As a child I loved summer camp. The great outdoors, new friends, activities unavailable to me in my suburban surroundings… each summer I longed for that disconnect with reality and the special opportunity to explore nature. Sadly, my days at camp ended at age 16, and I thought it was one of those wonderful childhood experiences I’d never get to repeat. I was wrong!
*A note for those who know me well… things I disliked at camp were the food and communal cleanup time. These dislikes were absent at adult summer camp, and also alcohol was on offer ;).
The only place I booked for our trip prior to our departure was Secret Garden Cotopaxi. According to their website, not only did they have views of eight volcanoes from their front porch (which also housed a ten person hammock), their four day three night package included two guided hikes and the opportunity to mountain bike down the slopes of Cotopaxi. All that, and we would be able to stay in a private hobbit hole which had a picture window staring out at the famous volcano itself
Transportation could not have been easier, as all we needed to do was show up at the Secret Garden Quito at 10am for a private shuttle. Upon arrival, a friendly Canadian volunteer named Bailey passed out mugs of hot spiced wine and gave us the rundown on operations. Dinner, lunch, and breakfast were included and excellent. The jacuzzi sat at the top of the property in a greenhouse drenched in jasmine (although we later discovered this was actually a filthy hippy bath, ew). We got the center hobbit hole with a cheery yellow door and sheets made entirely of polar fleece. On top of that, the guided hike to the onsite waterfall required that we find some galoshes in our size and be ready to hike at 2pm. Abdication of personal responsibility? Check. Outdoors activities? Check. New friends? Check.
As we traipsed happily up the hill above the lodge, the need for galoshes became clear. The trail wove through and around the small river on the property, and I dunked up to mid shin several times. The fact that I was in galoshes a size too big only added to the excitement of some minor bouldering and slipping in the mud as we explored the cloudforest in the pouring rain. Did I mention that the whole hike was done in the POURING rain? We made it to the waterfall, and then it was mentioned that we had the option of a 10 foot cliff dive into the pool below the lower falls. Did I take the leap? Given that you can not get any wetter in a rainforest where it is raining, you bet your button I did. The water was icy cold and took my breath away. The most awkward part was pulling on a sodden pair of rain pants.
Given that the lodge was super full with 40 guests, the hike and mountain biking were booked. Blake and I decided to fulfill one of my fantasies and splurge on horseback riding through the paramo. We arrived at the stables, where the horses waited patiently. Blake has a long standing discomfort with all things equine (he says they are big, dumb, and dangerous, despite minimal exposure) but his being game meant a very fun morning for me. I rode Moro, who was cantankerous and perhaps a bit out of shape. He only liked to run if other horses threatened to pass. That was a shame, because riding in South America is not the same as a trail ride in the states. Rather than horses slowly ambling nose to tail at a glacial pace, in Ecuador they let you ride as fast as you are comfortable going. I got Moro up to a canter on a few of the flat spots, and riding a horse at that pace just brings me joy. Blake realized his prejudice against horses was unfounded, and got himself up to a trot every opportunity he got. As we rode back to the stables the rain began again, and while we huddled under the gables of the stable we were entertained by the son of our wrangler. At four years old, his clear favorite game was to ride all the horses through the pasture, playing vaquero.
We awoke to a PERFECT clear dawn, which enabled us to see the stunning mountain(s) we had come to see. Our visit to Ecuador has been rainy and up to this point Cotopaxi had only flashed a little leg at us, showing her flanks through rolling clouds. Views like this make me feel like the luckiest woman on the planet.
For the day’s activities, Blake and I switched positions in terms of apprehension, as I would never call myself a mountain biker. I am a city cruiser kind of girl generally. I threw that out the window as we chose our bikes for the adventure. The bikes were in rough shape from hundreds of tourists bouncing down the rough roads flanking the volcano. My bike had shocks, sure, but they had been compressed to nothing years ago. Undaunted we loaded the bikes onto our transport and drove as high onto the volcano as possible. Due to the (comparatively minor) eruption of Cotopaxi in December the high flanks of the volcano are currently closed to all.
Instead, we pulled into a high laguna’s parking lot, where our guide led us through some questionable calisthenics. How walking like a duck for 100m was going to help me coast downhill on a mountain bike will remain a mystery. We were given safety instructions that included, “My boss is going to fire me if any more tourists hurt themselves on my watch. Don't slow down for me, do it for my kids”. And then off we went for an 11km coast. Peddling was barely necessary, and the views were spectacular. The ultra fit Quebecois PE teachers in our group liked it so much they biked up the road and did the whole thing two or three times. The Dutch couple threw in the towel halfway due to sore wrists. Blake and I won the prize for completing the ride at a reasonable pace ;). The van slowly followed behind, which was hilarious when we turned around.
We biked to a trout farm, intent on catching our lunch. The phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” actually speaks to an activity more call engine than what we did. Blake and I represented for Colorado, catching the first and second fishes. Blake literally dipped his hook into the water and came up with a huge fat trout. I took two tries, but only because some smart trout are my bait. These were expertly fried up as lunch, eaten in front of a picture window looking out at the massive volcano looming above.
That evening, we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever had. The ever present mist had filtered down into the low valleys, and as the sun set the whole world turned a perfect cotton candy fuchsia pink.
Blake and I saved our hard hike for the last day, in case we were going to be too sore for horseback riding or biking. We also hoped the weather would clear, but no such luck. We set off into the cloud forest and began to climb the extinct Volcan Pasachoa. Hiking through a cloud forest at 12,000 ft is very cool- bromeliads and moss drape every tree, the earth is loamy and smells of rot, and everything exists in a state of green totally absent from our home in Colorado. We emerged from this into the high paramo and were informed we got to be the first group to try a new route. Apparently the farmer next door had taken to threatening hiking groups with a machete.
This meant following a trail of blue threads through chest high grasses, muddy streams, and ultimately to an even higher (13,000ft) cloudforest at the base of a huge cliff. We would through a landscape of dense moss coated brush, huffing a bit at the altitude. Hiking here is steep- these are not the bare but nicely rounded Rockies. Each step means serious elevation gain, which makes for a tough but rewarding summit.
At the top we were treated to sweeping vistas of neblina (fog) and told the crater was off to the left. We had to take that on faith. However, awesomely, the summit being a crater meant we were able to do the hike as a loop, getting totally different scenery on the way down. At this point it had actively started raining, which meant the trail turned into a steep slip’n’slidw and led to some spectacular falls upon our asses. All in good fun, and the reason gaiters and rain pants exist. I love feeling like my gear is worth it. SO WORTH IT!!!