El Corazon is an extinct volcano just northeast of the Ilinizas, and another good acclimatization walk-up. After waking up and climbing off the building, we drove the car back down to a flat spot and took another run at the hill, managing to reach a bend a half-mile or so farther than where we slept. Just as we were about to start hiking the road, a guy and his mom drove up in a very capable Land Rover and offered us a ride. He was a guide who worked part-time in the States, so his English was pretty good, and the relatively easy conversation on our drive to the trailhead was a welcome change. El Corazon is in the large Iliniza reserve, and weirdly, unlike Iliniza itself, it has a gate and an entry fee. We paid the $2 apiece, then drove on through up an increasingly rough road to the trailhead sign around 13,200′. Corazon sees much less traffic than Pichincha, though there is enough to create a well-defined trail through the paramo, and we leapfrogged with a guided group for most of the ascent. The route starts off meandering through knee-high grass and some durable ground-cover, then climbs to the peak’s southwest ridge. The ridge-walk is no doubt spectacular on a clear day, with views of the old crater to the west, Iliniza to the south, and perhaps Cotopaxi across the valley to the east, but we of course saw none of that. Thankfully it was not raining on the ridge, but it was chilly, windy, and cloudy the whole time. Though the ridge looked narrow, there were only a couple of short class 3 sections, with most of the climb being an easy walk. We eventually reached a cross, which we assumed marked the high-point, and hung out for a couple of minutes before retracing our steps. The Land Rover was gone, so we had some road-walking to do to return to our weak little car, but it was easy going downhill, and we even got glimpses of the lower snowy parts of Cotopaxi peeking out under the clouds, the closest thing to a “view” I had seen in five days in the country. Now the hard part — getting close to Cotopaxi. There is a manned gate at the park entrance, which is locked after hours, but fortunately we got there mid-afternoon. Ted and I had confirmed that there were no guiding requirements from three sources: ASEGUIM, the Ecuadoran mountain guide association; AAI, an American company that guides in Ecuador; and Gregorio Nuñez, a contact at the Environment Ministry (Ministerio de Ambiente). Just in case, we told the entrance guard that we were planning to climb the lower, non-glaciated Rumiñahui instead of Cotopaxi (sort of true). We should have just said we were going bird-watching, because both the gate guard and the local Ambiente representative claimed that a guide was required even for Rumiñahui. Fortunately Ted had the email from ASEGUIM on his phone, so after 10 minutes of arguing, they had us sign some waivers and let us go, not even charging an entry fee. The gate guard impressed upon me that the rule was “absolutely no climbing without guides.” I can’t say what the actual rule is, but I suggest that however you plan to climb Cotopaxi, you bring some form of written permission to the park gate.
Anyways, once we made it past the gate, we found a gift shop and cafe selling some good-smelling soup, and nice free camping in some trees between Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui. Here we settled in for another wet night.