Parque Nacional Cotopaxi is a national park in the central Andes of Ecuador about 50 km southeast of central Quito. It is a popular hiking destination which is known for the active Cotopaxi and the dormant Rumiñahui volcano.
Cotopaxi, the central feature of the national park, is nearly 5,900 m (19,400 ft) in height and is one of the highest active volcanoes on earth. As of February 2023, its present activity includes heavy clouds of ashes, which are not dangerous (although some contain sulfur dioxide) but require appropriate equipment (scarf or mask and sunglasses to cover eyes, mouth and nose). The landscape of the park is typical of active volcanic areas, and there are several peaks in the protected zone well over 4,000 m in altitude.
Flora and fauna
With most of the park well above 3,500 m (11,500 ft) in altitude, the vegetation is typical of the tropical high Andes with scrubby woodlands in protected valley areas and open grasslands covering the lower slopes of Cotopaxi and other peaks. The landscape of the Páramo is an important feature of the park, a natural water filtering system for the streams coming off Cotopaxi's glacial areas. That water is an important part of Quito's water supply.
A number of rare Andean species are protected in the park including infrequently seen condors, spectacled bear, and brocket deer along with more commonly viewed foxes, white tail deer and rabbits.
Although Cotopaxi is only about 100 km (60 mi) south of the equator, its climate is dictated by altitude and there is perpetual snow about 4,500 m (14,700 ft). In the more popular areas of the park, the highest temperatures rarely exceed 20°C, and night temperatures fall below freezing. The rainy season is Summer, late December to March, although rain is possible at other times as well.
The park is close to the Panamericana between Quito and Latacunga. From the north it can be accessed by leaving the Panamericana in Machachi and passing through Santa Ana del Pedregal. From the south it can be accessed by leaving the Panamericana at Santa Rita.
Buses between Quito's southern Quitumbe terminal and Latacunga can drop you off in Machachi ($1.50, 1 hour) which is the city closest to the park or directly at the intersection to the park entrance. Bus also stop at this intersection to come back to Quito or Latacunga
Buses leave from Machachi's parque central several times a day to go to Santa Ana del Pedregal ($0.60, 1 hr), the village closest to the park.
There is no public transport option to get into the park but taxis can be readily hired in Machachi for that purpose ($35 to the trail head leading to the refugio) or directly at the intersection to the park entrance where 4WD are waiting clients ($40 four the round trip to the trail head with a stop at the Laguna Limpiopungo).
By day-tour from Quito or Latacunga
Various companies provide day-tour from Quito or Latacunga that drive you to a car park that is a 45-60 minute hike to the hut. Some tours provide mountain bikes so that you can ride from the car park to the main gate. An example price would be $85 per person for a 2-person tour (Jan 2018), less per person for larger groups.
Fees and permits
There are no permits required or fees charged to enter the park or to stay overnight however the park entry must be done between 8:00AM and 3:00PM. By law, Cotopaxi's summit can not be climbed without a registered guide.
- 1 Cotopaxi Museum and Visitor Center. 08:00-16:00 (closed 12:00-13:00). A small museum featuring a collection of stuffed wildlife (including an Andean condor), a relief map of the volcano, and some explanatory material.
- Inca ruins (Pucara del Salitre) (located in the southeast of the park). These are the ruins of an Inca military fortress used to control passage of armies and goods to the surrounding areas. It was discovered in 1987 by Ecuadorian archeologists.
- 2 Limpiopungo Lagoon. A large lagoon at an elevation of 3,850 m (12,500 ft), probably left over from glacial activity, is a good place for panoramic views of Cotopaxi and nearby Rumiñahui, as well as seagulls and occasional condors. You can also camp here (no facilities) and climb Rumiñahui in the morning. About $25 for a taxi from Machachi.
- 1 Climb Cotopaxi. The refugio at 4800 m (16,000 ft) usually provides beds, meals, and hot drinks, it is only allowed to climb to the top with an accredited high altitude guide. However, as of February 2023 climbing to the summit is prohibited. Apart from the altitude and the glacial conditions, climbing Cotopaxi is considered relatively easy. Naturally it still requires a high level of fitness and acclimatization to the altitude. Climbers usually start their ascent at 22:00 and summit at about 06:00. Many tour operators can put you in contact with a qualified guide and also rent out the required equipment. The hike to the refugio is a popular day trip and can probably be done without a guide. Carlos (email@example.com, +593 980550187, from $15 per person) is a knowledgeable local guide (who also provides transportation to the start of the trail.)
- 2 Climb Rumiñahui Volcano. Rumiñahui has three summits, the northwestern summit (4,490 m), the northern summit (4,721 m), and the central summit (4,630 m). Of these, the central one is probably the easiest to summit. However, the final part (about 300 m) requires you to go up a very steep field of gravel and dirt which, especially because of the altitude, can be very exhausting. The rest of the hike is quite easy physically but since the track is completely unmarked and often invisible, it can be advisable to bring a GPS and a good map (e.g., openstreetmap.org) or hire a guide (Henri is an experienced local guide +593 991102414, from $15 per person including transportation). Several trails lead up to Rumiñahui (central and norte). The most popular one starts at the Laguna de Limpiupungo (not accessible by public transportation) at about 3,900 m where you could also pitch a tent on the night before your ascent (see below.) Another trail starts in Santa Ana del Pedregal following the main road from the center of town (where the playground and the pitch is) about 400 m towards Machachi. Going through the gates of the hacienda there, you get on a road that you follow up for about 2 km where you get to a locked gate. Hikers are apparently permitted to jump across the gate. Follow the road for another 2 km where it turns into a trail (everything up to here could easily be done with just a flashlight if you want to get an early start before sunrise.) The trail (that is sometimes invisible) now goes along a fence (on your left) and ends at a cliff. Here you could get up on the cliff from the west and walk on top of it. However, if you don't want to break your neck, you might decide that this cliff is too high, and the path on top too slippery and inclined to do without additional gear. Instead you can search for the trail that takes you down into the valley where you can cross going south. The entire valley is covered by a shallow layer of water, so be prepared to get your feet wet. A small path at the southern end of the valley takes you up to the trail described in the following. Yet another trail starts in Santa Ana del Pedregal from the Hacienda del Porvenir (about 400 m from the main square on the smaller road that goes south east). Once you find your way into the hacienda somehow (they sometimes charge $3 for crossing their property) follow the twisting and turning trails through the hacienda to get to its southern end. Follow the road for about 1.4 km until you get to a trench that you cross. Follow the trench east until you get to the southern gates of the hacienda. There follow the road south where eventually you pass by some ruins (that's where the trail from the previous section joins.) A trail takes you up to a ridge which you need to pull yourself up to. Following the ridge you eventually get to a fork where the trail to the northern summit leaves. Following the other trail (which now stays at the same altitude) you eventually get to a field of dirt and rocks that you climb up to the central summit. Free.
- Explore the park on horseback or mountain bike. The park is a mountain biking paradise. However, you need to hire the bikes in advance as there are none available within the park. Be sure you test the bike (brakes, gears) before going downhill: rental bikes are not always well maintained. If you want to explore the park on horseback, horses (and guides) can be found in Santa Ana del Pedregal.
You can eat at the refugio on the hike up Cotopaxi.
Water at the refuge is polluted by the ashes (Feb 2023), and should not be consumed
|This guide uses the following price ranges for a guest:|
|Budget||Under $20 per night|
|Mid-range||$20-80 per night|
|Splurge||Over $80 per night|
Most options are outside of the park limits. Only the Refugio and Tambopaxi are within the park.
There are, as of early 2017, no budget hostels or hotels in the area.
- 1 Camp in Santa Ana del Pedregal. You can pitch a tent in the playground of the main square for the night. Because of the altitude the temperatures get close to freezing at night. Free.
- Camp at Area Nacional de Recreación El Boliche.
- Camp within the park. There are several campsites without facilities within the park. Free.
- 2 Refugio José E. Rivas, ☏ . The hut is located about half way up Cotopaxi from surrounding elevation and provides temporary and overnight housing for those planning to summit Cotopaxi. Meals are provided and guides are required. Visitors who climb to the hut from the parking lot for a short visit can also find water and snacks here. Dorm $30 with dinner and breakfast included. Hot chocolate $2 and lunch $12..
- Tambopaxi, ☏ . A popular option with climbers. Access to the Refugio on the way to the summit is easy from here. Camping $16, dorm $22, double $117.
- Secret Garden Cotopaxi, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. A hostel an hour's drive away from Cotopaxi. There is $5 shuttle with the Secret Garden hostel in Quito. Though quite pricey by Ecuadorian standards, the place is said to pay and treat their employees badly. Dorm $38, double from $76 (includes three meals).
All inclusive lodging is available at several quite luxurious haciendas near the park limits.
- Tierra del Volcan/Hacienda El Porvenir, ☏ . A traditional working hacienda that offers accommodation, restaurant and a good variety of adventure activities, plus guided tours within the park. Double from $93.
Cotopaxi is an active volcano. It last erupted from August 2015 to January 2016.
- Quito is just a short bus ride north from the city of Machachi.
- Latacunga in the south is the access point for the Quilotoa Loop.