We approached the gate for Cotopaxi National park with trepidation. We’d been told all Ecuadorian parks were requiring foreigners to hire an expensive guide, but since that made no sense so we decided to go there and find out for ourselves. Troy and I waited in our rented blue Chevy Spark while Magda went into the gatehouse to register our names. She returned smiling, jumped in, and told us there was no mention of a guide, or even a park entrance fee. Our only other concern was a persistent cloud cover blocking our view of Cotopaxi Volcano, but the guard also told Magda that it was always clear higher up the road.
We began our ascent through the thick clouds, a mist forcing me to try out the wipers on the Chevy. Just as predicted, we entered a cloud free bubble with a blast of morning sunshine and views of a high grassy plateau. The volcano remained elusive, coquettishly hidden behind a downy boa of clouds.
We traded the sunshine for pavement, and shortly we were driving on gravel. After a hike around a picturesque lake populated by wild horses, we turned off the gravel road for a washboarded dirt track that led to the park’s only open lodge, Tampopaxi. It seemed strange that the road to the only lodge would be in such miserable repair, but there we were, rattling along, dodging any upwelling of rock more than three inches high.
Occasionally I misjudged and we were treated to a horrible grinding sound coming from beneath our little car. Eventually we got out to inspect the undersides, terrified by what we’d find. The source of the noise was a large metal plate that had been installed to protect the car, though one corner was hanging down, playing a grating tune on any high point it could find. Weary of dodging rocks and negotiating ruts, we decided against crossing the little stream that cut off the lodge from the road. Parking on the other side, we crossed on foot and checked in, ate lunch, then set out to conquer the mountain.
A short time later, we were wet and cold, back in the clouds, staring into a white wall of wet oblivion. The gravel road had continued up the side of the volcano at an ever steepening grade. The Chevy spun its tires in pulverized lava up the steep switchbacks, but preformed well, slowly grinding upwards in first gear. The farther up we climbed, the denser the fog. Driven by a cold wind, the midst coated every surface with a chilly film. We reached the parking lot that precedes the hike to basecamp, but it was more of an area cleared of larger lava rocks on a steep slope. The car teetered as we parked it and got out to assess the weather. Cold and wet, we decided. Despite the lack of rain, our clothes were immediately heavy with moisture. We decided to retreat. As we made to get back in the car, a fox slunk out from behind a black chunk of old lava. It’s head was held low and it looked at us like we were made of chicken. Against the bleak black landscape its coat looked invitingly warm, but its posture seemed to discourage cuddling. In fact it looked mentally ill. It approached as if it expected us to either throw a stone or a sandwich. We did neither, got back in the Chevy and headed downhill.
As our altitude dropped, so did the needle on the gas gauge. So far the Chevy had been enormously efficient, but with the front end pointing dramatically down, we got a reminder that we couldn’t drive forever without refilling. Troy put on his conservative hat and suggested we call it a day, but the drive up the mountain had been so discouraging, I pushed ahead towards a reported Incan ruin in an attempt to salvage the afternoon.
The road to the ruins (foreshadowing) was even worse that the road to the lodge. It grew steadily worse as we headed across the plains, through creek beds, across the faint outlines of tire tracks heading through sparse grass. We reached a vista and looked out at a wide moraine, carved by the ebb and flow of Cotopaxi’s glaciers. On the other side was what appeared to be an ancient stone house, though we couldn’t be sure. We drove a bit further, but as the needle hadn’t recovered its vigor, we opted to abandon the car and hike across the moraine.
We scrambled across a swift creek and dipped into groove-like valleys. At the floor of one of these little carved depressions, a heard of wild horses ran towards us. We scrambled to one side and watched in awe as they galloped past, a newly uncovered Cotopaxi shining dramatically behind them.
When we reached the stone house we saw that it was at the foot of a hill fortress. Climbing to the top, we found the location was typically Incan. It had a fantastic view of Cotopaxi, access to a rushing stream, and an elegant stone footprint, positioned to watch the entrance of a once strategic pass. In the distance the sun cast an orange glow on the glacial peak of the volcano. It also bounced its last light off of our little car, just a spark on the horizon, reminding us that we’d once more pushed the limits of daylight.
Climbing down from the ruins, we hurried back across the moraine, balanced on a log to cross the stream, and jumped back into the Chevy. The sun was still bright, but balanced precariously on the western edge of the valley. In a hurry now to get past the worst of the road before dark, we decided against our ill marked route in, and found the more established dirt road. Within a few minutes we realized we’d made a mistake. The way in must have been a detour around this stretch of eroded roadway. Deep ravines had been carved by recent rains and large rocks had been washed clean, biting through the muddy ground like broken teeth. I tried to turn around, but a foot of earth edged us in on both sides and made even the tiny Chevy feel like turning an aircraft carrier. The only way was to keep driving straight. Magda and Troy got out, helping to lighten the load. I glanced at where the sun had been but saw only a black hill wearing an orange halo. A rare chill of panic crept up the back of my neck. I pictured us high-centered, unable to move, or a punctured tire requiring a precarious change on uneven ground in the dark. It had been a ridiculous idea to drive the little Chevy into unknown terrain, but here we were. I negotiated the first series of gullies, then wrestled the wheel back and forth across the road, dodging the highest rocks and avoiding the deepest channels. The earth scrapped at the bottom and at one point the front wheels lost traction, but the little car had more in it than I imagined and before long we’d gotten past the worst part of the eroded path.
I waved for Magda and Troy to climb back in but they’d stopped to photograph a dead horse. The only light now was cast by a darkening sky. I honked impatiently and they hurried to catch up.
An hour later, in full darkness, we approached the creek in front of Tampopaxi. This time I didn’t hesitate to drive straight through it and up towards the twinkling lights of the lodge.
In the morning we had breakfast with a magnificent view of the volcano, still shrouded in cloud, but occasionally glowing with early light. Below it was the rolling plains we’d negotiated in the dark the night before. Another herd of wild horses picked this moment to enhance the drama of our view.
The Chevy sparkled through it coating of dust. It was no worse for wear after our harrowing escape from the Incan ruins, but the gas gauge was still dangerously low. Getting back to the main road, we coasted most of the way back to the park entry. Magda went to sign out, but a line of people stopped her. An aggressive looking park employee was instructing tourists that they would need to hire a guide to enter the park. Instead of signing out, Magda turned around and we drove off. As far as we know, park rangers are still searching for three lost gringos and a blue Chevy Spark, thinking, “this is why we require guides.”