Cotopaxi: a story of legends, records and lovers
The Cotopaxi National Park is one of the most visited natural attractions of continental Ecuador. This prodigy of the high mountains, a perfectly conic vision that would have inspired the sensibilities of Frederic Church, one of North America’s most important realist painters, adorns the Andes and northern Ecuador like no other natural icon.
With clear skies, one can even admire it from a plane arriving into Quito, one of the most spectacular arrivals you could wish for not only because of the sheer beauty of this unique peak, but also because it is accompanied by other equally colossal and beautiful snow-capped volcanoes.
Did you know…?
Cotopaxi volcano is the highest active volcano in the world. Volcanic activity in August 2015 risked becoming a full-scale eruption and thus the volcano is being closely monitored by the Geophysics Institute of the National Polytechnic School in Quito, which employs a total of eight stations with GPS equipment to cover all flanks of the volcano.
They say that during the Spanish Conquest, a series of clashes between the Incas and the Spanish would lead to the great Battle of Tiocajas, which, some believe, was one of the fiercest battles between the two sides. A sudden eruption of Mount Cotopaxi apparently resulted in an immediate cease-fire and scattering of the troops… determining, perhaps, the fate of Spanish American history.
The Englishman Edward Whymper, one of the world’s most renown mountaineers, camped beside the smoking crater days before one of its eruptions, and only weeks later, atop of Chimborazo, he then witnessed Cotopaxi’s eruption, which was occurring only a couple of mountains to the north.
Getting to the summit of this magnificent volcano is prohibited given the recent activity. Usually it requires a process of acclimatization that lasts several days, and sometimes over a week, and the journey begins before midnight to avoid the thawing of the snow during the descent (which could be potentially dangerous). Reaching Cotopaxi’s summit takes 6 to 9 hours (Eglof, Miranda and Vallejo’s record stands at only two!).
About 300 m from the top, you pass by the mythical Yanasacha, a prodigious black rock that juts out from the snow and harbors its share of legends. Before the volcano became active, there was even the possibility of touring the crater. Although the explorer Alexander von Humboldt called it “unattainable” (since in 1802 he only reached the area where the Rivas refuge stands today), it would be Germany’s Wilhelm Reiss and Colombia’s Angel Escobar who made reaching the summit a reality in 1872.
One hundred years later (1972) a Czech/Polish expedition would enter the crater itself and remain inside for seven hours. Another record, no less impressive, was that of pianist Bernard Fougères, who carried a piano to the top of the mountain and crowned it for the first time in history with music.
Mountains in love
The meaning of the word Cotopaxi refers us to a curious linguistic controversy. Some say the name comes from the Aymara language (relative of the Incas’ Quechua from South Perú and Bolivia) meaning Neck of the Moon… but others analyze it as meaning the opposite in the ancestral Cayapa language: Sweet Neck of Sun.
Whatever the true source of its name, the volcano has deeply inspired the indigenous ancestral imagination, which has even created love stories between this mountain, the gallant Cotopaxi, and Tungurahua (further to the south). For centuries, Cotopaxi tried to seduce Her, Tungurahua being the most beautiful mountain of all. But it would finally be colossal Chimborazo who would take her love (the myth later goes on to hint at Tungurahua’s infidelity… but that is another story…).