Rising up majestically behind the city of Quito, its iconic snow-capped crater reaching nearly six kilometres above sea level, Cotopaxi is the most defining feature of mainland Ecuador.
One of the world’s highest volcanoes, Cotopaxi is also one of the nation’s most active, with the most recent eruption in 2015 prompting authorities to close the climbing route to the summit for more than two years. Now safe to visit – for the time being – here are the best ways to experience the ancient stratovolcano.
1. Bike down it
Easily the most popular – and arguably the most thrilling – way to experience Cotopaxi is on two wheels. A typical day trip from the capital Quito, or the lush, Amazon gateway town of Baños, begins with a scenic drive to Cotopaxi National Park, then up to the Refugio José Rivas parking lot at a lofty 4500 metres. Some tours include a punishing 200 metre hike up to the refuge, while others (including the Cotopaxi mountain biking experience on Intrepid’s Ecuador: Raft, Hike and Bike tour) launch straight into the ride. From the parking lot, it’s an 8 kilometre ride down a rutted gravel road, which slices through a landscape dominated by volcanic ash and tundra, to a picturesque lunch spot near an Inca ruin at 3700 metres. From here, you’ll be shuttled to pretty Laguna (Lake) Limpiopungo (3800 metres) for the 16 kilometre ride out on a mixture of dirt and paved roads that weave through a pine forest.
While the terrain can be rough in some sections, and some people might be a little affected by the altitude (not to mention the cold – bring layers!) at the start point, it’s a manageable ride for anyone who’s comfortable on a mountain bike. Protective gear is supplied, and your guide will show you a few tips and tricks for navigating the descent smoothly(ish).
2. Climb up it
While it’s possible to climb Cotopaxi with no technical mountaineering experience, the high altitude, crevasses and steep sections of snow and ice mean this is not a feat to be taken lightly. You’ll need to be fit, fully acclimatised, and have an experienced guide with you, ideally certified by ASEGUIM (Asociación Ecuatoriana de Guías de Montaña). Many climbing and tour companies in Quito (and Baños) offer guided Cotopaxi climbs and rent equipment.
Cotopaxi can be climbed year-round, though December and January are regarded the best months. Climbers typically arrive at Refugio José Rivas (4800 metre) the afternoon before climbing, with time for newbies to practice their ice-axe skills. Then you’ll try to bag a few hours sleep before a 1am start, the idea being to summit at sunrise and descend before the heat of the day makes the snow and ice unstable and unsafe. The ascent takes roughly six to eight hours, with the effort rewarded by exhilarating views of Ecuador’s major peaks, and down into the steaming crater. The descent typically takes three to four hours.
3. Hike around it
If you’re keen to stretch your legs but a summit attempt is a bit ambitious for you, there are a couple of other decent tramps in the national park. The most popular is the short but strenuous hike from the top car park up to the refuge (which takes about an hour). If conditions permit, you can also continue up to the edge of the glacier, but this section is only recommended with a guide due to the risk of crevasses.
You can also take a stroll around the 2.6 kilometre trail that encircles shallow Laguna Limpiopungo, which is home to migrating waterfowl. If you don’t have your own wheels, aim to visit on a weekend, when it’s somewhat easier to hitch a ride within the national park. North of the lake, a trail takes you to the top of Volcán Rumiñahui (4721 metres). You’ll need a whole day for this one.
Cotopaxi Province is also home to Ecuador’s most popular trek: the Quilotoa Loop. Weaving through traditional villages and ending (or beginning) at the vibrant turquoise Quilotoa crater lake, the 40 kilometre loop can be hiked in as little as two days. On Intrepid’s Ecuador: Raft, Hike & Bike itinerary, travellers can make the day hike from Quilotoa to Chugchilan via tiny villages through a picturesque valley.
Is Cotopaxi safe?
Cotopaxi is one of the world’s most closely monitored volcanoes, meaning the risk of being surprised by an eruption while you’re visiting is low. A summit attempt carries the highest risks, namely crevasses, lack of oxygen, possible landslides, and potential exposure to sulphur dioxide fumes. Be sure to check current conditions, consult with local experts, and double check your travel insurance (many policies don’t automatically cover high-altitude hiking) before you go.
Visit Cotopaxi National Park for yourself on our 10-day Ecuador: Hike, Bike and Kayak trip.
Hero image by Ammit Jack via Shutterstock.