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Quito 3: Cotopaxi Horseback Adventure

The snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi, an active volcano and one of the world's highest, had held me captive since my first glimpse on a postcard. With its perfect conical shape and surrounding moonscape of volcanic wonders, Cotopaxi National Park promised an experience unlike any other. Eager to explore firsthand, I decided a horseback riding tour would be the ultimate way to delve into this unique ecosystem.


Booking the horseback riding tour was a breeze thanks to the helpful staff at my Quito hostel. They recommended a reputable company known for its experienced guides and well-maintained horses. A diverse group of travelers gathered at the designated pick-up point, the morning buzzing with excitement and a touch of nervous anticipation (myself included!).


Tour Bus to Cotopaxi
Tour Bus to Cotopaxi

As our comfortable bus journey unfolded, we were treated to breathtaking views of the approaching Andes. Stops for breakfast and photos provided the perfect opportunity to chat with fellow travelers and bond over our shared anticipation. Interestingly, Cotopaxi isn't just one peak. It's a stratovolcano, formed by layers of ash and lava from countless eruptions over time - testament to the powerful forces at work in this region. We also shared the need for coca tea, a traditional Andean remedy to help alleviate altitude sickness. Its slightly bitter, grassy flavor was surprisingly pleasant, and I hoped it would offer the boost we'd need for the adventures ahead.


As I mingled with the group, I discovered I was the only one who had opted for the horse riding. Everyone else was going on the hike. A wave of excitement mixed with nervousness washed over me. I would be in the heart of this wild landscape surrounded by towering volcanoes, with a guide who only spoke Spanish, and my Spanish is...well, let's just say it's limited!


Despite my nerves, I was determined to make the most of the experience. When we arrived at the meeting point, I met my guide, a friendly man with a warm smile named Carlos. He was well-prepared, providing me with warm protection and a poncho in case of rain or wind. Then, he introduced me to Luna, my horse for the ride. Luna was a beautiful mare with a gentle temperament.


With Carlos leading, we set off at a gentle pace. The scenery was even more awe-inspiring from horseback. The volcanic landscape, seemingly stark, surprised me with bursts of colorful wildflowers and hardy plants that had found a way to thrive. Luna had a particular fondness for snacking along the way, and I couldn't help but laugh as she'd stop to munch on grass and flowers. My guide encouraged me to tug on her reins to keep her moving, but I secretly enjoyed watching her enthusiasm for the local flora.


Carlos leading the Way
Carlos leading the Way

As we explored, we saw herds of wild horses roaming freely in their natural environment – descendants of horses brought by the Spanish centuries ago. We reached a fascinating old Inca hut next to a gurgling stream, where we dismounted for a closer look. We learned that Cotopaxi and its neighboring peaks were sacred to ancient civilizations, their eruptions seen as both a destructive force and a symbol of the gods. While exploring inside the hut, I noticed a horse skull in the window – a stark reminder of the raw power of nature in this place.


Wild Horses being curious
Wild Horses being curious

After about 2.5 hours, we returned to the starting point, where I said goodbye to Luna and my guide. My legs were a bit wobbly, but my heart was full. I then joined the rest of my tour group, and my original guide, Victor, greeted me with a knowing smile and handed me a bike to continue the exploration to Laguna de Limpiopungo. The sparkling lagoon, surrounded by volcanic peaks, held a tranquil beauty all its own.


Cotopaxi!
Cotopaxi!

Later, we boarded the bus for the final leg of our journey back to Quito. It was then time for a delicious packed lunch, the flavors even more satisfying after a day filled with adventure. As we ate, the sense of camaraderie grew. Eager chatter filled the air as I was peppered with questions about my horseback adventure. I shared tales of Luna's love for wildflowers, the breathtaking views, and the thrill of exploring such a unique landscape. In turn, they recounted stories of trekking up slopes, and feeling dwarfed by the volcano's vastness. I realized how special it was to share the beauty of Cotopaxi in such different, yet equally immersive, ways.


Reflecting on the day, the horseback ride stands out as the absolute highlight of my Ecuadorian adventure. Venturing off on my own, surrounded by nothing but wild nature and the gentle rhythm of Luna's hooves, was an experience straight out of a cinematic dream. Cotopaxi, with its raw beauty and undeniable power, left an unforgettable mark on my traveler's soul.



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