We know the weather in the Andes of Ecuador is unpredictable. Sometimes when we wake up with plans to go one direction, we end up going in another. And that’s how we happened to end up on the backroads to the Ilinizas.
An early morning departure for Cotopaxi National Park had us driving south of Quito, directly towards a low-lying fog bank that threatened to keep Cotopaxi hidden for most of the day. Instead of turning around, we chose to turn right instead of left, following signs to the Ilinizas Ecologic Reserve (and yes, the word Ilinizas only has a single l… double mountain, single l… and I have written it incorrectly dozens of times).
Signs directed us through the small town of El Chaupi and onwards to a dirt road with a small ranger station. Everyone is expected to stop at this point and sign in. We highly recommend it… not only do they have a clean bathroom, but you can learn more about the area. We learned there are two entrances to the Ilinizas Reserve from this side of the park. The one we had discovered would lead into the high paramo. The second is found further down the road from El Chaupi and takes you to a waterfall.
The ranger asked if we were planning to visit the Virgin and we said yes, not having the least clue to what Virgin he was referring to. But everyone needs a destination, right?
The dirt road narrowed and widened with no foreseeable pattern. We passed haciendas advertising lodging and farms with llamas grazing in the tall grass. We passed fields of bright yellow flowers and driveways with barking dogs that ran alongside the car in an attempt to herd us away from their gates. We passed a shrine to the Virgin Mary outside a high sierra-style home of painted white adobe, its wooden shutters closed against the strong winds. We caught glimpses of a single Iliniza, her snow-covered twin hiding in the high clouds.
And all the while, we drove up, up, and up until we finally reached the paramo.
I have a secret love affair with the paramo. It is a dangerous place for those who are not prepared for high altitude. The paramo can be embraced but it should be done while well-hydrated and well-fed. The sun is stronger here. The winds are fast and furious and can whip you around like a piece of paper tossed in a storm.
But grasses dance with wild abandon, small birds sing from hidden perches, and raptors ride thermals overhead. For those that can’t handle the altitude, headaches pound and stomachs churn. But for others, these heights can induce a euphoria that makes every moment shine with brightness, even on the foggiest of days. Either way, take care to be safe and be especially careful traveling with children.
This paramo was no different. We arrived in full sunshine but with a wind that was wickedly sharp and hinted at the cold that quickly arrives with the passing of the sun. We walked around for a few minutes, taking photos of grasses blowing in the wind, of vistas spread out across the valley below, of birds hopping out of frame, and of the Virgin.
Our destination found, we had a decision to make.
We could have chosen to hike… a trail of about 4 kilometers could take us to the endangered Polylepis forest. But that adventure would have to wait for another day. Cotopaxi National Park was still calling, despite that layer of fog.