Photo by Frédéric Reglain
Cotopaxi is a hot topic in Ecuador. Guides talk with a perverse excitement about the “big one”, which scientists claim is long overdue.
Since 1738, there have been as many as 50 eruptions of Cotopaxi. Few have been as devastating as the 1877 eruption, which destroyed the nearby town of Latacunga and caused mud to flow into the Pacific some 200km west.
In Machachi I briefly peel off the railway to join local guide Edison Palomeque for a trip to Cotopaxi National Park. The volcano is a short drive from the station and requires a brief stretch on the highway that sounded the death knell for Ecuador’s trains.
“Welcome to the Avenue of Volcanoes,” says Palomeque. “It was named in the early 19th century by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who couldn’t understand why all the crazy people were living in such a dangerous place.”
In spite of her fearsome reputation Cotopaxi is hiding behind a veil of cloud when we arrive at her base, so we hike around the foothills to admire the scenery. It is a glorious walk but marred by a bout of altitude sickness, which eases over a bowl of quinoa soup at nearby Tambopaxi Lodge. Also easing is the cloud; finally, a snow-covered Cotopaxi reveals herself, looming over us full of grace and menace.
Even though we are only at the base of Cotopaxi, the air here is thin and I have difficulty breathing. So I am looking forward to getting back down to the valley, but Palomeque has other ideas and tells the driver to pull over. He has been disappointed all afternoon because we failed to see any Andean Condors, but he is pleased to show me evidence of their presence. That evidence comes in the rather morbid form of a dead horse, which has been hollowed out by the raptors.
“It wouldn’t be the lava that killed people in a big eruption,” explains Palomeque. “It would be the mudslides caused by the melting snow.” He shows me some pictures on his iPad of Cotopaxi’s glacier some 20 years ago. “Look at that, and now look at that,” he says, pointing first to the picture and then to the mountain. It is hard to fathom how much the glacier has retreated. “The climate is changing,” he says.
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