A Guide to Visiting Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador

You can’t visit Ecuador without visiting Cotopaxi National Park. Second only to the Galapagos, Cotopaxi is the most popular natural attraction in Ecuador.

This stunning landscape is filled with volcanoes, high-altitude lakes, lush grasslands, pristine glaciers, and intimidating snowcapped peaks—all within a short 2 hour drive from Quito.

It’s no wonder a trip to Cotopaxi is one of the best day trips from Quito!

Whether you’re on a stopover in Quito or exploring the Norther Ecuadorian Andes, Cotopaxi National Park is an essential park of any Ecuador itinerary.

Keep reading for a full breakdown on the best things to do in Cotopaxi National Park, how to get there, and if you can visit without a tour guide + more.

Guides to help you plan your trip:

Ecuador 2-Week Itinerary: The Ultimate Travel Guide

19 Important Things to Know About Ecuador Before You Go

How to Use Google Maps to Plan Your Next Road Trip (Step-By-Step Tutorial With Examples)

 

What’s so special about Cotopaxi National Park (Parque Nacional Cotopaxi)?

The national park is 128.9 square miles (333.9 sq km) and filled with otherworldly landscapes like jagged mountains and volcanic ash fields.

But the main draw of Cotopaxi National Park is Cotopaxi Volcano (Volcán Cotopaxi). With a nearly symmetrical cone shape rising high over the páramo grasslands, Cotopaxi is THE most iconic peak in all of Ecuador and one of the most prominent volcanoes in Ecuador’s “Avenue of the Volcanoes” (Avenida de los Volcanes).

Standing at 5897m, Cotopaxi is among the world’s highest active volcanoes and one of only two stratovolcanoes in the world with  a nearly perfect cone shape that’s always covered in snow. The second one is Mount Fuji in Japan.

View of Cotopaxi Volcano (Volcan Cotopaxi) as seen from the North Entrance to Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi is also one of the highest points on Earth, due to a bulge in the equator. Which means that when you hike on Cotopaxi, you’re at the farthest point away from the center of earth, or the closest point to outer space!

Inside the park, there are several different vegetation zones, including humid Mountain Forest, Rainy Andean tundra, the paramo grasslands, and the snow zone on top of Cotopaxi. The park also protects a variety of unique plants and animals endemic to this part of Ecuador, including the rare Andean speckled bear.

Other volcanoes in the area are Rumiñahui, Quilindaña and Sincholagua.

View of Rumiñahui Volcano on the way to Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador

Cultural Significance of Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi has a great deal of cultural significance as it’s been a sacred mountain among local Andean people since before the 15th century.

Theres speculation that the name “Cotopaxi” is derived from ancient indigenous languages and translates to “the Neck of the Moon”. It seems like this translation hasn’t been confirmed, though.

For many generations, Cotopaxi was worshipped as a “rain giver” and house of the gods. It’s still commonly depicted in traditional paintings by the Indigenous artists in the village of Tigua, who are renowned for their colorful paintings of rural life.

A stop at the art galleries in Tigua is part of this 2 week Ecuador road trip itinerary!

Cotopaxi volcano eruptions

Cotopaxi is a very active stratovolcano and has erupted over 85 times since 1534, producing both ash explosions and pyroclastic flows. The last eruption happened in August 2015 and lasted until January 2016.

Cotopaxi’s eruptions are particularly dangerous because they can melt the snow and ice on the summit, causing an enormous flow of water and volcanic debris, called lahars. Historically, the lahars wiped out entire valleys and even reached all the way to the Amazon basin.

So, with all of this in mind, you might be wondering: Is it safe to visit Cotopaxi?

Yes, it is safe to visit Cotopaxi because it is one of the most closely monitored volcanoes in the world. Volcanic activity is closely monitored by permanent seismic stations installed near the volcano and sometimes tours will be cancelled due to chances of an eruption.

Where is Cotopaxi National Park and how to get there

Cotopaxi National Park is about 50 km (31 mi) south of Quito, and 33 km (21 mi) northeast of the city of Latacunga, in the Cordillera of the Andes Mountains.

The park is located between the towns of Machachi and Latacunga off the Pan-American Highway (E35). The park boundaries extend into the Cotopaxi, Pichincha and Napo provinces.

Cotopaxi is part of the chain of roughly 450 volcanoes known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire encircles the Pacific Ocean from west coast of South America to the east coast of Asia, and includes other iconic volcanoes like Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica.

How to get to Cotopaxi National Park

There are two main entrances to Cotopaxi National Park:

  • The South Entrance (El Chasqui, control sur) near the town of Lasso off the Pan-American Highway
  • The North Entrance (El Pedregal, control norte) near Machachi in Quito’s valley area

Most people enter through the south entrance. While slightly farther from Quito, the roads are paved and very easy to access. This is also the closest entrance to the visitors center.

While the north entrance is much less popular, this is the entrance you need to use if you’re staying at lodges in Macachi, such as  Hacienda El Porvenir, Chilcabamba, or Tambopaxi.

There’s also a third entrance called El Boliche, which is the least used (and the most inconvenient) so we won’t cover that in this guide.

Driving to the North Entrance to Cotopaxi National Park near Machachi, Ecuador

How to get to Cotopaxi National Park by plane

The closest airport is Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre (UIO) in Quito.

Driving to Cotopaxi

By car, it takes about 2 hours to drive from Quito to Cotopaxi via the Panamerican Highway. The drive takes you through the city of Quito, into the suburbs, and then out into the rural areas south of Quito.

If the skies are extra clear, you’ll have a great view of Cotopaxi Volcano the entire way there!

To drive to the South Entrance, follow the Pan American Highway past Machachi until you see the signs for the southern entrance to Cotopaxi National Park. You’ll see the sign just before you reach the village of Lasso. If you reach Lasso, you’ve gone too far.

To enter through the North Entrance, take the exit for Machachi and follow signs for El Pedregal and Cotopaxi National Park. The roads here are mostly cobblestone and sometimes dirt. It’s not a comfortable drive if you have a small car, so you definitely want  a 4×4 or at least a high clearance 4×2.

Driving on cobblestone roads in Machachi, Ecuador

Taking the bus

Unfortunately, there is no public bus service that goes directly into Cotopaxi National Park.

To get to the south entrance, take the bus going from Quito to Latacunga and ask the bus driver to drop you off at the El Chasqui entrance of Cotopaxi National Park (the south entrance). From there, you can try to catch a lift or hire a taxi to take you to where you need to go inside the park.

Make sure to tell them exactly where you want to go inside the park. Otherwise they’ll just drop you off right at the park gate, which is several miles from any of the attractions.

To get to the north entrance, take the Carlos Brito bus from Quito’s main terminal into Machachi. Here, your best bet is to hire a taxi-truck in Machachi to give you a lift to your lodge. Expect to pay about $20-30 for the ride.

Overall, I don’t recommend taking the bus into the park (unless it’s to get to your lodge) because it’s such an inconvenience and everything is so spread out. It’s a lot easier, and probably cheaper, to just take the bus to wherever you’re staying and then hire a day tour from there.

Map of Cotopaxi National Park

Here’s a map if you’re looking for a map of Cotopaxi National Park. This one comes from Tambopaxi Lodge’s website. On this map, you can see the different entrances to Cotopaxi National Park, as well as neighboring towns Machachi and Lasso, and nearby volcanoes Rumiñahui and Sincholagua.

Map of Cotopaxi National Park and surrounding towns from Tambopaxi Lodge

Location map from Tambopaxi Cotopaxi Lodge

How To Visit Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador: Do I need a guide?

You may be wondering: Can you visit Cotopaxi National Park without a guide or do you need to book a tour? 

It is possible to visit Cotopaxi without a guide, as long as you have a suitable car. However, there are a few reasons why you might want to go with a guide, including if you don’t have a car or if you want to experience a more unique side of Cotopaxi.

More details for both options below.

Cotopaxi without a guide (self-guided)

If you have a rental car, you do not need a guide to visit the main attractions in Cotopaxi National Park. There are basically 3 roads that lead to the major attractions. They’re in good shape and very easy to navigate.

If you do not have a 4×4, the guards might try to convince you to rent one of their pickup trucks at the gate by telling you that a 4×4 is required to drive in Cotopaxi. Don’t believe them. The reality is that the main roads are just fine for pretty much any type of car.

The only road that might give you a problem without a 4×4 is the road up the volcano to the Refugio trailhead.

We made it all the way up (albeit barely) with a Suzuki Vitara 4×2. However, we did see people with smaller cars struggle to make it up the last stretch where the road deteriorates quite a bit. They just pulled over to the side and walked up the rest of the way. Do this at your own risk though.

If you’re nervous about the drive up that road, just rent one of the pick up trucks or ask the guards at the gate to help you arrange a ride up.

Cotopaxi National Park with a tour

Many people find that the best way to visit the park is by booking a day tour with a guide who can pick you up at your hotel and drive you around the park.

When you should book a tour to Cotopaxi: 

  • If you don’t have a rental car
  • If you want to hike but are not an experienced hiker
  • To take an adventure tour (horseback riding, mountain biking, etc)
  • To hike to the very top of Cotopaxi
  • If you just don’t want to worry about driving yourself

The attractions in Cotopaxi are not easily accessible by public transport, so booking a day tour is the easiest way to get around if you don’t rent a car.

Road tripping in Ecuador and visiting Cotopaxi National Park without a guide

Best tours to Cotopaxi

There are several different ways to tour Cotopaxi National Park.

Depending on the experience you want, you could take a day trip from Quito or embark on a 3-4 day excursion to see everything the park has to offer.

Day tours from Quito typically last 10-12 hours and involve short hikes and/or a few hours of horseback riding. More adventurous tours are best done over a few days, using the nearby haciendas as a home base.

Best group day tours from Quito:

If you prefer a private tour, check out this full day private tour from Quito to Cotopaxi

If you’re on a tight schedule, it’s also possible to take a half day tour from one of the nearby lodges.

Full day and half day tours are available at nearly every hotel around Cotopaxi National Park for as little as $40 per person. You can book them once you get there or ahead of time by contacting the lodge.

The Jose Rivas Refugio hike on Volcano Cotopaxi

Best Things to Do in Cotopaxi Volcano National Park

From climbing the volcano to exploring on horseback, here are some of the best things to do in Cotopaxi, Ecuador:

Hike to Refugio José Rivas (Jose Ribas)

One of the best things to do in Cotopaxi National Park is hike to the José Rivas Refugio, which is a hut that’s perched on the side of Cotopaxi volcano at an altitude of 4864m (15,958 ft). It’s used as a day hike destination and as a basecamp for climbers to acclimate to the altitude before they summit the volcano.

While the hike to José Rivas Refugio is relatively short, it’s deceivingly difficult given the altitude and climb up loose volcanic rock. Do it if you’re up for a challenge, but don’t attempt it if you’re particularly sensitive to high altitude or if you have heart problems. For more information on hiking at high altitude, read this and talk to your doctor.

From the parking lot, there are two ways to reach the Refugio:

  • The “zig zag” trail, which is a series of switchbacks up the volcano
  • The straight trail that’s essentially just a straight shot up to the hut

The straight trail might look appealing, but trust me that the zig zag trail is a lot easier when you’re climbing over loose rock at high altitude.

A distant view of the Refugio hut on the side of Cotopaxi Volcano, which is topped by the Cotopaxi Glacier

Hiking from the car park (at 4,500m) to the Refugio (at 4,800m) takes about 1.5-2 hours. From the refuge, you can take the side trail to the edge of the Cotopaxi Glacier to see the glacier up close if you have extra energy.

Inside the refuge, they sell warm drinks and snacks, like sandwiches and chips. They only accept cash – ideally in exact change.

Before you hike back down, ask the people behind the counter to stamp your passport for $1.  The altitude messed with our heads when we got up there and I completely forgot to get ours stamped, BUT it’s a great souvenir since Cotopaxi is the closest point on Earth to outer space!

More best hikes in Cotopaxi National Park: 

  • The summit of Cotopaxi Volcano: You have to be an advanced climber to reach the crater at the summit of Cotopaxi. The climb is done with a guide and takes about 2 days. The best months to summit Cotopaxi are December and January.
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  • Cotopaxi Glacier: Take the short detour past the Refugio to reach the base of Cotopaxi Glacier, which is one of the few glaciers on the planet located along the equator. The hike from the Refugio to the glacier adds about 100 meters of elevation gain and takes roughly 45 minutes, depending on how you react to the altitude.
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  • Cerro Rumiñahui: Climbing nearby Rumiñahui volcano is easier than summiting Cotopaxi and climbing the central summit doesn’t require any technical gear or climbing skills. The hike is 7.1 miles with 2828 ft of elevation gain and rated as difficult.
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  • Limpiopungo Lagoon: Walking around Limpiopungo Lagoon takes about 1 hour, where you can see a bunch of wildlife all year round.  The hike is a 2.2 mile loop with 485 feet of elevation gain.

READ NEXT: What to Pack for a Day Hike: Essential Gear and Complete Packing List

Walk around Laguna Limpiopungo

Visiting Laguna Limpiopungo is one of the best things to do in Cotopaxi National Park, especially if you’re into birdwatching.

This shallow, marshy lake is fed by rainwater runoff from the nearby Rumiñahui volcano crater, and offers great habitat for birds that call it home. You can stay by the parking area to admire it or take a leisurely stroll around the whole lake, which takes about an hour. Whatever you decide to do, remember to bring your binoculars if you like to birdwatch because there are a bunch of different birds that hang around the shallows.

Laguna LimpiopungoLaguna Limpiopungo as seen from the parking area

Horseback riding

Honestly, horseback riding is always a memorable adventure, but doing it in Cotopaxi is even more epic.

You can book a horseback riding tour through just about any place that organizes tours to Cotopaxi.

Most tours last about 2-3 hours, where you can ride through the paramo grasslands to the foothills of Rumiñahui Volcano. From there, you can trot, canter or gallop past herds of wild horses, down old Inca trails, and through fields with panoramic views of Cotopoaxi, Pasochoa & Sincholagua Volcanoes.

Mountain biking

Get off the beaten path with a mountain biking tour in Cotopaxi. Mountain biking is one of the best things to do in Cotopaxi National Park because it’s not every day you get to casually coast down the side of an active volcano.

Bike tours range from adventurous downhill cycling on the volcano to multi-day biking excursions through valleys and ancient lava fields.

Wildlife viewing and birdwatching

In addition to majestic mountain views, there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing and birdwatching in Cotopaxi National Park.

Bird watching is especially popular here, with over 140 species of birds that call this park home, including the Andean condor, giant cone bill, Andean Gull, Andean coot, and a variety of hawks and tanagers.

For some of the best birdwatching opportunities, stop by Lake Limpiopungo around sunset.

You might not even have the leave the car to see wildlife. As you drive through the park, keep your eyes peeled for herds of wild horses, condors, and Andean foxes that roam the grasslands at the foot of the volcano.

We were lucky enough to run into a pair of adorable Andean foxes on our way down from the Refugio. They came so close to the car, which tells me that people must feed them. Please always practice responsible wildlife tourism and do not feed the wildlife.

Animals you might see further from the road are redbrocket deer, Andean puma, llamas, the Andean wolf, white-tailed deer, and the rare Andean speckled bear.

Where to stay

There are a lot of places to stay near Cotopaxi, no matter what your budget is. You can choose from luxurious haciendas, hostels, farmstays, and glamping either inside the National Park boundaries or in one of the surrounding towns, such as Lasso and Latacunga (near the south entrance) or Machachi (near the north entrance).

Lodging inside the national park is most expensive and gets cheaper as you move into the neighboring towns.

The most popular lodges near the park are:

  • Chilcabamba Lodge
  • Tambopaxi Hotel
  • Hacienda Los Mortiños
  • Hacienda El Porvenir

They all have unbeatable views of Cotopaxi volcano and – in my opinion – are well worth splurging on if it’s in your budget.

View all stays near Cotopaxi here.

We stayed at Chilcabamba Lodge and absolutely loved it! We’ve also heard great things about Hacienda El Porvenir, which is at the base of Volcán Rumiñahui.

Because they’re so remote, most of the lodges in and around Cotopaxi offer some sort of meal service or on-site restaurant.

Lodges also offer pretty much the same tours for hiking, horseback riding, and biking in the national park. Book a tour by emailing them in advance or once you get there by just asking the front desk.

We had the best stay at Chilcabamba Lodge!

Camping in Cotopaxi

It’s possible to camp in Cotopaxi National Park but the nights are usually bitterly cold and the campgrounds are closed if the volcano shows any signs of activity.

When campgrounds are open, camping costs $5 for foreigners. The established campsites are designated by tent icons on the park map above, but the easiest way to check if they’re open is to ask the park authorities at the park entrance.

You can also camp at a few lodges in the area, including Tambopaxi Lodge, Secret Garden Hostel, Hacienda El Porvenir, and Cuello de Luna Hotel.

Camping at high altitude gets COLD! Make sure you have proper gear, including a winter sleeping bag, winter/waterproof clothing, and a rain fly – regardless of time of year.

Where to eat in Cotopaxi National Park

There are a few places to buy food in Cotopaxi National Park.

You can purchase snacks and light meals at the small cafe near the south entrance and at the visitor’s center once you enter the park.

The José Rivas Refugio also has a small counter where you can order light food, water, and hot drinks. Food at the Refugio is unreliable though because what they have varies by day and number of visitors. For this reason, I don’t recommend relying only on the Refugio for food. If you hike up there, definitely make sure you pack your own snacks and extra water just in case!

The only full-service restaurant in Cotopaxi National Park is at Tambopaxi Lodge. The prices are expensive, but on par with other lodges around Cotopaxi. Expect to pay roughly $12-15 for a full lunch.

Food in Cotopaxi is typical of the Ecuadorian highlands. Full service restaurants typically serve three course meals with soup to start, followed by meat or fish with rice, and then dessert.

How Many Days to Spend in Cotopaxi

There’s a lot to do in Cotopaxi National Park, so how many days should you spend in Cotopaxi?

The ideal number of days to spend in Cotopaxi National Park is 1-2 days. However, if you are short on time, it’s possible to visit the highlights of the park in a half day.

In one day, you can see all the highlights.

Two days gives you enough time to see the highlights, plus take an adventure tour like horseback riding or mountain biking.

Three days gives you time to do all of the above, plus some. And it builds in a buffer day in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Due to its incredibly high elevation, Cotopaxi’s weather patterns can shift in an instant and what was a sunny, cloudless sky one minute can turn into a thick, heavy fog the next!

We were glad we scheduled a rain day in Cotopaxi because the first day we were there, we had insanely beautiful, clear weather. But the next morning, the fog was so thick that you’d never know there was a giant volcano looming behind the clouds.

A close up view of Cotopaxi Volcano on a clear day

Best time to visit Cotopaxi Volcano

The best time of day to visit Cotopaxi is in the morning before the clouds roll during the afternoon. So wake up for sunrise, cross your fingers for good weather, and make a beeline for Cotopaxi National Park.

The best months to visit Cotopaxi are June – November (winter and spring) for the least rain, fewest crowds, and cheapest prices. These are also some of the windiest months, which is annoying for hiking but gives you the best chance for clear views of the volcano!

Peak tourist season is December – February (summer) and March – May (fall).

However, if you want to summit Cotopaxi, you should visit December – February you’ll want to visit December – February for the least amount of wind.

Cotopaxi National Park Entrance fee and Information

Entrance to Cotopaxi National Park is free. However, you will have to go into the office at the gate and register your passport.

The rangers at the gate will give you basic information or recommendations, although many of them don’t speak English. If you don’t speak Spanish, it’s helpful to have an offline translator handy, like iTranslate or Google Translate.

Cotopaxi National Park is open from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM.

Driving on dirt roads to Cotopaxi National Park on a clear day

Altitude in Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi National Park is located at high altitude, so you might experience altitude sickness.

Some people don’t feel it at all, while others are really effected by the altitude and feel short of breath without much physical effort. This is because the air is thinner at high altitude, which makes your body work harder to get oxygen.

Because of this, you should only visit Cotopaxi National Park after you’ve had a few days to acclimate to the highlands.

This two-week Ecuador itinerary begins with a few days in Quito to allow your body time to adjust to altitude before continuing to Cotopaxi.

Symptoms of altitude sickness generally start around 8,200 ft (2,500m) above sea level and feel a bit like a hangover.

Common symptoms of altitude sickness

  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Accelerated heart rate

To alleviate symptoms of altitude

  • Drink plenty of water to combat dehydration caused at high altitude
  • Walk slowly
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Take ibuprofen

The effects of altitude can make it difficult to do any hiking in Cotopaxi since just walking can make you feel out of breath.

When hiking at high altitude, it’s important to walk slowly, focus on steady breathing, and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. And always remember that finishing a hike is never worth risking your health.

For more information on hiking at high altitude, visit this link and talk to your doctor.

A sign to Refugio Jose Rivas at high altitude in Ecuador

Essential tips for visiting Cotopaxi National Park

  • Acclimatize properly by spending a few days in the highlands before you visit Cotopaxi National Park. An easy way to do this is by spending a few days in Quito beforehand.
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  • Be prepared! Temperatures stay cool all year round and the wind can also be bitter cold, especially on the volcano. Pack some warm weather gear, like gloves, a hat, and warm layers; as well as a rain jacket. Check out my guide on what to pack for a day hike for a list of recommendations and cold weather hiking essentials.
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  • Wear proper hiking boots. We saw some people trying to hike up to the Refugio in sneakers, and I can safely say that I 100% do not recommend it.
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  • Do bring a day pack to carry your essentials. I put together this guide to the best hiking and travel backpacks for women.
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  • Wear sunglasses and sunscreen to protect yourself from those high altitude UV rays (even when it’s cloudy)!
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  • Pack your own food for lunch or buy simple snacks/sandwiches at the Jose Revas Refugio. Don’t forget to bring extra snacks for energy.
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  • Entrance to Cotopaxi National Park is free.
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  • Pets are not allowed in Cotopaxi because it’s a conservation refuge.
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  • Keep your eye out for the rare Andean condor soaring through the skies!

 

Did you find this Ultimate Guide to Cotopaxi National Park helpful in planning your trip in Ecuador? Let me know in the comments!

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