Testing my limits on Cotopaxi Volcano

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I knew it was going to be cold. I knew it was going to be hard. What I didn’t know is that I’d want to give up after a mere 10 minutes on Cotopaxi Volcano. Our altitude of 4,500m mixed with unusually harsh weather made every breath difficult, every step a labour. As the wind slapped my face, I closed my eyes and wondered not for the first time why I had let Peter talk me into this. Glaciers were his thing. Trekking in freezing cold weather was his hobby. I like adventure, sure, but not when it hurt this much. I prefer my adrenaline 10 degrees above freezing, thank you.

I tried to focus on the task at hand: one foot in front of the other. Never mind the sopping wet gloves, never mind the relentless rain – just one foot in front of the other. Peter was out at front, accompanied by a sprightly Scottish lass that climbs crags at lunchtime. (I didn’t mind… I was prettier.)

The middle of the pack comprised a group of weekend hikers who were thankfully struggling almost as much as me. Bringing up the rear was another city girl. She had worn trainers instead of hiking boots – and was paying the price dearly.

We trudged forward slowly, heads pounding from altitude, skin shivering from cold. After half an hour, our refuge point came into sight. It seemed so close and yet it took us such a long time to get there. Peter would laugh when I later told him I understood why mountaineers gave up within a few metres of their summit. I was being dramatic of course but progress was so slow, it took us an hour to ascend a few hundred metres.

When we finally reached the refuge, our guide Henry sat us all down and asked us to seriously consider whether we wanted to continue. The weather was unusually bad, he said, and it might be tricky ascending further. Part of me wanted to skip happily down, but part of me felt disappointed. We had come this far, surely we could make it to the glacier?

After 10 minutes of uhming and ahhing, and with the gentle encouragement of Peter and Sprightly Scottish Lass, we decided as a group to continue. We piled our soggy layers back on and set out into the cold. My scarf became wet from my warm breath. I adjusted it but only ended up with scarf wet from the rain. My fingers were numb inside my wet gloves and the searing cold air seemed to shoot through my nose straight into my brain. One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other and so it went, all the way up to 5,000m.

Atlas & BOots

When we finally reached the glacier, we caught our breath long enough for a cheer. It had been a relatively short trek but the sense of achievement was fantastic. I got a glimpse into why Peter likes to climb mountains (not that I’d be joining him again any time soon). We took a few moments to enjoy the dramatic vista and to snap some pictures of us looking more than a little bedraggled. And then, just like that, the hard part was over and we were heading back down.

Piling into the waiting car at the base was both a relief and a pain. Our dripping clothes and soggy skin didn’t make for a pleasurable ride back to our hotel. Thankfully, our cabana at The Secret Garden Cotopaxi had a roaring fire waiting for us. This gem of a lodge is the perfect place from which to explore Cotopaxi National Park. With stunning vistas of the volcano, a real log fire in the cabanas and communal area, and a hot tub, this isn’t your garden-variety hostel.

Oh, and did I mention there’s homemade cake, ‘happy hour’ snacks as well as three meals a day included in the room rate? I don’t often rave about hostels (mainly because their clientele is full of hipster ukelele players who think they’re oh-so-subversive for growing a beard) but The Secret Garden Cotopaxi stole a piece of my heart. Its unique location means you don’t get ukelele players as much as adventure-seeking outdoorsy types who are infinitely more interesting. Plus, as a city girl, I’ve rarely had the pleasure of falling asleep to the sound of an open fire. After a hard day out, it was the perfect night in.

The essentials

What: Cotopaxi Volcano and Glacier Trek ($35pp), 2.5 hours. A summit trek as well as other hikes of varying lengths and difficulty are available as well as an excellent horseriding excursion – all bookable via The Secret Garden Cotopaxi. A private cabana there is $96 per night and includes a private bathroom, open log fire, unlimited hot beverages, three meals a day, homemade cake, daily happy hour snacks and access to the hot tub!

Where: Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador – 56km south of Quito.

When: According to summitpost.org, Cotopaxi has the highest number of clear days per year in the Ecuadorian Andes. Climbs can be attempted year round. June and July are the driest months, but high winds are not uncommon. December and January are almost as dry and much less windy.

How: If you stay at The Secret Garden Quito, you can get a transfer to Secret Garden Cotopaxi for only $5pp. Email hola@secretgardenquito.com to arrange.

Fly into the international airport at Quito (book via skyscanner.net).

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