Cotopaxi National Park: The Ultimate Guide to Hiking, Wildlife and More

Cotopaxi National Park Ecuador

The Cotopaxi volcano is a one-of-a-kind, nearly flawless snow cone that towers 5,897 meters above sea level. It is Ecuador’s most iconic peak and the second-tallest mountain in the country. For generations, climbers and visitors have been drawn to Cotopaxi, and the surrounding area is ideal for adventure and wildlife viewing.

Driving by Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

Cotopaxi Volcano

You should not miss the chance to visit Cotopaxi when you are traveling to Ecuador! This article will provide you with a detailed guide on everything you have to know before visiting Cotopaxi.

Be prepared for high-altitude sickness. Even though we were taking ChlorOxygen before the trip which saved us in Quito, Cotopaxi is the whole new level since it’s located at 5000 meters point. We were able to finish the hike though which would not be possible without ChlorOxygen.

You can also check it on my video during our road trip in Ecuador (video starts from the timecode with Cotopaxi day):

How to Get to Cotopaxi National Park

Parking lot by Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

Parking lot by Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi National Park is only 48 kilometers from Quito, making it an ideal day trip from the capital — but with so much to see and do, you may want to stay overnight if you visit at the appropriate time.

It is simple to go to Cotopaxi National Park from Quito. Although there is no public transportation into the park, it is easily accessible by private car. Simply travel south on the Panamerican Highway from Quito, and you’ll pass right by the main park gate.

But, the most convenient way to go there, particularly for foreign tourists, is by booking a private tour. There are several tour operators who offer guided tours to Cotopaxi National Park. You can easily choose what is the most suitable for you according to your travel needs.

We rented a car for our 15-day Ecuadorian adventure and explored Cotopaxi National Park on our own, so you might consider it as an option.

Cotopaxi National Park Entrance

Registration at Cotopoxi national park, Ecuador

There are two ways to enter the park. Most tourists enter through the Panamerican Highway’s main southwest gate so did we. Another option is by going through the north gate, which can be accessed by following the Pito River Canyon from Sangolqui in Quito’s valley region. There is no admission cost, but visitors must register with a ranger at the park’s gate.

Cotopaxi National Park Trails

One of the trails at Cotopaxi National Park

The ascent launch to Cotopaxi peak is about an 80-minute trek up the mountain’s base. There is an area to rest and prepare before the overnight ascent. The journey up the mountain takes around 6 hours, with most hikers leaving about 12:30 a.m. and arriving at the peak around 7:30 a.m.

The climb to the Cotopaxi peak is not technical, but it is still difficult. The elevation shift frequently prevents climbers from finishing the ascent due to acclimatization issues. Approximately half of those who attempted to reach the summit are successful.

There are three trails in Cotopaxi National Park, namely:

  • Cotopaxi Trail
  • Cerro Ruminahui Trail
  • Laguna Limpiopungo Trail

Cotopaxi Trail

Official sign for Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi trail is a difficult-rated path with an elevation gain of 4,140 feet (1,261 meters) over 4.5 miles (7.24 km). The good news is that the return trip is downhill.

Red eruption at Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

The trail follows the face of Cotopaxi all the way to the Base Camp location. Many people just make this trek rather than the entire ascent to the peak. It’s a fantastic way to view and experience the mountain.

Cerro Ruminahui Trail

Another view at Laguna de Limpiopungo at Cotopaxi national park

Laguna de Limpiopungo

Because of the terrain and altitude rise, this is another challenging trek. The 7.1-mile (11.4-kilometer) walk to the peak provides panoramic views of the country below as well as views of a lake along the way. It has a 2,828-foot elevation gain (862 m).

Laguna Limpiopungo Trail

Start of the Laguna Limpiopunga trail in Cotopaxi national park in Ecuador

Laguna Limpiopungo trail is a 1.6-mile (2.6-kilometer) route that meanders around the lake, offering views of Cotopaxi as well as potential views of migrating fowls that use the lake.

Where to Stay in Cotopaxi National Park


Camping has grown more difficult following the Cotopaxi eruptions in 2015 and 2016, and it is now forbidden whenever the volcano displays symptoms of activity. If you intend to camp within Cotopaxi National Park, you should stick to specified places — ask the park guides at the gate which sites are permissible at the moment. You should be also aware of possible fees for overnight stays.

Just a few kilometers north of the park, you can also check out Hacienda El Porvenir and Hacienda Santa Rita which offer camping facilities.

Hotels and Lodges

Photos of Hacienda Los Mortiños and Secret Garden hotels near Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador

There are many lodging choices right outside the Cotopaxi National Park. Some of the roads leading to them are unpaved and so uneven, making for a rough ride – but the journey to the haciendas is part of the thrill. Hotel Cuello de Luna, Rondador Cotopaxi, and Hacienda San Agustin de Callo are also good choices near the park’s south gate (El Chasqui).

Chilcabamba Lodge and the Secret Garden Cotopaxi, on the other hand, are two lodging accommodations closer to the north entrance (El Pedegral village). Tambopaxi which is located at the base of the Cotopaxi volcano is the only lodging inside the boundaries of the park.

Things to Do in Cotopaxi National Park

Explore the Perimeter of Laguna Limpiopungo

View to Laguna Limpiopungo

Laguna Limpiopungo is a seasonal lake in Cotopaxi National park that fills up during the rainy season. It is home to breeding Andean gulls, which may be seen whenever you visit, as well as hummingbirds, which can be viewed throughout the 90-minute walking track. The views of the volcano from Limpiopungo are spectacular on a clear day.

Hike to the Summit of Cotopaxi

Peak of the Cotopaxi volcano

Hiking to the glacier and Cotopaxi peak has reopened following the two-year suspension of all climbing activities after the August 2015 eruption of Cotopaxi volcano. Still, if you intend to go to the top, check to see if it’s open before you arrive, as it depends on the intensity of volcanic activity at the time of your visit.

Hiking to the top of Cotopaxi volcano

The ascent is hard and should be attempted only when you’ve properly acclimatized to the altitude. There are various paths to choose from, all of which begin at the José Ribas refuge. Make sure you have all of the necessary equipment and layers. It is strongly advised to go with an experienced local guide. If the weather is clear, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views after you reach the summit. We were completely satisfied by reaching José Ribas refuge. Just look at that:

View of the valley from Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

If you don’t want to hike to the top, just getting to the refuge at 4,800m (15,748ft) above sea level is an incredible experience.

At the refuge on Cotopaxi trail

Horseback Riding

The wild horses of Cotopaxi frequently graze near the trail’s finish, and there are several businesses that provide horseback riding trips in the vicinity.

Riding a horse is the ideal way to explore the parklands with locals since the Cotopaxi region has a long history of involvement with the chagra tradition – poncho-wearing Ecuadorian cowboys with honed riding skills. 

Horseback riding experiences of varied lengths are available at haciendas such as El Porvenir Cotopaxi. Alternatively, a multi-day riding excursion via La Alegria horse farm is available.

Mountain Biking

My wife and I are biking at Cotopaxi National park in Ecuador


Another favorite Cotopaxi adventure is mountain cycling. Mountain biking tours are available in Cotopaxi National Park. Most start at the José Ribas refuge trailhead and proceed straight down the mountain on the winding, gravel route. Others get to Laguna Limpiopungo via the main road. 

Traveling by bike rather than driving in Cotopaxi is an exciting experience that allows you to see more wild horses and the gorgeous Ecuadorian hill star hummingbird, with its vibrant purple head and sparkling white chest.

Spotting Wildlife 

Wild horses in Cotopaxi National park Ecuador

Deer, llamas, wild horses, and rabbits are among of the more regular animal sightings in Cotopaxi National Park. Shy animals such as pumas, Andean bears, and Andean foxes are inherently more difficult to encounter.

Andean fox at Cotopaxi National Park

The area around Limpiopungo Lake is ideal for birdwatchers looking for wading and coastal birds. Hummingbirds flutter amongst orange Chuquiragua blossoms.

You should watch out for raptors like the Carunculated Caracara throughout the remainder of the park. On rare occasions, you may even have a chance to get a glimpse of an Andean Condor.

Discover Plants and Nature

Plants in Cotopaxi National Park

You will definitely feel reconnected to nature when you are in Cotopaxi. The National Park’s Andean Paramo habitat is exposed and hard for plantlife, yet there are lots of intriguing flora species if you know where to look.

The most frequent plant that you will spot is tough straw-like grass that may be found almost anywhere on the wide plains. Mosses, lichens, and little Andean flowers also thrive in this environment.

Weather in Cotopaxi National Park

Rainy and sunny at the same time in Cotopaxi National park

The weather is always chilly and unpredictable at high heights in the Andes. The average temperature at Cotopaxi Park is 6 degrees Celsius, dipping to -4 at night. During our hike to the Cotopaxi volcano, the weather was changing drastically every minute.

Hiking in rainy cloud during our hike at Cotopaxi National park

If you are planning to visit Cotopaxi, you should be prepared for four seasons in one day: a blazing sun, a chilly wind that stings, and a decent chance of rain or sometimes even icy hail. While the weather prediction may appear dreary, this factor really contributes to the habitat’s richness in unique plants and wildlife.

You don’t have to worry, though, because most overnight lodgings provide open fires and thick ponchos to keep you warm in the cold temperatures.

Travel Tips When Traveling to Cotopaxi 

Traveling to Cotopaxi needs well preparation. So, we are sharing you some tips that will be helpful to you before your trip to Cotopaxi.

  • Get to the park as early as possible to enhance your chances of seeing bright sky and stunning views of the volcano. It’s also preferable to go during regular week and avoid popular public holidays.
  • Prepare your weather gear. Cold weather clothing, such as gloves and a wooly cap, as well as rain gear and thick layers, are suggested to keep the cold at bay. A nice pair of walking boots are also essential. Sunglasses and high-factor suncream are always necessary to avoid sunburn, even on cloudy days.
  • Bring plenty of water and energy foods to keep you going during your tour.
  • There is no admission cost, but visitors must register with a ranger at the park’s gate.
  • To avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness, drink plenty of water. We also took ChlorOxygen two weeks before the trip which extremely helped us. Bring necessary medications that can help you in case of sickness. 
  • Bring your own snacks or enjoy a meal at the volcanic refuge house for lunch. Do not expect much for the meal, we paid for this $15:

Snacks at the top of Cotopaxi Volcano

  • Camping is permitted in the reserve, however, evenings are sometimes brutally cold.
  • Pets are not allowed inside the park.

It is also important to keep in mind that Cotopaxi National Park is a protected area. The Ecuadorians are working to keep the park serene and maintain its natural beauty.  Always cooperate and follow the rules and regulations in the park.

In my opinion, Cotopaxi National park is a must-visit place in Ecuador.

About the author

Oleg Galeev

I'm Oleg, and together with my wife, we've explored Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, journeying through more than 20 cities (Quito, Cuenca, Banos, Tena, Puyo, Guayaquil, Riobamba, Otavalo, Mindo and more) and nearly every island in the Galapagos (including iconic ones such as Bartolome Island, San Cristobal Island, Isabela Island, Santa Cruz Island and more). In this blog, I give you my real thoughts about each place we visited. This info can help anyone planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands or mainland Ecuador. I'm just a traveler, not a tour company, so I'm not trying to sell anything. That means I'll tell you the truth—both the good and the bad — about traveling in Ecuador based on what we experienced.

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