Cotopaxi’s shape is the most beautiful and regular of all the colossal peaks in the high Andes. It is a perfect cone covered by a thick blanket of snow which shines so brilliantly at sunset it seems detached from the azure of the sky.
Alexander von Humboldt, 1802
Almost opposite the Ilinizas, the snowcapped, perfectly symmetrical Volcán Cotopaxi (5897m) forms the centrepiece of Ecuador’s most-visited mainland national park, Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, covering 330 square kilometres of the eastern cordillera. With its broad, green base and graceful slopes tapering to the lip of its crater, Cotopaxi is the most photogenic of the country’s thirty or so volcanoes, and on a clear day makes a dizzying backdrop to the stretch of highway between Quito and Latacunga. One of the highest active volcanoes in the world, it’s also one of Ecuador’s most destructive, with at least ten major eruptions since 1742 responsible for repeatedly destroying the nearby town of Latacunga. It’s been fairly quiet since its last burst of activity in 1904, and today Cotopaxi is the most popular climb in Ecuador. Although the volcano dominates everything around it, and the aim of most visitors is simply to get a close-up view before turning home, a number of other attractions make a visit to the park very rewarding – namely the starkly beautiful páramo, all rolling moorland streaked by wispy clouds and pockets of mist. At an altitude of some 3500–4500m, the air here is thin and crisp, and the tundra-like vegetation is made up principally of cropped pajonales (straw-like grass) and shrubs, lichens and flowers adapted to harsh climates. Over ninety species of birds inhabit the park, including the tury hummingbird, Andean hillstar and Andean lapwing, while mammals include white-tailed deer, rabbits, Andean foxes and pumas.
Less inspiring are the stuffed animals on display at the Museo Mariscal Sucre, 10km from the main entrance checkpoint and often the first stop on a Cotopaxi tour. Outside the museum there’s a short self-guided trail to introduce you to the páramo, but a more satisfying way to explore this habitat is on the one-hour footpath around the Lago Limpiopungo around 5km further up the road – a long, shallow lake lying at 3800m, surrounded by boggy reeds that provide a habitat for numerous birds. When the clouds part, its waters present a striking reflection of the 4712-metre peak of Cerro Rumiñahui, looming over it to the northwest, whose lower slopes can be reached by a path branching off the north shore of the lake. Most visitors continue a further 13km from here as far as the parking area, known as the Parqueador del Refugio, sitting at 4600m on the slopes of Cotopaxi. From here, a footpath leads steeply up a scree slope to the José F. Ribas refuge (4800m), a popular target for day visitors. It looks tantalizingly close, but if you’re not acclimatized it can be a real struggle; count on taking 45 minutes to an hour to reach it. Once there, you can warm yourself with hot tea and snacks.
From a junction near the lake, one track goes to the northern park control, and another skirts northeast around Cotopaxi passing by several archeological sites, most notably El Salitre, the remains of an Inca pucará, or fortress, used to control access down to the Amazon basin. Apart from the atmospheric scenery, there’s not a great deal to see here, though you can see some of the pieces recovered from the sites at the Museo.
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.