Hiking Cotopaxi: Broke Backpacker Edition

In Ecuador
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Whether you’re in mainland Ecuador for a number of weeks or only for a few days on a stopover to the Galapagos Islands, it is likely that you will look at visiting the Cotopaxi Volcano. Standing at 5897m, it is one of the world’s tallest volcanoes.

Cotopaxi is famous for two reasons:

  1. Cotopaxi has an almost perfect conical shape, which makes it a photo-perfect volcano, as well as quite an easy hike (considering the altitude).
  2. Its proximity to Quito. It’s only about 50km South of the capital, which means that a day trip is a very realistic option even for those who have a quick few days in Ecuador.

There are many hiking (and climbing) tours offered by tour agencies, hotels and hostels, ranging from $30 to over $60 USD (October 2017). However, if you’re a backpacker on a budget, paying this much for a one day tour in Ecuador can seem a little ridiculous… Thankfully, Cotopaxi National Park is just off the main highway in Ecuador (the Panamerican), which means that getting there by public transport is easy-peasy (and cheap)!

Volcan Cotopaxi on a beautiful clear day

Get to the Park Entrance

Whether you’re staying in Quito or Latacunga (check out the 3-4 day Quilotoa Loop trek if you are there), you can catch an intercity bus to get to the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park.

From the South Terminal in Quito, catch any bus that goes South (Latacunga, Ambato, Banos, Cuenca). You can confirm with the driver that it goes past Cotopaxi National Park – ask for “entrada del Park Nacional Cotopaxi”. It shouldn’t cost you more than a few dollars. From Latacunga, catch one of the many buses going to Quito. Again, it’ll be a couple of bucks ($1.50 in October 2017).

Getting up to the Parking Lot

Once the bus stops in front of the park entrance, you’ll see a bunch of white and green pickup truck taxis offering you a ride/guide service. They ask for $20 per person, but you can bargain and get it down to $5-$10 if it’s just the taxi service without a guide.

If you aren’t in the mood to pay for an overpriced taxi, just smile and walk past them with your usual “no, gracias”. It’s not very difficult to find the park entrance – it’s where all the cars/taxis are going. If you didn’t get a taxi, this is where you’ll have to stick your thumb out and hitchhike.

The road once you get into the National Park

Once you get a ride, they’ll probably take you to the actual entrance to the park, where you have to register. The park opens at 8 am, so there’s no need to aim to be there before this time. You will need your passport (or at least remember the number of your passport). It’s actually nice that they do this – in case weather conditions change dramatically and you end up getting lost somewhere on the mountain, they’ll be able to look for you. But then again, when you leave the park, you don’t have to check out, so it’s not really obvious how they would know who to send a search party for…

Once you register, there’s still about a 35km trek to the parking lot, which stands at around 4500m above sea level. It’s really not difficult to hitch a ride here since everyone is a traveler – we saw both local Ecuadorian families and gringo drivers – and super nice. Just make sure you don’t try asking one of the guides/taxis for a ride. They might tell you to get in but in the end, ask you to pay!

There’s really not much else to it – whoever picked you up is definitely driving all the way up to the parking lot, since there is only one road. There is a lagoon at the bottom of the mountain, but most people choose to go there after going up the volcano (if at all – it’s not that exciting really).

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The Hike Itself

Once you’re at the carpark (4500m), you can start hiking up to the refuge, which stands at 4800m above sea level. It’s not a difficult hike, but the ground is made of volcanic sand and lava rocks, so you do slide down a lot. Moreover, you should be acclimatized to the altitude, otherwise, you’ll find yourself breathless after just a few steps.

When you get to the refuge, there are options to have a tea or coffee or some food. However, it is very overpriced, so it is advisable to pack a sandwich or some trail mix, and make sure to bring enough water.

After the refuge, it’s another while before you get to the glacier bottom. This is at 5000m altitude, and if you want to go beyond this point, you need some ice climbing equipment, a guide, as well as some experience under your belt. However, hiking to the glacier at the 5000m mark is enough for most people, and if you’re lucky with the weather, you might see a beautiful view. The hike up is around 2km and should take less than 2 hours.

The one advantage of going up Cotopaxi on a terrible day was this rainbow

Weather on Cotopaxi

The one piece of advice I can give you is to choose the day you hike Cotopaxi wisely! If you can’t see the volcano from the Panamerican Highway, you probably don’t want to be hiking up there. When it’s misty at the foot of the volcano, it’s definitely even mistier up there and you not only won’t get a view from the top, but might not be able to see where you’re going at all.

Another issue would be the wind. It does get pretty cold up at an altitude of 5000m, and very windy. If it’s misty and windy at the same time, it’s the same as rain, so prepare to get soaked from head to toe. Waterproof jackets and pants are recommended.

However, hiking this volcano on a clear day will be a wonderful experience. You’ll get to the glacier and find yourself overlooking volcanic mountains and green valleys, many of which are covered with agricultural fields, adding a nice morphed checkered pattern to the Andean mountains.

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