After turning off the Panamericana we followed an impressively made and wide cobblestone road for quite some time, eventually turning off and driving across a field scattered with small mounds which turned out to be from volcano debris. When we pulled into the Secret Garden hostel we were very pleased with what we saw.
The hostel consists of a large house with communal dining and lounge, kitchen etc. There is a central patio with some hammocks that looks straight in the direction of Cotopaxi, though on our arrival it was obstructed by clouds. There was separate buildings that included the dorms and private fancy cabañas.
Our room was the best of them all, the playhouse (which apparently most people wanted to stay in). We booked it since it was cheaper than the cabañas and assumed the maximum height recommendation provided was probably just due to a low ceiling. It turned out the name was far more literal than we thought. We were sleeping in a children's playhouse! The tiny wooden building had 2 floors, and our bed was on the upper floor under the peak of the roof. The height warning was due to the short amount of space for the bed!
After a delicious lunch (all meals are included) we were taken on a walk to see two waterfalls. We walked though fields for a while, then followed the path into a tree lined gully, ending at a lovely little cascading waterfall. To reach the second waterfall, we then had to follow the river upstream, at times having to boulder and rock climb to get through. The second waterfall was more impressive than the first, and worth the extra effort.
After returning to the hostel we were relaxing with a cup of tea when the clouds started to clear from around Cotopaxi, giving us our first glimpse of the mighty volcano. While we only managed to see about half the mountain, we were able to make out the perfect shape and the snow capped top. What a stunning and powerful mountain it was.
After dark the clouds had completely cleared, and though we could only just make it out, we could see the entire mountain in all its glory with a backdrop of the bright milky way. It felt like such a privilege to be in such a stunning place, at least until we had to brave the cold in our little play house.
The next morning we had opted to climb Ruminhaui, a volcano beside Cotopaxi. 8 of us had signed up, plus 3 of the volunteers working at the hostel came along with our guide Darwin. It was described as a lower altitude but more technical hike that Cotopaxi Glacier. The drive to the starting point took about an hour, and when we got out of the car at Laguna de Limpiopungo. At 3800m, the air was cold and thick with fog. We had brought a few layers and put most of them on.
As we started to climb the fog cleared a little though the cloud stayed behind. We warmed up quickly and ended up in t-shirts. Gently climbing up through scrub and marsh areas most of us were starting to struggle with the altitude, except the guide and the volunteers who had been staying at the hostel who had much more time to acclimatise.
We hit a ridge and as we walked across it the wind was carrying the clouds up the face of the mountain and they streamed over the ridge in front of us at a fast pace. Once we were past that the climb steepened, zigzagging up a face of volcanic sand. This section is where we really started to slow up, breaking at regular intervals to catch our breath. After stopping for 30 seconds we would feel fine again, but then be struggling for breath again as soon as we resumed walking.
The last scramble to the top was essentially up a cliff face slightly angled in our favour, then we were at the peak, 4500m above sea level. We had made it! We all balanced precariously at the top, taking it in turns for photos and enjoying our sandwiches and tea. For a brief moment the clouds even cleared in the valley for us, so we were able to see straight down into the valley behind, and we mean straight down! The cliff below us was quite dizzying! The only thing we couldn't see was the neighbouring volcano Cotopaxi.
The way down was much easier. After climbing carefully back down the rocky peak, we basically skied down the sandy face gaining a metre or two with each sliding step. And with the decreasing altitude we felt a million bucks doing it! Once we had emptied our shoes of all the sand and gravel the rest of the descent was nice and easy as well.
We arrived back at the car park almost 5 hours later, and once we drove back to the hostel it was close to 4 in the afternoon. Lunch was a very welcome sight! Being so late in the day it was very closely followed by the 5 o'clock snack and then dinner, pizza!
The next day 4 of us had elected to do the Cotopaxi Glacier Hike. There was an option to summit, though that was an overnight trip and was quite expensive, requiring ice climbing gear and starting the hike at midnight. We would have needed more time to acclimatise, which we didn't have.
This walk started at about 4,500m. The first half was straight up a sandy face until we reached the climbers refuge. Walking up felt like it took all our energy, as with each step up you would slide back down. It also wasn't very nice weather and we were walking head on into the wind
The refuge itself was under construction as they are building a bigger one. The workmen had made a fire to keep themselves and their donkeys warm and we took advantage of that for a while to rest. From there the walk to the glacier wasn't too much further, some of it in snow and sleet.
When we hit the glacier about an hour after we commenced, we were faced with a blue icy crevasse, surrounded by red rock and sand from the lava. Unfortunately being poor weather we were not able to see the top of the beast on which we were standing. Our guide informed us that while the top was only about another 800m in altitude, it took another 6 hours to reach due to the snow, ice and high altitude.
After some happy snaps and admiration of our efforts, we made our way back down, again sliding down for the most part. Since the refuge was under construction we had to enjoy our tea and cake back at the car and got back to the hostel at a far more favourable time for lunch, around 1pm.
That afternoon we wandered the property and took some photos of the pet llamas, then put on our swimmers and jumped in the Jacuzzi with a nice cold beer to relax. Being freezing outside the hot Jacuzzi was delightfully warm when we jumped in to ease our tired muscles. The only problem was it was far too warm after 30 seconds! We admired the beautiful view sitting on the edge of the Jacuzzi instead of in it, with the green patchwork farmland stretching its way across the flatlands and up the slopes of the mountains.
Dinner was delicious once again, burritos shared with some great company around the communal dining table. Most of us had arrived there the same day so we all knew each other quite well by then. In the morning while the other half of the group prepared for the Cotopaxi walk we had done, we made our way to the nearby town of Machachi to catch a bus.