Cotopaxi National Park

On our first morning in Ecuador, we arose early and departed Quito for a day of mountain biking in Cotopaxi National Park. Standing 19,347 feet (5,897 m) tall, Cotopaxi is one of the few glaciated equatorial volcanoes in the world, and one of the most active, marking the eastern boundary of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Fernando from The Biking Dutchman picked us up promptly at 7am, and we drove about 30 miles south along the Pan-American Highway through the Avenue of the Volcanoes toward the national park.

Arriving at the south end of the park, the drive to Cotopaxi volcano began shrouded in the dense fog and clouds that had already begun to settle into the valleys around the majestic Andean peaks. As we navigated around to the north, the clouds fortuitously vanished, leaving us with magnificent views of our snow-capped destination. We traversed the final stretch of winding, dirt road, where we were greeted by a friendly group of llamas and alpacas, finally reaching our goal – a plateau at 14,760 feet, just beneath the snowline.

After many photographs of the imposing summit and the wonderful panoramas of the surrounding Andes, we headed down on our mountain bikes. As we started down the peak, I was a bit nervous about the bike – it had been years since I had ridden and I had never done any real mountain biking.

The ride down consisted of hairpin turns, with steep cliffs and narrow passageways; the roads were merely slick sand and lava rocks, with many large stones and deep holes. The views the entire way down were nothing short of breathtaking, and we were extremely fortunate to have perfect weather. We stopped for lunch near a small creek, a mile or two from the base of the volcano, where we enjoyed pasta, spinach pastry, brownies, and black ginger tea while sitting cross-legged in the grass among the multicolored wildflowers. Here in the páramo (alpine tundra), we were able to spot the crested caracara, hopping awkwardly around the rocks and scavenging for food. The terrain was vast and open, with large scattered boulders, a landscape shaped from lahars, powerful landslides of volcanic material combined with water from melted ice during past eruptions of snow-covered Cotopaxi.

Our trek after lunch was a bit more difficult, as we lost most of our downhill course. The trail became much more rocky and muddy, and we had several short climbs, which left us breathless at 13,000 feet. As we approached the end of our journey at the edge of the national park, the landscape turned to ranch land and we had to ride close to a herd of unattended cattle with very large, pointy horns. Always the rational one, I was terrified they were bulls, ready to charge and gore me; I had even selected the scruffy, little tree I would scurry up if chased. It turned out that they were just friendly cows that hadn’t been dehorned, and were just curious about their new company. After safely passing through the gate, we bid farewell to our bovine company, marking the end of our 18-mile ride through Cotopaxi National Park.