With a peak of just under 6,000 meters, Ecuador’s Mount Cotopaxi is the world’s highest active volcano.
As one of Ecuador’s top attractions, Cotopaxi’s pristine snow-capped cone has beckoned many a traveler, but few manage to see past the shy volcano’s curtain of fog and even fewer brave its frigid slopes. For those that do, the experience can be very rewarding but only if you come prepared…
There are two ways to do Cotopaxi:
If you have 2+ days and $250+ to spare, you can ascend to the windy glacier-covered summit with crampons, pick axes, and ropes. You’ll need to leave the base camp at midnight, so much of your climb will be in the dead of night.
If, like most people, you think that sounds terribly unappealing, you can simply climb to the Jose Ribas Shelter at 4,800 meters, which is only an hour‘s hike from the parking lot. These days most people who have “done Cotopaxi” have just hiked to the shelter.
Below I’ll explain everything you need to know for either option…
6 Essential Tips to Know Before You Go
(7) Special Requirements for Foreigners
All foreigners are technically required to hire (2) guides to visit the volcano – one when you enter the national park and one when before you begin to climb Cotopaxi.
The guides cost about $40 each ($80 total), which, of course, is not ideal for budget backpackers.
There are several things you can do about this:
(1) You can try to camouflage yourself among a group of Ecuadorians. Ecuadorians are not required to hire guides. Most will be happy to help.
(2) You can share the cost among a larger group to make it more economic. If you don’t have a group, you can either recruit people from your hostel or find other foreigners interested in sharing the cost near the entrance of the park.
(3) You can sneak around the checkpoints, of which there are two. I trespassed through a farm to circumvent the first checkpoint and through a pine forest to circumvent the second one.
(8) Beware the Weather
Visiting Cotopaxi is really hit-or-miss. If you luck out with clear weather, you get a gorgeous view of the conical snow-capped peak as you approach and an equally stunning view of the Andean highlands below when you actually climb the thing.
But good weather can’t be taken from granted…
The volcano has a tendency to fog up, especially in the afternoon, and it’s possible you won’t be able to see Cotopaxi even when it’s right in front of you.
Cotopaxi is always cold and windy and once you throw some rain, snow, sleet, or hail in, you’re up against some miserable climbing conditions.
So, you will need:
- a wind-proof / water-proof jacket
- something to cover your head (i.e. a beanie, scarf, or hood)
- some gloves.
Visit early in the morning to minimize your chance of facing adverse weather conditions and avoid visiting during the rainy season from March to April.
(9) Getting There
You can find a bus to the park entrance any time of day from either Quito or Latacunga. Simply turn up at the bus terminal:
Quito (Quitumbe Terminal) – Cotopaxi Nat. Park Entrance: $1.50 / 1.5 hrs
Latacunga Terminal – Cotopaxi Nat. Park Entrance: $1.50 / 1.5 hrs
From the park entrance, you will need to find a ride to the gravel parking lot (4,400 meters) on the volcano where people begin the one hour hike to the shelter.
You can either:
- Hire one of the white trucks lined up near the entrance ($10)
- hitchhike there (I found this quite easy)
(10) The Ascent
Whether you’re hiking to the shelter or to the summit, you will start your hike at the gravel parking lot at (4,400 meters).
From there, the climb to Jose Ribas Shelter (4,800 meters) takes about one hour. Those finishing at the shelter will be relieved to turn back
If you plan to continue past the shelter, you will need a tour or guide and peak physical fitness. Altitude sickness takes a heavy toll, and only around half of climbers actually reach the top.
You will spend a night at the shelter to help acclimatize yourself for the rest of the climb. The shelter offers camping space ($10) and bunk beds ($32) as well as snacks and drinks (cash only).
You will typically begin climbing around midnight. Your tour company will lend you the requisite equipment (i.e. crampons, pick axes, and ropes).
The climb takes 5 to 7 hours, and you should be heading back down by early morning. The descent takes around 3 hours.