A Guide to Discovering the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

Volcán Cotopaxi | ©Agencia de Noticias ANDES | Flickr
Volcán Cotopaxi | ©Agencia de Noticias ANDES | Flickr
In the middle of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi (Cotopaxi National Park) is the third highest active volcanoes in the world. At 19,347 feet (5,897 meters) above sea level, the Cotopaxi crater is one of Ecuador’s most iconic landmarks. Hiking to Jose F. Rivas Refuge (the first shelter in the park) or to the volcano crater just beyond it it is an incredible experience—here’s what you can expect.

Hiking Jose F. Rivas Refuge

Hiking to Jose F. Rivas Refuge is relatively easy, especially for those already acclimatized before you go, though weather conditions could make reaching the shelter more difficult, especially if a snowstorm is pointing against you. The refuge is 15,958 feet (4,864 meters) above sea level, less than 1,300 feet (400 meters) to hike from the parking area. The hike to the refuge takes approximately one hour, and climbers can enjoy a cup of coffee or tea before heading back.

Cotopaxi © Mauricio Malo / Courtesy of The Viking Abroad

Climbing Cotopaxi

Climbing to the summit of Cotopaxi requires some high altitude training and is not for people suffering from vertigo or in general bad health—only about half of climbers reach the summit because of altitude sickness. The hike is very technical and requires special equipment as well as a mountain guide (tourists cannot pass the refuge without one).

After glacier training and some sleep, climbs start around midnight and take roughly five hours to reach the summit and explore the crater. Lucky climbers might see the sunrise along with other mountain peaks on the horizon. Descending takes approximately two to three hours to climb down.

Cotopaxi volcano © Clay Junell / Flickr

Getting to Cotopaxi National Park

By public transport

Traveling to the park independently by bus is possible and cheap but complicated. If coming from Quito, start at Quitumbe bus station (south of the city) then take a bus to Latacunga and another to the park’s El Chasqui entrance. Be sure to tell the bus driver where you are going and that they tell you where to get off.

By car

Driving to the National Park takes approximately three hours from Quito. If renting a car, it’s recommended to get a 4-wheel-drive during the rainy season as roads to the national park can be quite rugged and to use GPS (the best app is Waze).

With an arranged tour

The easiest way to get to Cotopaxi is by a day tour from Quito. Tours typically include transportation, guides, and sometimes breakfast and lunch. Many tours also let allow bicycles to get down from the refuge, and some even offer horseback riding tours. Prices vary from $55–$300 depending on private trip options and different activities.