As the sun rises in Quito, the city is covered in mist. Everything is gray, and the mountains are blocked by the heavy clouds in the vicinity. “It’s going to be a cold and rainy day”, I say to myself before preparing my gear and clothing for today’s mountain biking trip to Cotopaxi.
I set out to meet with the rest of the group in La Union, a bakery in the Mariscal area of Quito. We were told to arrive before 7 am if we want to have breakfast so that we can begin biking early and avoid the afternoon rains. However, looking towards the west, I could see that the rain had decided to arrive before schedule.
We all put our bags and belongings in the front of the 4×4 and began our journey to the mountain. In the car, there was a 24-year-old solo-backpacker from Germany, a middle-aged American couple, and a guy from India. Plus, our guide and driver for the day, who had been working with the company for almost 5 years. My first thought was how diverse this group of people was, and how interesting their travel stories must be, so I was excited for the rest of the day. My second thought was to ask the guide whether he thought the clouds would dissipate so that we could see the mountain. “The weather in Ecuador is so unpredictable that -in the span of 1 hour- we might have the four seasons in a country with no seasons. Also, try to remember that, what we see here in Quito, might be different than what we are going to experience once we are at the top, we are driving to 4500 meters above sea level, so we might go above the clouds,” said the guide enthusiastically.
We drove for an hour and a half moving further from the city with each passing minute, substituting buildings and traffic for farms and cattle. As we near our destination I can see Ecuador’s natural beauty surrounding us completely. The sights of vast pine forests that cover the rolling foothills of the Avenue of the Volcanoes and steep hills on both sides of the road where indigenous farmers are working their field while wearing their colorful traditional clothing, both paint a wonderful picture of rural Ecuador.
We have finally arrived at the entrance of the Cotopaxi National Park. The paved road we had been driving in all day suddenly disappears and gives way to a dirt road that will take us to the parking lot at the base of the glacier of Cotopaxi. I think to myself, “terrible road for cars, great for bikes.” The dirt road begins to steepen, and slowly I feel the air thinning: we are really starting to climb. As we continue the climb, we find ourselves right in the midst of the clouds, as if the car had suddenly turned into a plane. Everything around us is now covered with the cotton whiteness of clouds. Suddenly, after a corner, all the clouds disappear. I check my altimeter and we are at 4400 meters above the sea: we have driven above the clouds in our 4×4.
We continue the climb, but now, in front of us lies the unobstructed view of the world’s highest active volcano. It is literally and figuratively breathtaking. The white of the glacier contrasts starkly with the blue of the sky and you can see the summit in front of you. I turn to the other side and I am struck with the view of all the other peaks in the Avenue of the Volcanoes, all soaring above the clouds. I count nine snow-capped mountains stretching as far as the eye can see. We park the car where the road ends, and the guide brings the bikes down from the roof. It’s time to downhill.
At 4500m the wind is freezing. The wind gusts from the bottom bring up droplets of water, which in the cold turn to snow. The guide gives us a security briefing and our helmets and tells us to go down quickly before we get really cold. I say bye to the mountain, as I will be descending fast and I do not know if the clouds will move.
The first seven kilometers are steep; we must descend from 4500m to 3800m. The dirt road coupled with good bikes makes the descent exhilarating and before I realize, I am at the foothill of Cotopaxi once again, where the air is so thick you can gulp it down, and where it is not nearly as cold as it is at the top. In the foothill valley of Limpiopungo, I had to double-check to make sure I had not taken a wrong corner and ended up in a movie that was set on an alien planet. Massive rocks from previous volcanic eruptions litter the entire valley, with rivers zigzagging across. Only small purple flowers survive at this altitude alongside small shrubs, lichens, and straw. We will be biking on this terrain for the rest of the day.
Much like the rivers, our group of bikers cut through the valleys and ancient lava fields, biking past large groups of wild horses. We are surrounded by the beauty of this untouched paradise. At around noon we stop in the banks of a small river and our guide starts serving a homemade lunch. While we eat, endemic birds like the Caracara and Curiquinge fly on top of our heads, searching for leftover spinach quiche.
After lunch, the clouds begin to move and in less than twenty minutes, everyone has to take their jackets and extra trousers off, because the sun is now shining, and the clouds are gone. It was clearly raining a couple of miles northeast but where we stood, it was blue skies and unobstructed views of the Cotopaxi, the Rumiñahui and the Sincholagua, the three mountains in our direct vicinity. After ten minutes of biking in the sun, I was completely sunburned. I had forgotten to use sunscreen because of how cloudy it had been in the morning.
The guide explained to me that in high altitude the sun burns more, something I could now empirically prove. I applied extra sun cream and we continued our ride to the Northside of the park, where we encountered a wild pack of thirty or more Alpacas. I had never seen them running in the wild before. As we neared the end of the ride, we caught up with the clouds that had been blown towards the northeast hours before, and we found ourselves in a downpour of biblical proportions. As if the guide had indeed been working in this park for the last 5 years, everything he told me about the weather became true. We experienced rain, sun, ice, and wind in the span of four hours, and at the beginning when the hope of a clear day was dim, we climbed above the clouds to get a close-up view of the mountain.
We got everything we could have hoped for in one day. Before we could get annoyed with the rain, we were both soaked and done with the tour, so we could only laugh and smile at the wonderful day we had just had. We placed the bikes on the roof, exchanged contact information between everyone, and slept the whole ride back to Quito.
This downhill mountain biking day tour takes you for an exhilarating ride down the slopes of Cotopaxi Volcano, the highest active volcano in the world. For more information about our, Cotopaxi Bike Tour contact a member of our team.
Ana Lucía Noboa