Hiking to Cotopaxi Volcano refugio: higher than a skydive
My highest skydive is 14,000 and now I can say the highest I have stood on earth is 15,953 feet high. An unique achievement which is thanks to my visit to Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador.
We visited Cotopaxi during our G Adventures tour in Ecuador. I would highly recommend a visit if you are ever in that area of Ecuador. The volcano is often active (one of the most active in Ecuador in fact) and it was recently closed to visitors from April 2015 to January 2016. What does this mean? Get your butt there before it erupts again.
Need more reasons? Cotopaxi Volcano is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world with the summit at 19,347 feet above sea level. If you are relatively fit, it is accessible to do the hike to the base camp at 15,953 feet. Cotopaxi at its towering height also boasts one the few equatorial glaciers worldwide. It is fascinating being at the equator while also standing beside a glacier.
Convinced yet? Cotopaxi National Park is situated high above the rest of Ecuador, so visitors get the unique experience of driving out of the typical Ecuadorian vegetation into pine forest. Not what you would expect in Ecuador!
While we drove out of the pine forest and neared Cotopaxi, we emerged into the barren valleys created from lava and mud flows. There was an other-wordly feel about this area, like landing on another planet. The mist and clouds from being at high elevation added to the feel.
We arrived at the base camp parking about 30 minutes after passing through the main gates. The hike took us about 45 minutes at a slow pace, but due to breathing at the high altitude, this time is apparently typical. We took regular breaks as we trekked up the volcano. It was cold, wet and sleeting when we arrived. I will admit to initially being concerned about the cold, but we warmed up fast – dress in layers.
It was a surreal experience hiking through the clouds. We were rewarded by emerging to clear skies near the base camp with a beautiful view of the summit of Cotopaxi above. The base camp has a small shop that sells tasty hot chocolate to help with altitude sickness. They also stamp your passport with a Cotopaxi stamp if you bring it. Unfortunately we didn’t know, so stamped our hands instead and took home a neat wooden container with the stamp as a souvenir.
The trek down was easy in comparison; we almost skied down in the deep volcanic earth. We appeared below the clouds to find the parking lot in deep mist. An amazing experience, as the sense of accomplishment at the base camp made this one of the most memorable parts of our Ecuador trip.
Tips for visiting Cotopaxi National Park:
- No public buses enter the park; you have to drive, cab or take a tour in.
- Note: sometimes the park will not let foreigners enter without a guide.
- Climbing at altitude is hard! Don’t get discouraged and take many breaks.
- A second trail to the left of the parking lot has switchbacks and is a bit easier hike.
- It is really cold, so bring a warm coat and dress in layers.
- It is usually cloudy, so you might not always see the top of Cotopaxi. The clouds do move regularly with the wind, but this is the gamble you take.
- Early morning visits are best to avoid the clouds.
- Bring proper footwear for hiking
- Bring a passport! That stamp is worth it.
Other Ecuador posts: