Wander Destinations: Cotopaxi
Cotopaxi is an emblematic volcano towering over vast Andean plains at 5897m (19,347ft). It is the second highest summit in Ecuador and is visible from Quito, Latacunga and other cities. The name means ‘Neck of the Moon’ in Quechua as once a year the moon passes over the cusp of the volcano. Surrounding the volcano itself is the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, well worth a visit for the beautiful lakes and landscape, as well as the volcano itself from up close.
How to get to Cotopaxi
The Panamericana road that runs from Quito to Latacunga passes nearby, and the bus drops you at the nearest exit. From here, the entrance to the park is only a short distance from the main road, and you can find 4×4 taxis to take you to and around the park.
The landscape at Cotopaxi National Park is stunning, with paramo stretching across as far as the eye can see, made up of strange sponge-like plants which are one of the most important water sources in the region. If you are lucky you can spot Andean Condors, Black-faced Ibis, or llamas. Stop off at the visitors center near the park entrance for some background on the area and a mini botanical garden (free entry). They also have a small cafe here.
As you approach Cotopaxi Volcano, you come to Limpiopungo lake, a great stop off with a hike around the lake and fantastic views of the volcano if it isn’t cloudy. Obviously the weather is down to luck, but you’re better off trying to get here early for clearer skies. The lake is a great spot to see some high-altitude birds such as the Ecuadorian Hillstar, which feeds on the emblematic orange flowers called Chuquiraga.
If you are looking for a real challenge, summit attempts for Cotopaxi can be booked from Quito and Latacunga. It’s worth doing some easier hikes before you attempt it, if only to acclimatise to the altitude. The summit is very physically demanding and cold, so you have to be well prepared and accompanied by a good guide. The climb to the summit is usually done overnight, with climbers leaving the base named Refugio Jose Rivas at midnight and attempting to summit in the morning. Before you leave make sure you check the state of your equipment and go over all the necessary practises with your guide.
If you are looking to hike in the Park but not climb Cotopaxi, there are other great routes such as Volcan Rumiñahui, which can be hiked from Control Caspi. This is usually an all-day hike, as it is relatively easy, but the altitude means it takes longer than you would expect. Another alternative is to hike to the Refugio Jose Rivas, which can have snow around it and be a real tough hike due to the altitude at 4800m. If you’re feeling dizzy, try drinking coca tea, or nibbling on some sugar.
If mountain biking is your thing, you can book a cycle down Cotopaxi. The route is super fun for all levels, you don’t have to be a top cyclist for this one.
Where to stay in Cotopaxi
There are several hotels in the area, but some of our favourites are the hobbit houses at Secret Garden, the Refugio where those climbing Cotopaxi stay, or Hacienda La Cienega, an expensive but historical building where Humboldt and former presidents have stayed since its construction over 400 years ago.