Travel info for Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador

A volcanic mountain sanctuary at very high altitude

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Parque nacional Cotopaxi, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

GPS: -0.70046181224343, -78.428894380791

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Cotopaxi National Park is in central Ecuador, about 60 kilometres south of Quito. Established in 1975 and covering an area of 330 km², it is the second most visited protected area in the country after the Galapagos archipelago. Meaning “neck of the moon” in Cayapa (an Amerindian language spoken in north-western Ecuador), Cotopaxi National Park is an ecological reserve at very high altitude. It lies in the heart of the Cordillera Central, a mountain range attached to the Andes and nestled between the Cordillera Occidental and the Amazon.

The main attraction of the park is the Cotopaxi stratovolcano, with its conical shape and almost perfect symmetry. At 5,900 metres above sea level, it is the highest active volcano in the world and Ecuador’s second-highest point after Chimborazo. At 6,268 metres, Chimborazo can be considered the world’s true summit. It is said to be higher than the Himalayas, including Mount Everest (8,848 metres above sea level), because of its location on the Earth’s equator. Measured from the centre of the Earth, the summit of Chimborazo is ultimately the closest point to the moon, the stars and space.

The last notable eruptions of Cotopaxi date back to 1877 and the early 20th century. However, this massive volcano is still being closely monitored by the Ecuadorian authorities after a resurgence of activity in 2015. For almost six months, the volcano emitted thick clouds of ash and gas combined with rock projections to such an extent that the park was forced to close its doors. Very few people continue to live within a 10-kilometre radius of Cotopaxi, but the volcano remains a potential threat to the 300,000 people living on its periphery. The wilderness of Cotopaxi National Park is as popular with climbers for its volcanic rocks and mountains as it is with hikers for its lush valleys, dotted with mountain lakes, wild animal herds and Andean rivers. Technically, Cotopaxi is not the most difficult peak to reach. On the other hand, its ascent is made perilous by the steep slopes that are highly exposed to the region’s icy wind. Only one out of two people manage to escape the harsh Andean conditions to reach the summit of Cotopaxi.

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  • The imposing stature of the Cotopaxi stratovolcano, visible from anywhere in the park
  • The high altitude lakes, Limpiopungo and Santo Domingo; the rivers, waterfalls and lagoons; the Cotopaxi National Park Museum
  • The many panoramic views, including those from the Quilotoa Shalalá and the Sunfana overlooks
  • The Inca ruins of Pucará del Salitre dating from the end of the 15th century (an ancient military fortress made up of stone walls and circular constructions)
  • The traditional market of Saquisili (held every Thursday morning in the different squares of the city); the traditional culture and equestrian passion of the Chagras (cowboy farmers of the Ecuadorian Andes)
  • Hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding on Andean trails; climbing, mountaineering, and fishing on the Pita River; the long hike to the extinct Pasochoa volcano (north of Cotopaxi); the El Boliche recreation area (ideal for camping, group or family stays)
  • The variety of flora (pine forests, prairie deserts, Andean vegetation…) and fauna (herds of wild horses and llamas, populations of wolves, pumas, hummingbirds, foxes, bears and birds of prey like the legendary Andean condor)
  • Around Cotopaxi, the mountains of volcanic origin Sincholagua, Morurco, Pasochoa, Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur; the Quilindaña volcano; the stratovolcanoes Rumiñahui and Antisana which are very popular with climbers
  • The Mama Negra festival in Latacunga (a traditional religious festival held twice a year, in early September and early November)
  • Ecuador has the largest concentration of volcanoes in the world. They are divided into four distinct areas: the Cordillera Occidental, the Inter-Andean Valley (also known as the Alley of Volcanoes), the Cordillera Oriental and the Cordillera Sub-oriental. A fifth area is the Galápagos Islands, all of which are of volcanic origin. In total, about 10 Ecuadorian volcanoes exceed 5,000 metres in altitude.
  • Cotopaxi is part of the Alley of Volcanoes. This terminology was used at the very beginning of the 19th century by the German explorer and scientist, Alexander Von Humboldt, to describe the impressive collection of 44 volcanoes that Ecuador has along a 200-kilometre stretch of coastline. 17 of which are close to the capital, including 15 active volcanoes. This pioneer of scientific expeditions on a global scale was made famous for having climbed Chimborazo in 1802 (becoming the first man to reach 5,878 metres in altitude).
  • From an altitude of 4,900 metres, the Cotopaxi volcano is covered by a glacier and eternal snow. It has been responsible for the destruction of the town of Latacunga on four occasions, caused either by earthquakes or by lahars (mudflows from the volcano’s eruption). These mudflows can have devastating effects due to the large amount of snow in the upper part of Cotopaxi.
  • Cotopaxi National Park can be accessed by bus from Quito via the Pan-American Highway. Many excursions are organised from the town of Latacunga, located at the southern gateway to the park.
  • Climbing Cotopaxi volcano requires a good physical condition and acclimatization to the altitude. On the way to the summit, a refuge (Refugio José Ribas) was built at 4,800 metres above sea level. Make sure you check the practicability of the paths before venturing up, as there have been several fatal accidents in recent months, and it is strongly recommended that you be accompanied by an experienced guide.
  • Another interesting alternative is to discover the Quilotoa lake and volcano, located a few kilometres west of Latacunga, or to climb either Rumiñahui (4,712 metres) or Antisana (5,753 metres).
  • If time permits, a one-day train tour (“Tren de los Volcanes”) takes you to several volcanoes, including Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui, departing from Quito’s Chimbacalle district (Eloy Alfaro station). This itinerary can also be done by car, bicycle and on foot, or even by kayak.

Where to eat

  • La Posada Del Chagra
    (typical local food)
  • Cunani
    (farm produce)
  • El Gringo y La Gorda
    (pleasant brasserie)

Where to go

  • Quilotoa Lake
    (crater lake)
  • Toachi Canyon
    (series of narrow valleys)
  • Antisana Ecological Reserve
    (land of ascent)

Where to stay

  • Hostería Los Mortiños
    (in front of Cotopaxi)
  • The Secret Garden Cotopaxi
    (friendly and cosmopolitan hostel)
  • Hacienda San Agustin De Callo
    (old Inca building)