I’m a mountain girl. I guess that’s why I ended up in the Andes of Ecuador.
When I had the opportunity to visit Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second tallest active volcano at 19,347 feet, (the first is Chimborazo), I grabbed it. I’m a hiker, but not a mountain climber, so this first visit was to check out the lay of the land.
Cotopaxi is one of the most beautiful sites in Ecuador. Its nearly perfect cone is perennially snowcapped. Often, people flying into Quito can see it peeking above the clouds. On clear, sunny days, Quiteños can see it from many vantage points on the ground. Its name is believed to come from the indigenous Quechua language meaning “neck of the moon.”
Time out for a quick geology lesson.
Cotopaxi is among the most powerful of four volcano categories. It’s a stratovolcano, (or composite volcano) composed of layers of hardened lava, tephra, and volcanic ash. These volcanoes are characterized by a steep profile and periodic, explosive eruptions. The lava that flows from them is highly viscous, and cools and hardens before spreading very far. The three other types are cinder cones, shield volcanoes and lava domes.
Since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times, resulting in the creation of numerous valleys formed by mudflows around the volcano. It’s the world’s fifth highest active volcano. The last eruption lasted from August 2015 to January 2016. The park was closed to climbing until the fall of that year.
Just 31 miles south of Quito, Cotopaxi is the centerpiece of its own national park.
Our family of five was taken there by Amanda Mena of EcuaTouring (our favored driver anytime we visit Quito). Our first stop was Limpiopungo (clean door) laguna, at the foot of the extinct Rumiñahui volcano. Ruminahui – Stone Face, named after the last indigenous warrior to resist the Spanish invasion – towers 15,489 feet within the park. There is an easy hiking path around the lake with spots to stop and observe the wildlife. We were lucky to see a number of birds, including the liplig, Andean ducks and coots.
Back in the car over washboard dirt roads, we left the lagoon just in time to see some wild ponies leisurely feeding on the vast, open grassland. Next stop: Hosteria Tambopaxi, the only hotel inside Cotopaxi National Park. The hotel has a great restaurant, rooms and camping areas. But we came for the horseback riding.
Tambopaxi offers guided rides of two to eight hours across the páramo – the alpine, treeless plateau at the foot of Cotopaxi. Though we were between rain showers and promised more precipitation, we were all in. Once saddled and on our way, we had time to enjoy the vast rocky landscape, pitted with lava and multi layered sedimentary rock.
The ride was well worth our time, on well-mannered and able horses matched to our abilities.
Once back at the stable, with the skies threatening to split once again, we headed for the restaurant. There we were treated to a variety of delicious dishes, including maracuya, or passion fruit, chicken, and herb-crusted trucha, or trout.
Finally, it was time to drive to the summit trailhead. With the parking area at 14, 760 feet, the air was noticeably thinner – and colder. The trail leads to the José Ribas refuge, just another 1,000 feet higher. Also known as “base camp,” the refuge is just an hour’s walk, but at that altitude can be challenging. Mountain climbers seeking to summit the peak often overnight at the refuge before tackling the ascent.
If you can catch Cotopaxi on a sunny day, the view from this point is staggering. Seemingly still rising miles above you, it is ethereal. Its peak seems painted white, so picturesquely snow-capped it looks like a luscious desert. There are always clouds, but if you wait long enough, they move quickly to give peeks and glimpses that astound.
Cotopaxi is well worth a visit, and easy to get to on public transportation or by taxi. 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. Buses also stop at this intersection to come back to Quito or Latacunga.
Of course, since there is no public transportation within the park, you’ll need to hire a taxi. Instead, take my recommendation and hire the English-speaking guides from EcuaTouring.
Don’t miss it!