How to Explore Cotopaxi National Park -Ecuador

My feet dug into the volcanic dirt as I struggled to reach the crest of the hill. Three steps and already I could hardly breathe. My heart pounded and my head felt like it was floating. I struggled on and finally reached the top of the hill and there stood the peak of the famous Cotopaxi Volcano. The clouds had just cleared and you could see the snow capped rocky terrain tower above us. The exhaustion and battle through the thin high-altitude air, of Cotopaxi National Park, was well worth it. Now I’m just even more driven to one day reach the peak of one of the world’s highest active volcano (which is currently closed due to the volcanoes active status).


The Park

Located only an hour and half from Ecuador’s capital city of Quito, the park spans 84, 000 acres (34, 000 hectares) and encompasses three volcanoes; the dormant Ruminawi Volcano 4,721 metres (15,489 ft), Sincholagua Volcano ,and the largest Cotopaxi Volcano 5,897 metres (19,347 ft). A variety of wildlife can be found roaming the park such as speckled bears, condors, pumas,  Andean foxes, llamas, frogs, paramos, hummingbirds, deer and much more. There is multiple high altitude lakes including Limpiopungo Lake ,located below the Rumiñahui Volcano, and  the Santo Domingo Lake which is surrounded by the ruins of an Inca fort.

When you first arrive at the entrance of the park you will need to register at the main ranger station. Remember to bring your passport or cedula for this process. Here you can also have a quick snack, use the restroom, get more information, or sip on some fresh coca leaf tea that will help with the effects of the altitude.

The park can be toured by car or a guide can be hired to drive you around. The whole trip takes about two to three hours including stopping for photos. Driving is open to the base camp refuge with an additional 40 minute hike to the building. The road can be treacherous in bad weather conditions or for those not used to dirt road driving up steep cliff mountains.

The North side of the Park offers the best viewing opportunities for the Cotopaxi Volcano as the clouds clear more often.

Leaving the park is quite confusing and is poorly marked. There is about a 1 hour drive after leaving the park that brings you through windy farm and village roads until you reach a main road. For those afraid to get lost it is recommended they leave from the main entrance, although we recommend the North side exit is very scenic and well worth the journey.



The human history of the area that is now Cotopaxi National Park dates back to pre-colombian cultures. Indigenous Andes people believed the Cotopaxi Volcano was the giver of life and rain water, in addition to a location where the God’s resided. It is said the Volcano was named after the indigenous name for “Neck of the Moon,” but this has never been proven. The remains of Inca forts (Pucarás), built during a time when the ancient civilization reigned over the area, can be found around the Santo Domingo Lake.

Eruptions from the giant volcano have historically wreaked havoc on the local populations. In 1534, during a battle between the Spanish conquistadors and the local Inca, the volcano erupted causing both sides to flee in fear thus bringing a short peace to the area. In the 1700’s, a string of violent eruptions destroyed the nearby colonial town of Latacunga. Through the 1800’s and 1900’s varying eruptions have caused fatalities and destroyed local communities.

In 2015 a steam eruption began a new phase of activity that continues until today. A major eruption is long overdue and in 2016 a deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook Ecuador followed by thousands of smaller aftershocks that reached the Andes Mountains. As a result, the Volcano was put on high alert. It is estimated that around 300,000 people would be directly affected if an eruption occurred today.


Climbing History

It is believed that indigenous peoples had reached the peak of Cotopaxi long before any Europeans arrived in the America’s, but as history goes the first written attempt at reaching the peak was by Prussian geographer, Alexander von Humboldt. His expedition ultimately failed as he only reached the height of 4,500 metres (14, 750 feet). In 1872 German geologist Wilhelm Reiss and Colombian Angel Escobar, became the first men to reach the summit.

On Easter Sunday 1996, the Refuge that sits below the summit was buried below an avalanche that trapped many tourist inside. 13 people were killed and the remaining survivors broke windows and tunneled out to traverse the mountainside to the safety below.

Prior to its current active state, the Volcano was a major attraction for climbers from around the world seeking to reach the summit with professional guides.


Where to Stay


Villa de Tacvnga in Latacunga

This historic luxury hotel was built in the 18th century by the Marquis de Miraflores. It is located nearby to Cotopaxi National Park in the ancient town of Latacunga, making it a perfect base for exploring the surrounding area. The Spanish style architecture of the building was constructed from volcanic pumice that formed by the rapid cooling of the volcanic gases spewed from the nearby Cotopaxi Volcano. During your stay in the colonial-style rooms you may also choose to dine in the restaurant which serves traditional local cuisine or chat with the other guests in the hotel bar.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Bring a semi warm coat as the temperatures can get quite frigid.
  • Drink coca tea or dark chocolate to help with the effects of the altitude.
  • Hiking shoes
  • Sunscreen as the sun is very powerful at this altitude
  • Drink lots of water
  •  Renting a car for the trip is recommended as the park can be toured by car and guides can be costly


How to Get There

Rent a Car – We recommend renting a car for this trip if you want to explore on your own. The tour of the park is done by car and after hiring guide and transport the cost of renting a car is only a tad bit more than hiring private transport. Also, renting a car that is good on dirt roads with four-wheel drive is a must if you want to reach the base camp refuge.

Private Transport – For those looking to avoid the stress and craziness of driving in Ecuador, but still want to enjoy the freedom and comfort of private transport, we recommend using Quito Capital Rides. Their spacious vans can hold up to 8 passengers including luggage. Services include friendly bilingual driver, transport to Cotopaxi National Park, pick-up and drop-off at your hotel, and the comfort and the flexibility of private transport. Transport to and from the airport are also available.

To book your private transport contact Rodrigo at Quito Capital Rides

Phone: (593) 098-301-7323 or Email –

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By Bus from Quito – This option is best for those on a tight budget that don’t mind walking and adventure. From Quito arrive at any bus terminal and ask for the bus to Latacunga. Upon entering the bus tell the bus driver you need to be dropped off at the Panamerican Highway to go to Cotopaxi National Park. It is a 2okm (12 miles) hike to the base of the Volcano. If you don’t want to trek that far, hail a taxi upon exiting the bus. Cost for the taxi should be around $3 and their should be taxi’s passing by regularly during day-time hours. How to ask the bus driver to be dropped off in Spanish – “Me podria avisar en la parada de Cotopaxi Parque Nacional, en la carretera Panamerican.”

Day Tours

Biking Dutchman Mountain Bike Tour –

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Enjoy a thrilling off-road mountain biking experience, below the towering Volcano. Take in the stunning landscapes of the rolling valley, as you venture 30 kms (18 miles) through the ancient lava fields of Cotopaxi National Park. Biking Dutchman is Ecuador’s premiere bike tour company. With over 25 years of experience, you can be ensured to visit the best locations and trails for biking that the outdoors of Ecuador provides.

Trip Includes:

  • Transfer to Quito to Cotopaxi National Park and return
  • Visit the Limpiopungo valley where you will see wild horses, beautiful birds, plants and the stunning Limpiopungo Lake.
  • 30 km (18 mile) ride on a 21-speed mountain bike through the foothills of the Cotopaxi Volcano.
  • Safety Equipment (helmet and hand gloves)
  • Bilingual guides
  • Lunch during your journey
  • Trip concludes on the outskirt of the Park

Book your adventure with Biking Dutchman by clicking HERE or at-

Phone: 593-2-2568323 / 593-2-2542806  or Email:

Gray Line Ecuador –


Travel in comfort aboard Gray Line Ecuador’s top of line buses on a guided excursion to and around Cotopaxi National Park and the stunning Quilotoa Volcano crater lake.

Trip Includes:

  • Transport from your Quito hotel to the Park and return journey
  • Travel along the Panamericana road which stretches from Alaska to Chile and connects the American continent
  • Arrive at the foot of the towering Volcano
  • Visit the Park Museum
  • Hike around the Limpiopungo Lagoon
  • Discover the Saquisili market
  • Visit Quilotoa Volcano and its deep-blue crater lagoon that was formed 800 years ago after an eruption carved a large crater on top of the peak.

10% off your booking when you refer to this article.

Contact Gray Line Ecuador at –

Phone: 593.2.3948.520 or by Email: 



These private, small group tours are perfect for small families or those traveling alone.  They offer the flexibility to customize your journey, around the park, to fit your specific likes and interests. Each tour includes a friendly personalized guide. Join EcuaTouring for a stress free adventure from start to finish and visit some of the best outdoor sights this area provides.

Trip Includes:

  • Transport to and from the park (airport pick-up also available upon request).
  • Visit the Cotopaxi Natural Museum
  • Hike around the Limpiopungo Lagoon or to the first wildlife refuge and possibly see wolves, coots, condors and more wild species.
  • 1-3 passenger size
  • Personalized bilingual guide

To contact EcuaTouring and book your specialized day trip contact them at-

Phone: +593 9 95198944 or by Email:

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