Key information: Cotopaxi Area
- Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, a superb, classic conical stratovolcano which soars above the surrounding landscape.
- Cotopaxi sits in 33,400 hectares of scenically magnificent and geologically fascinating national park, which takes in the great majority of its slopes as well as Cerro Ruminahui to its north.
- A keen walker must get to this area if possible. While peak baggers will flog up Volcan Cotopaxi itself, there are a multitude of options in the area.
- Walkopedia rating89
- Natural interest19
- Human interest3
- Negative points2
- Total rating89
- Note: Negs: Altitude
- Length: Your choice
- Maximum Altitude: 5,897 m
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
Cotopaxi is special. It is not only (at 5,897m) one of the highest (it used to be claimed to be the highest) active volcanoes in the world, but it is a superb, classic, symmetrical conical stratovolcano, with a 22km diameter at its base, which soars above the surrounding landscape, its snow-capped peak visible for miles around. It is (sorry) iconic, and one of the world's best-known volcanoes.
Von Humboldt described Cotopaxi as "the most beautiful and regular of all the colossal peaks in the high Andes. A perfect cone covered by a thick blanket of snow that shines so brilliantly at sunset it seems detached from the azure of the sky."
Cotopaxi sits in 33,400 hectares of scenically magnificent and geologically fascinating national park, which takes in the great majority of its slopes as well as Cerro Ruminahui to its north, and some lovely paramo, lakes, gorges, valleys and lahar planes; and Inca ruins to boot. The peak protects biozones ranging from montane forests (fringe cloud forests) to shrubby lower paramo and classic higher tussocky paramo grasslands.
Animals include puma, shy deer and paramo rabbits, as well as wild horses and llamas. Bird life is hugely varied, from caracaras and other raptors to water-birds on its lakes. Walkopedia had a good viewing of a hummingbird on its lower slopes.
Cotopaxi has been hugely destructive in the past, having erupted 50 times since 1738. The beautiful snow and ice inbetween times enhances the damage: it famously sent a lahar (mix of ice, water, mud and rock) down the valleys all the way to the Pacific in 1877. It was intermittently active in the C20, and reignited in 2015. Check the current status before laying plans.
It isn't just Cotopaxi: the landscape is a volcanology text book: parasitic cones, post-lahar plains, lava flows galore and, many km to the north-west, huge boulders flung all the way there. Ruminahui to the north is the remains of a much older collapsed volcano.
Cotopaxi is so big it makes its own weather. You can be gazing in awe at its northern flanks and cone while the south is wrapped in cloud.
A keen walker must get to this area if possible. While peak baggers will flog up Volcan Cotopaxi itself, there are a multitude of gentler (but usually not that gentle) options in the area. That said, a gripe would be that off-path walking is forbidden, and maps aren't great so it can be hard to identify options as easily as in (say) much of Europe. And Cotopaxi is loved and heavily visited, so don't expect to be alone at popular times around, say, Laguna Limpiopungo and the Jose Rivas refuge. You can, however, get away from the great majority on other trails.
Cerro Ruminahui (4,712m) : This line of jagged peaks was once the south-eastern side of an ancient volcano. It now forms the north-western third of the Cotopaxi NP. While the huge views of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and directly into the heart of Cotopaxi itself, are really thrilling, you don't have to climb to the high ridge to have a fantastic walk: there are excellent walks on the lower slopes.
Cerro Sincholagua (4,873m): This dramatic mass of broken rock, yet another extinct volcano, soars above the paramo of its wide-spread lower slopes some 17km north-east of Cotopaxi. It used to be glaciated and ice capped, but the permanent ice is long gone. You can drive (in 4WD) on tracks from the Control Norte of the NP, or walk in from there.
Marurco/Guaga Cotopaxi: You could climb this minor peak on Cotopaxi's southern flank (at around 4,840m). The Viva guide has some ideas. A long day.
There are plenty of lower walks (well, relatively lower - nowhere is below 3,800m or so once you are in the heart of the area) to enjoy. Here are just a few ideas:
The well-known Condor Trek, which spends its second half in the NP, is recognized as one of Ecuador's great walks.
A major (and the best) relatively lower-level walk within the NP would be a Cotopaxi Circuit/Loop, which will give you a fascinating insight into the area and superb panaramas.
Laguna Limpiopungo circuit: this pleasing marshy lakelet at around 3,800m with its rich bird life and quite likely wild horses on the meadow to its north. Divert up tracks into the gorgeous paramo of the hillsides. 1hr++. Head on up to the flanks of Ruminahui and/or cross the paramo hillsides north-east to the Tambopaxi hotel.
Walk from the track-head to Refugio Jose Rivas, at 4,800m. 200m of climb, enough to give the less-acclimatised a headache to remember. Near the snow line.
Ingaloma ruins: we think it should be possible to walk to the interesting-sounding Ingaloma Inca ruins to, for a fine day walk - but there is little information available. Anyone have any ideas/photos?
Important: Cotopaxi became active in 2015, after a dormant period. The area around it was closed for several months. Given its destructive capacity, we recommend you take care and check the latest position before laying firm plans.
This can be tough walking in remote mountains with uncertain weather, where altitude can cause real problems. Come fully prepared, including proper acclimatization.
Have a look at TripAdvisor - there are tens of millions of reviews, so you may get good, current views on guides, places to hike and places to stay.
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Books and Maps
Books on this walk
Ecuador Climbing and Hiking Guide – Viva/ Rob Rachowiecki and Mark Thurber. THE walking book. But evidently out of print and vilely expensive second hand on Amazon, as of end 2015. Available as an e–book. There is a Bradt predecessor from 2004, which is, obviously, out of date in places but much cheaper!
Trekking in the Central Andes – Lonely Planet – 2003, good on the circuit/loop walks but only has 4 Ecuador treks in detail.
Find the books and maps listed above, and many more:
Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands– Lonely Planet/Regis St Lois.
LIVE Travel Guide to Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador Footprint Handbook by Robert Kunstaetter and Daisy Kunstaetter
Ecuador and Galapagos, Viva Travel Guides by Lorraine Caputo and Chris Klassen
The Rough Guide to Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands by Melissa Graham and Harry Ades
Ecuador – Insight Guides
Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, Moon Handbooks. We have to say we were underwhelmed in 2015.
Travels Among the Great Andes of the Equator – the great C19 mountaineer Edward Whymper’s classic account.
Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands - Travellers’ Wildlife Guides – gorgeous, good illustrations.
Find the books and maps listed above, and many more:
Maps aren’t that great. You need 4 of the IGM 1:50,000 topographical maps. (There is also an “eco-tourist” map of the area, without contours so not much detailed use but it could be a helpful overview.) A GPS would be very useful.
A decent basic map of the NP can be got at the main entrance.
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
The driest times in the Cotopaxi area are June-September (August/September will be windier) and December to January. The area can be visited (and the volcano climbed) throughout the year but other times will be wetter/windier and thus tougher.
Very changeable. Even if you are there in the “dry” season, come prepared for both hot sun and rain.
It often gets cloudy in the afternoons, so usually best to start early.
Cotopaxi is some 60km south of Quito. There are plenty of buses on the Panamericano. You can hire pickup trucks or taxi’s from Machachi or Latacugna. So you can get there are back to Quito (or head on down the Panamericano) pretty easily.
Most people fly in to Quito or Guayaquil. You can fly internally in Ecuador. Skyscanner is an excellent (relatively new) site for finding the flights you need; otherwise try Lastminute.com, or look at what’s available on TripAdvisor.
Car hire is reasonably easy, but driving isn’t straighforward, not least because of the lack of roadsigns. Local taxi services generally exist in the towns, can (eg) take to or pick you up from a roadhead, or transport luggage.
Those on organised expeditions are likely to be transported from/to arranged points.
You can arrange a guide and pack animal. See below.
See Walk Summary above.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
· Altitude: can affect some; potentially fatal. Acclimatize appropriately, come prepared to cope, be ready to evacuate people in extreme cases.
· Mountain weather: snow, rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year and the weather can change rapidly. Come prepared.
· Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
· Heights: can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulties with heights.
· This is remote country: [you will have to carry all your food and other supplies/food and other supplies will not be readily available] and help may be hard to get if things go wrong].
· Health risks: you may not get prompt medical help of a standard available elsewhere if you become ill. Potential problems can include malaria. Come prepared, including getting all appropriate inoculations/medications in good time.
· Beware of dogs: carry a stick if likely to be near farmstead or farmland, keep well clear if possibly rabid.
· Bulls: can be encountered – keep your distance if you see them.
· Be sensitive about photographing people: don’t without permission. Ask permission if in doubt about whether they would mind.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, and does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
You can do these walks independently, but you will need to be self-sufficient, so come fully prepared.
People may wish to form or join organised/supported expeditions when doing multi-day walks. Given the remoteness of the country and difficulty of getting supplies, many will prefer to do it this way, and travelling here with a knowledgeable guide has real advantages. Choosing a suitable guide or company is of course vital, and the guidebooks contain good advice in this regard.
Guides are best organized through agencies in Quito – although local guides can be arranged locally (e.g at hotels) although you would need to check very carefully their experience and credentials if you want to climb the mountain or do the Cotopaxi circuit/loop.
If hiring a guide locally, meet him/her and get comfortable before committing. Make sure all requirements are understood and agreed – including of course, remuneration!
Expedition organisers include:
Explore! - reputable and experienced organisers.
High Places – do anh Ecuador expedition including time in the Cotopaxi area. We have used them (elsewhere) and been very happy.
Far Frontiers – Do an Andean Adventure including Cotopaxi NP.
PLEASE HELP Walkopediaby recommending any reputable tour organizers that you know of – local or otherwise.
The guidebooks have a selection of possible accommodation in the area. Camping is the only realistic option once on a trail, other than the José Rivas Refuge.
Nice (and accessible) campsites around Laguna Limpiopungo in the heart of the park. And at Tambopaxi.
See what the commentary on TripAdvisor is on possible places to stay – although do take their reviews with a pinch of salt, as they can be “interested”.
A good range of hotels can be found on the unimaginatively named but effective Hotels.com.
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
· www.wikipedia.org. As usual, a good starting place.
· See if http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/ has any relevant pages. It has some travel maps.
· Have a look at TripAdvisor – there are tens of millions of reviews, so you may get good, current views on this walk and area.
· Wikiexplora is a useful site if you can read Spanish. The automated translation means it’s not ideal for non-Spanish speakers, but it does have some good trail maps.
Other things to do in the area
Ecuador has a huge variety of great walks. There is likely to be a good walk within range wherever you may be, in the mountains at least.
Mountain biking, climbing, birdwatching.
Culture, history (Inca, other pre-Spanish, colonial) and people watching.
Coastal/sea fun and chilling.
We are not a shopping website. But, there are beautiful and interesting things to be found, and anything bought from local people must be of some help to this poor area. So, wallets out! (And don’t try to extract the very last cent when bargaining…)
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.
Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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