One thing we love about Ecuador are the FREE National Parks! All we had to do was roll up to the registration booth, provide our names and passport numbers, and drive into the majestic beauty of the park. They even had a free campground with relatively good facilities (i.e. flush toilets, showers, and a cooking area). Back in Canada we pay $30 minimum for a campsite with a pit toilet, plus a national park fee, so we really appreciated the free facilities! Anyway, we set up camp in the tree-filled grassland, bundled up, and tried to catch a glimpse of the Cotopaxi Volcano. The weather moves fast around Cotopaxi, and it was fun to watch the clouds roll in and out, and catch a tiny sliver of the volcano. Any verbal encouraging from us didn’t make a difference, but we tried our best to persuade the clouds to move so we could see the snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi.
Richard still had a head cold, so we opted to take things easy for the first couple of days. It was nice to clear the lungs and nasal passages after breathing in the blue-black smog of the busses during our stay in Quito. We celebrated Richard’s birthday with cake from a German bakery in Quito, a windy walk around Lake Limpiopungo, driving on the dirt roads throughout the park, some reading, and a classic Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie before tucking in for the night. We brought a massive 12V electric heating pad for the tent, which worked wonders to warm us up at nearly 13,000 feet.
The next day we drove to the Jose Rivas Refugio parking lot and hiked up to the glacier. It was a difficult and windy hike at elevation, but the views made it all worth it.
We had heard from some other overlanders that there was a road around the volcano which would lead out to the Pan American Highway. We checked our paper map and GPS and indeed there seemed to be a road around the volcano, leading out of the park. Our plan was to head out in that direction towards the Quilotoa Loop. We saw some stunning scenery on our way out! After several days in the park, Cotopaxi finally revealed itself – no clouds in the way this time! We gawked over the full view, took some pictures, and headed on our way. We were really looking forward to a much-needed hot shower, some wifi, a good clean-out of the truck (laundry and proper dishwashing!!), and some human contact.
Four hours later, the road options disappeared. We explored every option to no avail. We admitted defeat and weren’t super enthusiastic about driving another 4+ hours back to where we came from that day. Fortunately we heard of a hotel with camping, showers, and wifi in the park, so we were at least jazzed to make our way there. After an hour of driving back, we ran into a locked gate at the entrance of the park. WTF! We were locked out of the national park and had no way of getting out in the other direction. We drove back out to another dirt road, just in case we missed the route when we first scoped it out. After completing that task (there was no way out), we drove back to the locked gate and figured we would have to camp there for the night. We expected that the gate would open the next morning, but we really didn’t know.
At this point I was not impressed. Logically, camping in the wild inside or outside of the park – who cares? But for some reason, it must have been a combination of the gate and what it represented and the feeling of being trapped, I just started bawling and couldn’t stop. 8 hours of driving on dirt roads leading nowhere, needing a shower and clean clothes, and this locked gate, just affected my sense of security. This really got me thinking about when and how we feel secure, and how much our perception of security changes the way we feel. It didn’t necessarily feel like a dangerous place, but at the same time there was no part of either of us that wanted to camp there.
An hour later Richard and I were sitting in the cab charging my laptop so that we could watch movies all night long to try and lessen some of our mental discomfort, and I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a white truck approaching. I gasped, and Richard jumped out of the cab and asked the driver if he had keys for the gate. The Ecuadorian man smiled and jingled the keys. We felt so relieved at that moment, that everything would be fine and we didn’t have to camp in sketchville.
The lovely truck taxi driver led us all the way to the turnoff for Tambopaxi, the only lodge in the park, and with a place to camp. I guess he didn’t trust our navigation ability after getting locked out of the national park. On the way to the lodge another driver stopped us and informed us that the Pan American highway had been closed due to protests that day. Richard and I looked at each other and chuckled a bit. Even if we had skipped our drive ‘around the volcano’ we could have been held up all day in traffic on the highway and would have eventually needed to turn around anyways. We continued to Tambopaxi where we set up camp in their parking lot, took heart attack-inducing cool showers to scrub the dirt off, drank some tea, and binged on wifi. Life was good again. We tucked into our tent all clean and happy, for a cozy night’s sleep.
At 6:00 a.m. I awoke to the sound of a horn honking, and someone yelling outside of our tent, “Hello!? Hello? Spanish or English? Do you speak Spanish or English?” Richard unzipped the tent and poked his head out, where there was a climbing guide standing at the base of our tent ladder. “We were on the mountain this morning and there was an eruption. The park is closed and we are evacuating now. It is not safe to be here.” We jumped out of the tent and saw a big billowing cloud where Cotopaxi was. There was ash covering the truck and the tent, and the air smelled like sulphur. The guides, hotel staff and other guests were outside packing up, jumping into the back of trucks, and running around in a hurry directing people.
We quickly put the tent away, got in the truck, and drove the long winding road through the northern part of the park to the highway. We both were so thankful that we weren’t still trapped at the park gate, because then how would we avoid the volcano eruption? Once we reached the Pan American highway, we quickly discovered that the police had blocked off the road going south, i.e. the way we planned to get to Quilotoa. We tracked down a group of cops and they told us that the highway was blocked off and the only roads open were north to Quito or west to the Coast. The next question was: to the beach or to the jungle?