On a recent trip to Ecuador, it was the experience of horse riding in Cotopaxi National Park that really blew Latin America specialist Simon away. As a novice on horseback, here he tells us why this wonderful excursion is something every visitor to Ecuador should try…
Encircled by some of the most formidable volcanic peaks in the world, Cotopaxi National Park, just two hours south of Quito, offers one of the most dynamic landscapes in Latin America. Speak to any Ecuadorian about the enormous volcanoes, the spine of their country, and you’ll soon learn that despite their occasional destructive outbursts, they are not feared but utterly revered. Every household will know their names as if part of the family; Cotopaxi, Pasachoa, Antisana, Chimborazo and Illinizas to name just a few. No trip to Ecuador is complete without laying eyes upon these magnificent volcanoes yourself. But with such a huge variety of options, what is the best way to traverse the awesome, expansive landscape and take them all in? I believe I now know the answer.
As someone whose only experience on horseback has come from the waiting room of my childhood doctor’s surgery, I was a little apprehensive when my friend Jasci, charged with the task of showing me ‘true Ecuador’, casually remarked “Simon, we’ll gallop through Cotopaxi – where the views are better and the horses are wilder!” These apprehensions didn’t diminish as Rafael – our horse master – kitted me out as a traditional chagra (an Ecuadorian cowboy), complete with a poncho and a pair of leather chaps covered in llama hair, called zamarros, and threw me astride Pedro who was to be my noble stead. It was at this point Jasci asked expectantly “you at least know the basics, right?” I did not… However, as Pedro wandered gently and obediently towards the gate, I knew my concerns were unnecessary and that I was in for something special.
With our backs to Mount Cotopaxi (the world’s largest active volcano), we spent around two hours trotting over the drumlins, meandering parallel to the river and cantering through long grass, all the while transfixed on the stunning view surrounding us. But the best was yet to come. After tentatively descending into a steep, narrow, dry valley, the landscape disappeared and was replaced by high grass banks on either side, limiting my view to Rafael and his horse in front of me. After turning ourselves around from our original direction, we started to stroll upstream where the water used to flow from the volcano. My confidence had grown after a while riding, so I immediately followed Rafael as he and his horse broke into a canter in front of me and began to ascend the valley edge once more. As I reached the top at some speed, I saw Mount Cotopaxi majestically emerge from the ground ahead, its glorious snow-capped peak contrasting the perfect blue sky behind and the luscious green grass in front. As Pedro slowed into a walk, I thought to myself ‘that is an image I will never forget’. This is just one of the infinite perfectly picturesque moments that can be enjoyed in the stunning Cotopaxi National Park.