Monday, February 4, 2008

Climbing the Cotopaxi volcano

From the high-altitude hacienda, we continued into Cotopaxi National Park, which is about 2 hours south of Quito. The Cotopaxi volcano didn't show its face at all, but the weather in the valley was good. Cool, but perfect for birding and hiking. Here is how Cotopaxi should have looked like.
This isn't Cotopaxi, this is Ruminahui, named after an Inca war hero from many centuries ago. The Incas only conquered Ecuador about 50 years before the Spaniards came and took over in the 1600s.

Here is a friend photographing birds at Lake Limpio Pungo, at 3800 m. This is a bit higher than Kebnekaise's 2000 m, the tallest Swedish mountain. You could feel it in your lungs, but it wasn't painful at this altitude.

There were Andean ducks and Andean gulls (looked like 'skrattmås') in the lake, and also terns and a funny bird called lapwing.

Most of the plants were little tufted things, like these three species growing together. The blue flower is Gentiana sedifolia, and then there is a little Apiaceae, parsley-kind of plant, with small yellowish flowers. The plants are protected against drought, wind, and cold in their little homemade pillows.

Here is another gentian, this is a Gentianella species.

Cotopaxi means the 'neck of the moon', and is named so because often at night you can see the moon on the edge of the mountain.

This strange flower is a sunflower relative (Asteraceae), called chuquiraga in the local language. The leaves and flower heads are very spiny, and probably not very tasty for the llamas. The Indians say that if this plant occurs on a volcano, then the mountain is a male mountain, but if it doesn't occur, then the mountain (=volcano) is female.

The plants at this altitude are both familiar and unfamiliar. You have grasses and sedges that look like northern hemisphere species, and then strange new things like this orange tuftball.

The treeless landscape reminded me very much of Iceland, but this is of course about 3000-4000 m higher up and far from the ocean. But the grassy green surfaces and naked lava fields are here. This photo is taken from the parking lot at 4500 m on the slope of Cotopaxi volcano. There is a long, and winding road that leads up to here.

From the parking lot you can hike one km up to 4800 m to a shelter, but I gave up after three steps. Because of the altitude, my legs were like lead. They just would not walk uphill.

Here are my friends while walking slowly uphill in the mist, which turned to rain, which turned to hail, which turned to snow higher up. They saw nothing from the shelter, but they were happy anyway when they came back two hours later.

I hung out at the parking lot and looked at volcanic rocks and discussed American politics, shamanistic rituals, and the differences between rainforests and volcanoes with the jeep driver, so I had fun too.

The sides of Cotopaxi volcano show the traces of past eruptions. We didn't see any sign of recent volcanic activity, but somewhere down there there is molten magma. The red are iron-rich deposits, and the gray above are ash layers. The escarpment in the photo is probably at least 100 m tall.

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