Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cotopaxi Province
It’s ironic that the province that surrounds one of mainland Ecuador’s most emblematic tourist attractions, Cotopaxi Volcano, is so little explored by travellers. Here we bring you ten reasons why it’s worth dedicating time to discover!
Did we say ten? Well, of course, there are many, many more, but we thought this list would help convince you in the shortest time possible.
#1 The Volcano
It has to be the volcano! Although we want to talk about all sorts of other attractions and activities, there’s no getting away from what many consider Ecuador’s most beautiful volcano, which lies to the southeast of the capital, Quito. Its perfect symmetrical cone is somehow irresistibly pleasing to the eye, complying with our pre-conceived idea of “what a volcano should look like”.
Cotopaxi rises to the impressive height of 5,911 metres above sea level. It’s not Ecuador’s highest – that honour falls to Chimborazo further to the southwest – but it’s stunning nonetheless, with snow usually beginning to cloak it above 5,000 m. After a particularly cold night, the snow fall can reach right down to its greener base.
The huge national park that surrounds the peak is one of the largest in the Ecuadorian Andes, protecting all sorts of creatures, from rabbits and Andean foxes up to the graceful Andean Condor, which has the widest wingspan of any bird. The vegetation too is surprising, with hardy plants such as the chuquiragua that cling to the ashy soils on its volcanic slopes.
It’s often said that “the way to a traveller’s heart is through his (or her) belly”. With this in mind, our second reason to visit this province is the local dish called chugchucaras. As one might expect in the Andes, it’s an homage to pork. Your plate will arrive overloaded with fritada (pieces of pork slow-cooked for hours in their own fat), sweet empanada turnovers, potatoes fried in the same pan as the pork, fried sweet maduro plantain, toasted corn, and of course, reventado (fried rind from the pork’s stomach). Buen provecho!
#3 The Incas
It’s a little-known, yet hugely important, fact that the lands of Cotopaxi have a strong link with Ecuador’s Inca past. Not only were the conquering Incas held back from their northern expansion by the peoples who inhabited the region for years, but the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa’s panaca (clan) dominated these lands. Not only that, recent archaeological and historical studies have identified the site of Malqui Machay (west of the town of Sigchos) as the last resting place of the fated Inca (who was killed by the Spanish in modern-day northern Peru). His mummified corpse is believed to have been brought to the site, which includes tell-tale fine stonework, after his death.
Very little remains of this past, but, according to historian Tamara Estupiñan, the huge, highly-decorated, five-pointed headdresses worn by the famous Danzantes de Pujilí, in fact echo the cosmovision of the Incas.
#4 Quilotoa Lake
High up in the Andes, to the west of the Panamericana, and reachable on a great, paved road, there’s a true sight to behold: imagine a vast crater, a former volcano that exploded with such ferocity that only its sides remain, filled with fresh water whose colour changes constantly depending on the light…
This is the Quilotoa Lake, a playground for the adventurous – you can hike down from the crater rim to the water’s edge and then paddle its glassy surface in a kayak; horseback ride nearby; or choose to hike round the crater’s circumference in about four hours. Or, alternatively, you can just walk up to the rim, sit down, and take in the view.
There’s an impressive new viewing platform at Quilotoa, which lies to the west of the ‘town’ that has sprung up to cater to tourism. It’s called Shalalá. It’s part of a community tourism project and lodge of the same name.
Although its origins date back only a generation, one would have thought that artists from this area have been painting in the naïf style of the small town of Tigua for centuries. The painting tradition – we think it’s now worthy of that name – begin with Julio Toaquiza and has now spread to many members of his family and beyond.
The paintings, dabbed to life on canvases made of leather, depict a busying Andean world of fiestas, day-to-day life, political events and mythological moments, all in bright colours and with minute detail. A fantastic souvenir to take back.
#6 Wooly hats
No trip to this region is complete without purchasing a wooly hat from a stall somewhere. Due to the elevations, it feels cold the minute the sun goes in, so it’s a necessary purchase for keeping head and ears warm, and essential if you’re overnighting some place!
Ubiquitous farm animals up and down the Ecuadorian Sierra, llamas are a fixture of any visit to Cotopaxi Province. A member of the camelid family, they’re a pretty docile bunch. If a farmer over burdens his beast, however, according to National Geographic, the llama will “often lie down on the ground and … may spit, hiss, or even kick at their owners until their burden is lessened.” Best to take a picture and move on!
#8 Saquisili market
One of the most picturesque and authentic markets in the Andes, the town of Saquisili (which lies to the west of the Panamericana) is swamped by its weekly market, which takes place on Thursdays. It’s not designed or meant for tourists – which makes it far more interesting. It’s all about agricultural and livestock commerce, with just about everything else that you can think of that sells thrown in, too. Look out for the well-priced, fine ponchos!
#9 The tropical wild west
Although it might seem strange to talk about the Tropics in the same breath as snow-capped peaks, such is the wonder of Ecuador!
If you drive west on the road that leads from Latacunga to Zumbahua (where the turn-off for Quilotoa takes you north) you climb over a pass at over 4,000 metres before winding down to a tropical world on the country’s Pacific lowlands. It’s a different world altogether. Head to the region known as Pangua for the best experiences and refreshing waterfalls.
#10 Ice cream!
Last but not least, we end with the sweetest attraction in Cotopaxi Province: ice-cream. The town of Salcedo, south of Latacunga, is famous for its multi-flavoured, striped cones whose recipe was originally perfected by a local nun. Dozens of shops sell them, so there’s no chance of not enjoying their delicious combinations of cream and fruit mixes!