How to Live Like a Cowgirl (or Boy) in Ecuador’s Cotopaxi National Park

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How to Live Like a Cowgirl (or Boy) in Ecuador’s Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi National Park, less than an hour from Quito, is home to one of the highest stratovolcanoes in the world. This area of the Andes also honors the country’s traditional cowboy and hacienda roots—its chagra culture. To soak in the best Cotopaxi has to offer, and to get the true chagra experience, base yourself at outfitter Tierra del Volcán’s Hacienda el Porvenir. Owner Jorge Perez has been traveling this land his entire life, and his hacienda—passed down from his great-great-grandmother, Isabella Escudero—is a symbol of pride within his family. Escudero grew up in Cotopaxi, but moved to Guayaquil once she married. After the death of her husband, she returned to her Andean homeland and built the hacienda as her personal home. Her family told her there was no future in Cotopaxi, which inspired her to name her creation Hacienda el Porvenir, or “ranch of the future.” Here’s why you should visit.
By Michaela Trimble, AFAR Ambassador
Photo by Marianna Jamadi
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    Go Wild
    There’s no shortage of wildlife in Cotopaxi National Park. Wild horses, rabbits, foxes, and deer all roam free. If you’re lucky, you’ll even spot an Andean puma; these cats live high in the mountains. While in Cotopaxi with Rivas, we stumbled upon a group of Andean condors. There are an estimated 150 condors left in Ecuador, and all in one moment, we saw 15 descend on a decaying horse. Morbid? Yes. But also magical? Yes. This is what Cotopaxi offers: a view of nature that’s both raw and peaceful.
    Photo by Marianna Jamadi
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    Embrace Your Inner Rancher
    With 22 rooms, five living rooms, and an abundance of fireplaces, Hacienda el Porvenir is a cozy place to recharge after a day of exploring in Cotopaxi National Park. The hacienda expanded—local adobe was used for much of the new construction—and opened to travelers in 1999. The traditional, thatched-roof property also has a high-ropes course, hiking and biking trails, and horses ready to ride throughout the Andean highlands.
    Photo by Marianna Jamadi
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    Eat Like a Local
    Hacienda el Porvenir’s restaurant specializes in local Andean dishes made from Perez’s family recipes. Try locro soup, a hearty Andean potato soup thickened with cheese and served with popcorn, avocado, and more cheese. Or sip a mug of canelazo, a hot, sweet drink made by boiling brown sugar, orange, lime, cloves, and cinnamon in hot water. (For an extra kick, get it with a shot of aguardiente liquor.)
    Photo by Marianna Jamadi
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    Chase a Few Waterfalls
    Cotopaxi National Park is home to hundreds of dreamy waterfalls, including the Manto Blanco falls just a short hike from Hacienda el Porvenir. The waterfall has a peaceful viewing balcony where you can while away the afternoon beneath the Ecuadorian sun. In traditional Andean culture, waterfalls are seen as a places of renewal. “Waterfalls are a great place to regain purity,” Perez says. For a larger waterfall, take the three-hour (roundtrip) hike to Condor Machay, a cascading waterfall atop a mountain.
    Photo by Marianna Jamadi
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    Feel the Burn
    Most travelers go to Cotopaxi National Park for the seemingly endless opportunities for adventure. Tierra del Volcán has a system of three haciendas throughout the park, which allows travelers to see more of the Andean countryside. Opt for a lodge-to-lodge trek if you don’t want to sacrifice the comfort of a warm bed. Hardier souls can take a multiday mountain biking trip or do a seven-day trek of the park grounds.
    Photo by Marianna Jamadi
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    Hang with Volcanoes
    The Rumiñahui, Pasochoa, and Sincholagua volcanoes surround Cotopaxi National Park, and according to Andean culture, each one has a gender, legend, and associated storyline. “Each volcano has a soul,” Perez says. “This is called apus, and we treat them as living entities. These sacred entities will reveal the future of the inhabitants that surround them.” The largest volcano in the area is Cotopaxi, for which the park was named, and it’s an active volcano, which further fuels the local esteem and respect for these natural entities. Tierra Volcan’s haciendas are located in safe zones, far from the Cotopaxi cone.
    Photo by Marianna Jamadi
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    Ride Off Into the Sunset
    Horses were once the only way to traverse the rough Andean landscapes, which lead to the development of chagra, or cowboy, culture. Even today, life in Cotopaxi means life on a horse. And traveling by horse is one of the best ways to see the region. Perez takes travelers on horseback trips that range from one hour to seven days. This is an extension of the chagra identity of the hacienda, which still has its own cattle and fighting-bull farm. “Horses are the best way to see the Andes,” Perez says. “They can reach incredible places and it’s a great way to connect with the chagra culture, which has been in this land for over 400 years.”
    Photo by Marianna Jamadi
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