters was spectacular. A distant ring of peaks wrapped around the valley and ancient lava flows painted the landscape. We must’ve captured that vista from every angle, and then took a few more pictures for good measure. We continued to enjoy the panoramic view as we did one of my favorite activities: running down scree! We traveled down the mountain the same way we came up – on loose rock – but this time I ran as fast as I could dig my heels in. The volcanic gravel was soft and deep, and I cut through it without a care in the world, knowing that a fall on my bum would hurt very little. It was exhilarating!! By the time we reached Marco’s SUV we were sweaty and out of breath. I knew that my sinuses may be a bit worse for wear, but I didn’t care. Seeing Cotopaxi up close made it all worthwhile.

Katie and I were all smiles during our bumpy ride back to The Secret Garden. We had a wonderful last day in that peaceful valley and a hot dinner to look forward to. We bid our final farewell to Canela and hit the hay early that night. Good thing, too, because we had a 2:30AM wake up call! It was the only way to guarantee getting to the airport in time for our flight to the Galapagos.

And now, a special moment with Alice...