Monday, December 23, 2013

Free National Parks in Ecuador!?

After leaving Colombia, where national park entry fees for foreigners were around $20 per person, we were delighted to discover that Ecuador made entry to their national parks free as of January 2012! Yet another reason to love this country. Besides the obviously selfish benefit for us, it is fantastic that locals can more easily enjoy their country's natural beauty. The parks are no longer just for people with disposable income.

We visited our first national park just outside of Otavalo, at Laguna Cuicocha (10,650 feet in elevation). It was one of our favorite so far. Despite the heavy thick clouds that covered the lake and the towering volcano behind it, we were still awestruck by its beauty. Cuicocha (cui = guinea pig) + (kucha = lake) was given this name due to the guinea pig shape of the largest island in the middle of the laguna. Have a look at the pictures, and you can be the judge:

Our next stop was the national park surrounding the second highest volcano in the country, Volcan Cotopaxi, at 19,347 ft. We had the pleasure of sleeping in the cool mountain air, at 12,700 ft, in a parking lot near the volcano. Our new alpaca blanket was put to good use. Instead of trying to walk up to the snow line on Volcan Cotopaxi, which was covered in a thick cloud about 90% of the time, we hiked to the top of the neighboring volcano, Volcan Rumininahui. We were pleased to make it to our highest elevation yet, by foot, at 15,300 ft.

Volcan Cotopaxi came out for an amazing sunset glow, dwarfing El Tigre (lower left).

Bundled up for morning coffee with the majestic Cotopaxi making another appearance

Chilly morning with the object of our climb in the background - we only climbed the smallest of the 3 peaks in the picture

Laguna Limpiopungo. In unfavorable conditions, this water appears muddy, shallow, and a little ugly.
In the calm morning, it is a mirror for Volcan Rumininahui.

We made it as high as we could go on Volcan Rumininahui

As we approached 15,300 ft, I had to bust out the ear warmers and the arm warmers. Stylin' indeed.

We drove from Cotopaxi to yet another stunning volcanic crater lake called Laguna Quilatoa. This laguna is not part of a national park, but is actively managed by the local community. The local bossman greeted us as we drove up, and invited us to park for the night near the main parking lot (for free). The following day, we walked around the lake on a rather strenuous hike. The views were out of this world. As a side note, it wasn't until a few days ago that we realized we were using our polarized filter exactly 90 degrees out of phase - the laguna pictures still turned out pretty good.

Our first picture of the morning, before the clouds started coming in.
You can barely make out Volcan Cotopaxi in the far distance.

The color of the laguna changed with our location along the crater and the lighting throughout the day

You can barely make out the hairline hiking trail that follows the tortuous ridge around the crater

With diesel at $1/gal (have I mentioned this?), and free national parks, we may just have to try and visit all of them. Next up, Parque Nacional Machalilla.

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