It’s possible to climb Cotopaxi with little or no technical mountaineering experience, but high altitude, crevasses and steep sections of snow and ice mean it’s something not to be taken lightly. You’ll need to be fit, strong, fully acclimatized and have a good, reliable and experienced guide, preferably certified by ASEGUIM (Asociación Ecuatoriana de Guías de Montaña), particularly now that rapid deglaciation is changing routes and conditions. Many climbing and tour companies in Quito offer guided climbs up Cotopaxi, and can rent out equipment for a list of recommended companies. Typical costs are around $180 to $250 per person depending on group size, with properly qualified guides ($150 upwards otherwise), including all equipment, transport and food.
Usually, you arrive at the refuge on Cotopaxi the afternoon before climbing, and will probably be taken to practise crampon and ice-axe techniques at a nearby glacier if you’re inexperienced. Then you’ll try to catch a few hours’ sleep before being woken at around midnight for 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, on average, six to eight strenuous hours, and involves negotiating several crevasses and climbing on snow and ice, including a couple of short sections where you’ll be front pointing (climbing steep ice with the front spikes of your crampons). The effort is rewarded by exhilarating views from the top onto all of Ecuador’s major peaks and down to the wide crater, steaming with sulphurous fumes. The descent normally takes three to four hours.
If you plan to do this climb, the importance of acclimatizing properly beforehand cannot be stressed enough; staying in and around the park for a few days, going for plenty of hikes in the area, and climbing a couple of smaller peaks will greatly aid your summit attempt while reducing the risk of developing altitude sickness. Note that if you’re walking up to the refuge from the Panamericana it’s a 30km-plus muscle-sapping slog that will tire you out before the climb proper; break the hike into manageable pieces over a few days, rest and acclimatize. Cotopaxi can be climbed all year round, but December and January are regarded as the best months, with February to April a close second. The late summer (Aug–Sept) can also be good, but is likely to be windy.