Otavalo is a town in the Andean highlands in the Imbabura province of northern Ecuador. It’s surrounded by volcanoes including and the most amazing landscape
Cotopaxi Volcano | Our independent traveller’s Guide
Cotopaxi volcano is probably the most iconic emblem of Ecuador and one of the most recognisable mountains in South America, if not the world. So with that in mind you would think it would be hard to visit and expensive. You may be surprised to learn that this is not the case. With a little know how and some co-ordination you can get up close with the snow capped giant relatively cheaply.
How high is Cotopaxi Volcano?
At 5897 metres Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world and one of the easiest to summit, we believe, although that’s not for us. This guide will help you to get to the national park and climb to the refuge at just under 4864m. If you’re fit enough you may also have time to reach the base of the glacier at over 5000m
Where is Cotopaxi Volcano located?
On a clear day Cotopaxi can be seen from Latagunga and from Quito. It is one of the most prominent peaks on the Avenue of volcanoes that runs down the spine of Ecuador. It last erupted in 2015 and is believed to have erupted eighty seven times, two of these eruptions having levelled Latagunga, the closest major city in 1744 and 1768.
Where is the best place to stay to visit Cotopaxi Volcano?
Cotopaxi National park entrance sits just off the Pan American Highway about 70km from Quito and 30km from Latacunga. We used Latacunga as our base to do the Quilotoa Loop so it was an obvious choice for us to also do Cotopaxi from here. If you’re not doing the loop you can just as easily do the Cotopaxi Volcano visit from Quito. It just takes slightly longer to get there due to the distance.
We were recommended a hostal in Latacunga to use as a base. Hospedaje la Posada del Viajero. It is not the prettiest of hostels you’ll ever stay at but it’s in a handy area of town. The owner used to be a guide and keeps up with all the current information about the local area. It’s quite comfortable and clean and a really good price. It looks a little shabby and doesn’t give a good first impression but we found it very comfortable once we got past this and the information we received from the owner was invaluable.
How do you get to Cotopaxi National Park?
The cheapest way to get to the national park and visit Cotopaxi Volcano is to catch the bus. The bus runs between Quito and Latacunga, so if you’re staying in Latacunga you need to head to the bus terminal and get the bus headed towards Quito. Ask the bus driver or attendant to drop you off at the Cotopaxi Volcano National Park entrance. You should be able to walk to the bus terminal from the centre of town then the bus should be about $3 to the park entrance.
If you’re coming in the opposite direction it’s the same process but in reverse. You will need to catch the bus heading to Latacunga and get dropped off at the same junction. The buses south that pass Cotopaxi Volcano run from Quito south bus terminal which is quite a bit out of town. You’ll need to get a taxi from the centre and it costs about $10 then take the bus to the park entrance which should be about $3 more.
Once you’re safely off the bus you should be able to see a row of waiting pick up trucks. This is how you get into the park. From here it’s about thirty kilometres to the Cotopaxi Volcano and they will ask for $80 for the entire truck. We had teamed up with another couple from the hostal to reduce the cost so even if you don’t want to do the bargaining that get the cost down to $20 per person as apposed to the $50 it would cost you for an organised tour.
Luckily we managed to get the cost down to $50 for the four of us quite easily and I’m told they will except $40 if your a hard bargainer. We were happy with the price we got which including the bus worked out at around $15 per person. For this you get the driver only and you will self guide. It’s not a difficult task there nothing really to necessitate a guide.
What to expect in the national park of Cotopaxi Volcano?
Now you have your wheels it should be all plain sailing the driver will do the rest. You will need a photo of your passport for the registration which your driver takes care of. You then get driven to the park entrance where the driver again takes care of the formalities while you sit in the pick up. He will then remind you that you are self guided and that it is your responsibility to take care of yourself while in the park.
At this point we were thinking there’s no chance we are going to see the classic image of Cotopaxi through all this mist. We only had the one day to visit and we had resigned ourselves to being unlucky with the weather. Seemingly this is how it always is. The best time to visit is between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon to get the best chance of clear weather, we were they at the right time so we should get the views.
The first stop is the lake, now the lake is not much more than a puddle at the moment it’s been shrinking for quite some time. You only get about fifteen minutes here to take some photos and have a quick look round. When we were here it was very windy so no classic reflection shots. You do have the chance to see birds, horses and the wild Llamas then you’re back in the pick up to head for Cotopaxi Volcano itself.
How to hike to the refuge on Cotopaxi Volcano?
The pick up will drop you off at the start of the hike. Here you will get two hours and two choices. There is a zig zag path to the left or you can walk straight up. If it’s windy the walk straight up is more sheltered than the zig zag path but it’s steeper and harder to manage especially if your not accustomed to the altitude.
It’s not a long hike just over 500m but with the thin air it seems a lot further. Once you’re at the refuge you can get refreshments and if you’ve time can walk beyond to the glacier although they do recommend not doing this unguided. We didn’t have enough of our two hours left to do this so we just made do with the views from the cafe with a warm cup of hot chocolate.
The walk back down is much easier although you still need to watch your footing in the loose sand. We again took the direct route to stay out of the wind which took us less than twenty minutes to negotiate. Your driver will then take you back to the road junction. The whole experience took less than four hours from start to finish. Watch out for wildlife while in the pick up and ask your driver to stop if you see something interesting or want to take pictures. We were lucky enough to spot a fox or wild wolf as the driver explained.
How to get back to Latacunga from Cotopaxi Volcano?
As far as I know all the buses heading in the opposite direction to Quito drop you off at the same terminal you set off from which will then require a taxi ride to your accommodation.
If you’re passing you can do this four hour independent tour on your way through without having to book accommodation just get dropped off at the entrance visit the park then catch the bus to continue your journey. If your doing the Quilotoa Loop then you may as well base yourself in Latacunga and do Cotopaxi Volcano the day before as we did. Either way it’s a great adventure and much more fun and cheaper than an organised tour. The views of the volcano on a clear day are breathtaking and well worth the visit.
Booking resources for your visit to Cotopaxi National Park
Tours & Tickets
You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site. Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.
For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.
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