Updated February 27th, 2020.
In the beautiful Andes Mountains, the grand Cotopaxi Volcano stands at a grand height of 5897 metres. Hiking Cotopaxi in Ecuador has become a rite of passage for many visiting the country and as climbing the volcano independently can be very dangerous, most travellers opt to visit as part of a guided tour. Located only 2 hours away from Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, Cotopaxi National Park is an easy and popular day trip from the city.
Cotopaxi Tours from Quito
The vast majority of Cotopaxi tours will take visitors only up to the glacier (located at around 5000 m). The descent is usually completed by cycling, horse riding, hiking or taking a minibus, depending on the kind of tour you book. These tours can be done as a day trip from Quito with return transport and lunch included. Day trips cost within the region of $50-$60 USD per person on a shared service tour and they are a great budget-friendly way for backpackers to experience Cotopaxi safely.
Climbing to the Summit of Cotopaxi – Specialist Tours
If you want to summit Cotopaxi Volcano, this will need to be done on a specialist climbing tour with an experienced guide. The cost for these tours is much higher as the climb is technical and you will need specialist equipment such as ice axes and crampons. These tours are usually done over two days but longer options are available. If you are looking to reach the summit of Cotopaxi on a 2-day shared service tour, you will need to be prepared to pay upwards of $345 USD per person. The Cotopaxi summit hike appears in our list of the best treks in South America.
When is Best to Visit Cotopaxi?
Cotopaxi National Park is busiest from January to May. The weather is generally good throughout these months, however, rain is common from March to May. Accommodation prices in the surrounding areas are higher around this time. If you are planning to spend a few days close to the Cotopaxi National Park, check out our favourite hostel, Secret Garden with amazing rooftop views over Quito and Cotopaxi.
June to November is generally considered to be the low season so you will probably meet fewer travellers attempting the challenge. Bear in mind that from September to November, it can be wet and even snowy. Visiting at this time can mean that visibility is poor compared to other times of the year. This is definitely worth factoring into your plans if you are planning on climbing Cotopaxi to the summit.
A Day Trip to Cotopaxi from Quito – One Traveller’s Experience!
The Day Begins…
We started the day bright and early in Quito. At 7am, we would be meeting our group at Plaza San Blas in the old town of Quito. Due to the early hour, we opted to take a taxi there as we felt this was the safest option for this time of day and for the sake of a couple of dollars, it definitely felt worth it.
Despite all being on the slightly sleepy side, it was great to meet the other travellers also taking the tour. We soon woke up when the minibus turned up with around 30 mountain bikes on the roof, the excitement began!
We departed Quito for the first stop… Breakfast! After around a 1 hour drive, which was filled with information from our bilingual guide, we arrived at what looked like a rustic ‘mansion’ converted into a homey restaurant. We piled into the restaurant where we were joined by other tour groups and were immediately served fresh juice and coffee. This was swiftly followed by what can only be described as a carb-loading breakfast, the perfect power fuel that would be needed for the hike ahead of us!
Our plates consisted of an omelette dressed in tomato and onions, a pancake covered in strawberries, yoghurt and granola and a bread roll accompanied with butter and jam. Wasting no time (we scoffed with gusto!), we finished our breakfasts and headed on our way. The next stop was around an hour later at a small corner shop. This was the last chance to stock up on any hiking snacks, drinks, sweets to help with potential altitude sickness and extra layers such as jackets, gloves, and socks!
Preparing for the Altitude!
At both breakfast and the corner shop, there was the opportunity to buy coca leaves, which despite their reputation elsewhere in the world, are legal and known to help with altitude sickness. You can brew them in hot water as a tea or chew them to prevent the headaches and breathlessness associated with being at high altitude. If you are not keen on this earthy flavour then an alternative is coca candy. The sweets are much easier to stomach if you are looking for help with the altitude without getting too close to the leaves themselves.
Reaching the Foot of the Volcano
After the shopping stop, there was one quick toilet stop, the final opportunity to empty our bladders before the hike! I recommend taking the opportunity as the next toilet stop is at the refuge point located 4800 m up the volcano! As is usual in South America, you’re recommended to bring some tissues, however, at this toilet, there is an attendant selling tissue paper if needed.
10 minutes later and the group is back on the road! Our guide is still filling our brains with history and information about our surroundings, which are ever-changing as the elevation increases. You can tell that we are getting closer to the top as the smooth ride turns bumpy, and our guide jokes that we are getting one of Ecuador’s free massages!
We have another short stop at the foot of the volcano. If the sky is clear, the view of Cotopaxi at from here provides a fantastic photo opportunity. This stop also doubles up as a quick assessment of the weather and also helps to get your body a bit more used to the high altitude. After this, it was onwards to the final stop: the car park at 4600 m where the hike begins!
Starting the Climb of Cotopaxi
The first thing we couldn’t help but notice was the wind! Blimey, if breathing and lifting one foot in front of the other wasn’t already hard enough, we now had the wind to fight! As a group of 27 people, we were slightly on the larger side, therefore, we were lucky enough to have 2 guides. Once we had all left the warmth of the bus behind, one guide led the way whilst the other stayed at the back. This worked well as it meant no matter what your capability is, there was a familiar face not too far away.
At this point in the hike, the altitude really started to hit and it is easy to start thinking about how unfit you are. In reality, it is the lack of oxygen making even the smallest steps feel difficult. The hike is a real challenge and the terrain is sort of a sandy texture, so with each step, you are working twice as hard, due to slightly sinking back down the volcano!
The motivation we received from our guide was just what we needed to pull through. After around 30 minutes of hard work (depending on your pace) and determination, we made it to the refuge point. It felt like we had just reached Everest base camp (so dramatic)! The wind was a lot colder up here and the chalet-style hut was covered in flags from all around the world.
Here we refuelled on tasty hot chocolates. The sugar was exactly what we needed! If you are feeling the altitude by this point, then there is also the option to purchase coca tea. At $2.50USD, neither beverage will break the bank! Use the shelter to refuel with any snacks, fruit, nuts or chocolate bars, and ensure that you stay hydrated with plenty of water.
It is here is where you can stamp your passport or notepad with the Cotopaxi stamp. The two stamps should be on the counter where you purchase the drinks and you can help yourself if you want to use them. It is a great souvenir to take away from the day!
Reaching Cotopaxi Glacier
Around half an hour later (midday) the guide shouted around to see who from the group wanted to continue onto the glacier and who wanted to stay at the refuge hut, as this part was optional. I would say that around half of our group decided to continue. I was also pleased that the walk to the glacier was surprisingly nice!
The thought of leaving behind the warm cosy chalet to brave the wind again was a tough one, but very much worth it. The walk seemed slightly more sheltered as we headed for a path slightly over the far side of our earlier route. It also felt like more of a gradual incline with more flat parts, making it easier to catch your breath. Half an hour later and we were at the glacier!
As soon as the snow and huge slabs of ice came into view, I knew we had made the right decision in continuing. We stayed here for around 10-15 minutes, which was again, another perfect picture opportunity. From here, we headed straight back down the volcano and past the refuge hut towards the car park.
With the descent being easier on the breathing, it is the perfect opportunity to enjoy the ever-changing view. The wind was constantly pushing the clouds across and so there was always a new landscape to look at. Here you can really feel the steepness of the volcano and you have to stop yourself from running down! It is amazing how your feet can just start tumbling down the decline! Finally, feeling accomplished, we jumped back into the bus to shelter from the wind and warm ourselves up in preparation for our next adventure: mountain biking!
Mountain Biking the Descent!
At around 2 pm, we took a short drive down from the car park, where the bus stopped and the guides unloaded the bikes from the roof. We each grabbed a helmet and the guides paired us with a suitable bike.
To take part in the cycling activity is optional and if you choose to get involved, you will have to sign a disclosure form. If you choose not to take part, then you can remain on the bus following the same route as those on the bikes. The bus follows the last bikers in the group, which is really reassuring. This means that if at any point you want to stop the activity, then you can get back on board the bus.
The mountain biking is down the same road you take up to the start of the hike, meaning it was nice and wide but as we experienced on arrival, very bumpy! It is a test on the arms to hold on tight, use the right amount of braking (I had mine on the whole time, as did many of the others, to go at a speed that we felt comfortable with), and steer through the rocky ground.
Safety was paramount to the guides and they explained how to use to brakes correctly and not to use your feet to stop which they would be monitoring. Other than this, it was completely up to you how fast you wanted to go down the mountain. The guides gave us directions to meet at the lake at the bottom, which they had pointed out earlier in the morning. 50 minutes later, the whole group met at Limpiopungo Lake, which offered another great viewpoint of Cotopaxi Volcano. Whilst the guides were loading the bikes onto the bus, we made the most of our time by walking around the lake and snapping the last few photos of Cotopaxi Volcano.
Absolutely exhausted and feeling content with all the adventure, we set off (just after 3 pm) for the last stop of the day, lunch back at the Chaupi community. We arrived around an hour later, ready to refuel our bodies! Lunch consisted of fresh juice, a starter of potato soup, mains which included salad, mashed potato, sautéed vegetables and chicken and even a dessert of pineapple with yoghurt.
We jumped back on the bus for our return to Quito, arriving at around 6 pm. We were dropped at the Plaza San Blas where we begun the day before taking a short walk back to our hostel where we well and truly crashed out! All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip and an adventure we wouldn’t forget in a hurry!
What you will need to hike Cotopaxi
- Warm hiking clothing
We advise you to wear leggings and/or lightweight walking trousers. If you have them, waterproof versions are better.
- Multiple top layers
Including a vest, t-shirt, long-sleeved top, jumper, coat (we wore lightweight puffer coats) and a waterproof mac or poncho. For us, it was the wind that caught us off guard and it really pays to have multiple layers so that you can easily add or remove to cater to the conditions.
Hiking trainers or boots would be preferable but this trek can also be done in activewear trainers (just note that your feet might get wet with these, especially if you plan to go to the glacier).
- Thick socks
If you are feeling organised, then bring a spare pair to change into after you complete the activities.
- Hat, gloves and a scarf or neck buff
- Sun cream
Do not underestimate the weather. Apply suncream before the hike and during the day. The cloudy/rainy weather can be very deceiving!
Cameras, phones, powerpack and charging leads should go into your daypack. We always bring these as we find our devices sometimes lose power quickly in the cold weather, so it is always handy to have a powerpack to hand.
Remember this if you want a stamp!
Bring plenty of water. You can leave a bottle on the bus so that you have a drink for after the activities.
We took a chocolate bar to enjoy at the refuge point. Anything sweet or something such as nuts are a good option to get you through the rest of the day.
This is useful for the snack stop, a drink at the volcano refuge, toilet stops and optional tips for the guide.
- Generic items
We always pack essentials such as tissues, wet wipes, hand sanitiser, and lip balm.