Photography by Richard Giordano
At 5,897 meters (19,347 feet), Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s second-highest peak and one of the highest active volcanoes on the planet. Located a mere 30 miles from the Ecuadorian capital city, Quito, the park is well-visited and offers enough to keep visitors entertained for several days, including camping, hiking, off-pavement driving, and mountaineering.
In Quechua, Cotopaxi translates as “neck of the moon,” referencing the crater’s crescent moon shape. The summit is often shrouded by clouds, requiring patience from those who want a glimpse of its shy snow-capped dome. Cotopaxi is an active volcano, with the most recent eruption beginning on August 14, 2015 (I was in the park on this day, but that’s a story for another time) and lasting nearly five months. This event produced over 2,000 tremors and approximately 20,000 tonnes of sulfur dioxide per day.
The park is well worth a visit. Camping amongst pine trees, the landscape appears barren, but upon closer inspection, hardy flowering plants, shrubs, and grasses have survived despite the high altitude and harsh conditions. If you’re acclimated, hiking past the José Ribas refuge to the glacier is exhilarating.
Where to Stay in Cotopaxi National Park
There isn’t much offical information online, but there are a couple of designated camping sites in the park with amenities such as toilets, showers, and a cooking area. Guides stationed at the entrance will provide the most up-to-date information and prohibit camping if the volcano shows signs of activity. Note that campfires are not permitted. Those seeking indoor accommodations should head to the Chilcabamba Lodge or Secret Garden Cotopaxi, located close to the north entrance. The Tambopaxi Eco-Lodge also offers breathtaking views of the volcano, and an opportunity to enjoy a hot shower, a warm cup of tea in the restaurant, and a decent Wi-Fi signal if you need it. We camped in the parking lot, but there are shared and private rooms available.
What to Do in Cotopaxi National Park
- Acclimate by walking the 2.2-mile circuit around Laguna Limpiopungo
- Sign up for a horseback riding tour (this can be arranged through the Secret Garden or another local company) or mountain bike rental
- Hike to the José Ribas refuge at 4,800 meters (15,748 feet) above sea level
- Hire a mountain guide and tackle Cotopaxi’s summit
- Explore the park’s dirt roads and spectacular scenery
Quito is a convenient place to stock up on groceries if you are heading south. Several small towns are conveniently located near the park for those skipping the capital or arriving from the south. Be prepared for cold weather that is typical of high-altitude climates.
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