Volcanic views and hobbit homes: The Secret Garden Cotopaxi
Can we let you in on a secret?
Nestled in Ecuador's Andean mountains is a rustic hideaway offering outdoors adventures and a cosy place to rest your head.
We spent two nights here, socialising on the sofas around the crackling fireplace, relaxing in the jacuzzi and munching on some seriously good banana bread.
In the day time, we went horse riding through green pastures and bubbling rivers, hiked volcanoes and even built a snowman.
This is The Secret Garden, Cotopaxi.
Location & History
Home to one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, Cotopaxi is a sprawling National Park of snow-capped peaks, bumpy roads and wild horses. It sits around two hours south of Quito and two hours north of Latacunga, to the East of Machachi.
Australian owners Tarquin and Katherine chose to build their eco-friendly home and hostel here after the success of their Quito property of the same name. After opening in 2007, they have made numerous improvements and developments, including constructing the famous hobbit homes!
With blissful views of the mountains, Secret Garden makes the perfect base for exploring the surrounding landscape.
After a rain-soaked and bumpy journey from Latacunga, we arrived at The Secret Garden with aching backs and sore legs after hiking the Quilotoa Loop.
We passed swinging hammocks in the porch and, once we'd patted the resident Beagles, Dachshunds and Dalmatian, sat with volunteer Hayley at one of the long dining tables who introduced us to life in Cotopaxi and showed us to our private cabana.
Once we'd tucked into sufficient amounts of banana bread, we headed down the stone path, past the hobbit homes, to our little house for two nights.
With rustic wooden floors throughout, our private cabana came with a roaring log fire, cosy bathtub and a stunning vista of the surrounding countryside.
It wasn't difficult to make ourselves at home...
The majority of guests come to The Secret Garden to experience the adventures Cotopaxi has to offer, and we were no different.
We signed up for the hike to Cotopaxi volcano's refugio, which sits at 4,800 metres above sea level. After an hourlong drive down uneven tracks, through green fields and past herds of wild horses, we arrived at the starting point for our 45-minute ascent.
Even a short climb can be difficult at altitude, and we welcomed the rest and hot chocolate at the refugio! During our visit, climbing beyond this point was off-limits, but check this link for the current situation as the security restriction may have been lifted.
Having spent my teenage years horse riding in the Kentish countryside, I was keen to get back in the saddle.
The next day, whilst Matt asserted that 'all horses look angry', I booked on a three-hour ride on the outskirts of the National Park with a fellow Canadian female traveller.
I was concerned that the horses may not be in the best condition, or that they would have been schooled to death and thus would only follow the guide and his instructions - which is common in horses that are trained purely to be ridden by beginners.
I needn't have worried; all of the horses are trained to respond to sound and their individual rider. My gelding was extremely responsive and a joy to ride; I barely needed to use my legs and I was able to canter to my heart's content.
What we loved
We loved the environmentally-friendly aspects of The Secret Garden, notably the herb and vegetable garden, filtered rainwater for guests and encouragement of recycling. Matt in particular was a fan of the composting toilet - it offered the best view of the mountains!
The organisation of activities and the range of options available is fantastic for the adventurous traveller; had we more time and energy, we would have stayed longer to explore more of the National Park.
The common areas are great to relax in (did we mention the jacuzzi?) and it's the perfect place to meet like-minded travellers. The dinner options were delicious, with the pizza night being our favourite (whoever invited that mango chutney delight, we doff our hats to you!)
A typical day at Secret Garden
One of the best things about The Secret Garden is that there is a structured daily routine, which makes it easy to plan your time.
Breakfast is served, and runs until mid-morning.
8.00AM - 9.00am
Whether you want to horse ride, hike Pasochoa, or climb to Cotopaxi's refugio, activities start early.
1.00pm - 2.00pm
Return to Secret Garden for a hearty lunch, and after, take the challenging hike to nearby waterfalls.
3.00pm - 5.00pm
This is free time, so you can curl up with a good book in the lounge by the fire, relax with a bottle of beer in the bubbling jacuzzi, or take a walk and say hi to the resident llamas!
Snack time! And, more importantly, a chance to discuss the next day's activities and book on to whichever takes your fancy.
Dinner is served, and ranges from pizza night (the mango chutney pizza is delicious) to fajitas, and burgers.
WHAT COULD BE IMPROVED
The lunch options could be more varied and interesting, especially given the cost of the all-inclusive accommodation. For example, we had rice and beans twice in a row for lunch, and although it was tasty, some may feel they should receive more bang for their buck.
We feel the biggest improvement to Secret Garden would be regarding the attitude of the volunteers. Given they do not appear to do the cooking or cleaning, their role is not immediately clear, and it was not unusual to see them lounging around social areas and taking up the spaces that paying guests may like to enjoy (e.g. the jacuzzi and sofas).
Whilst many of the volunteers were professional, helpful and friendly, we certainly were not surprised to learn that one volunteer was 'let go' during our stay for 'inappropriate behaviour'. We later found out this was due to them being 'rude and lazy' and apparently not, as we speculated, for having loud sex at 2.00am in the cabana next to us (which was not occupied by paying guests).
The Secret Garden has a partner hostel in Quito, from which private shuttles run for $5 per person, usually once a day around 10.00am. If you book a package, your shuttle may be included.
The shuttle passes through Machachi around 11.00am, so if you're not coming from Quito, you can join the shuttle here.
We didn't make the shuttle, so after finishing the Quilotoa Loop, we caught the hourlong bus from Latacunga to Machachi and met our private driver at the bus stop. We'd organised a $15 shuttle with The Secret Garden easily over the phone that same morning.
Prices & other details
- Prices at June 2017 start from $38 per person for a dorm, hobbit homes from $88 per night, up to $120 per night for a room in the 'Hill House' which sleeps two. Other options are also available. All options include three meals a day; tea, coffee and water; a two-hour walk to waterfalls; maps & picnic lunches; access to the jacuzzi and sunroom
- Packages are frequently available. At the time of writing, a 3D/2N package includes all of the above, a free shuttle from Quito/Machachi and the Pasochoa trek, and starts from $88 for the dorm
- There are no locks to the private cabanas (and this may be the case for the other private options, too). We didn't have an issue and experienced no problems, but it's something to take into consideration before you book
- There is no wifi available, so be prepared for a digital detox!
To book your stay, visit their website. You can also find The Secret Garden Quito at José de Antepara y Los Rios, Quito 170136, or give them a call on +593 2-295-6704.
And if we still haven't convinced you, here's some footage from our stay...
We received a discounted stay at The Secret Garden Cotopaxi, but as always, all opinions, photographs and typos are our own.