The Cotopaxi volcano, an almost perfect snow-capped cone that rises 5,897 meters above sea level, is something unique on the planet and is perhaps, along with the Galapagos, the greatest symbol of our natural geography recognized worldwide. Thousands of mountaineers of all nationalities have reached its summit and many others dream of doing so. Because it is located in the center of the inter-Andean alley and very close to several cities such as Quito and Latacunga, the Cotopaxi National Park is one of the most visited and surely where many people touch snow for the first time.
The impressive Cotopaxi, one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world, dominates the entire landscape of the protected area, which also includes two smaller ones, the Morurco (4,880 m), attached to the Cotopaxi, and the Rumiñahui (4,722 m), also very close. The Cotopaxi is located in the area called “Avenue of the Volcanoes,” a name that the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt gave in 1802 to the group of volcanoes in the central and northern Sierra of Ecuador. The predominant ecosystem in the park is the paramo, with its special flora and fauna, so the main vegetation is grassland and small shrubs of height.
The Cotopaxi, the second-highest mountain in the country, is an active volcano, and sometimes fumaroles can be seen, although its activity is never as strong as that of its neighbors, Tungurahua and Sangay. On the eastern flanks of the Cotopaxi and along the Pita River, which flows north, there are large rocks and volcanic material, a consequence of the last eruption of the volcano that occurred in 1877. The Cotopaxi is a typical example of a stratovolcano: cone-shaped mountains more or less regular, resulting from the accumulation of rocks, sand, and ashes from successive eruptions. On this material, the black soil of the paramo has formed.
The main hydrographic system of the province of the same name is constituted by the Cutuchi River, which originates in the Cotopaxi, formed in turn by the Manzana huayco and Rumiñahui rivers. This river then becomes the Patate and flows towards the Amazon.
The Cotopaxi, a sacred mountain for many indigenous ethnic groups, has always caused admiration among locals and foreigners alike. Despite being seen every day, its majesty never loses its significance. Its name, although there is no unanimity about it, seems to be of Kichwa origin.
According to this, the most widely spread translation indicates that “coto” means neck or throat, and “paxi” refers to the Moon, so its meaning would be “neck of the Moon”.
The most violent eruptions on record occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1877, mud and rock flows reached the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon, severely affecting Latacunga and the Los Chillos valley to the southeast of Quito. The accounts of Sodiro and Wolf state that:
“The force with which the waves rose and fell, pushing and crashing against each other like an army of hills in the most tumultuous struggle, the clash of rocks and trees swirling in that horrible storm, produced a deafening noise that shook the ground and shook the spirits for many leagues around.” (Sodiro, L. 1877. Report on the eruption of Cotopaxi on June 26, 1877. National Printing Office, Quito.)
“Many people cannot be convinced, even to this day, that the great floods that devastated the plains of Latacunga, the Chillo Valley, and the banks of the Napo River simply resulted from the melting of the Cotopaxi glacier…” (Wolf, T. 1878. Notes: Memoirs on Cotopaxi. Quito.)
Since the paramo ecosystem is mostly protected, it is very interesting to know how vegetation adapts to endure and grow in such a rigorous climate. The extreme conditions of the paramo cause plants to develop special adaptations, which can be grouped according to their characteristics into “life forms.” Undoubtedly, the most common life form is the pajonal: plants with long, thin leaves (which do not look like leaves) that do not lose as much water as the broad leaves of most common plants. The leaves remain on the plant even after death, protecting the fragile young leaves and flowers in the center of the tuft. Shrubs, like chuquiragua, have small, sturdy leaves to withstand the scarcity of usable water. Many plants grow as dense cushions, generating an interior microclimate that protects delicate young organs. Rosettes without stems, such as chicory and one of the valerians, grow close to the ground and with their leaves together to retain moisture and generate heat. The few trees (like yaguales and kishwares) have small, hard, hairy, and shiny leaves to protect themselves from cold and radiation, as well as stems that retain heat and water. There are many herbs, such as gentians, ferns, and deer horns, that take advantage of the proximity to these other plants to live in the paramo.
Cotopaxi has a plant named after it, Cotopaxia asplundii, from the celery family and which grows near Limpiopungo lagoon. Walking through the paramo, it is relatively easy to see rabbits, skunks, and even deer and Andean weasels, known as chucuris, as well as hawks, eagles, condors, and Andean gulls soaring in the sky. With a lot of luck, one can see condors and bandurrias. At Limpiopungo lagoon, Andean coots and Andean ducks can be seen swimming.
Two marsupial mammals inhabit the park, Andean foxes and marsupial mice. Field mice and paramo wolves are other species that inhabit the park, though difficult to see. Marsupial frogs, cutines, lizards, and guagsas complete the range of diversity.
The Cotopaxi volcano also amazes with its perfectly conical shape, its mantle of perpetual snow, and yana-sacha, a huge wall of black rock that looks like an eye, visible from the north. The crater measures 800 meters in diameter and 334 meters deep. Volcano Rumiñahui and Limpiopungo lagoon. The Rumiñahui volcano is a mountain full of peaks that give it a rugged appearance. It reminds us of the last indigenous warrior who heroically resisted the Spanish invasion and whose name means “stone face”. The peaks are 800 meters high walls that surround the caldera that collapsed probably due to the violent emptying of the magma chamber. The Limpiopungo lagoon is located at an altitude of 3,800 meters and covers approximately 200 hectares. It does not have a clear edge like other lagoons, but the terrain around it gradually becomes marshy. It has many totora plants among which ducks nest; Andean seagulls and other birds fly around the lagoon.
Enchanted Valley and Pita River Canyon On the eastern side of the park, entering through Machachi, you will find the Enchanted Valley. From here, you can observe the traces of Cotopaxi’s most recent eruption: lahars (rivers of mud now covered with moss and very resistant shrubs) and stones, sometimes huge, that were ejected like bombs from the volcano. The Pita River runs through a canyon that gradually enters forests and agricultural areas outside the park, where it forms impressive waterfalls. This is one of the rivers that provides the drinking water consumed in Quito.