Cotopaxi Volcano (5897 m) is the highest active volcano in Ecuador and second tallest volcanic peak of the Ecuadorian Andes. The closest town to Cotopaxi Volcano is Lasso. The biggest danger for Lasso in case of Cotopaxi eruption is not the lava but the fact the lava will melt the glacier and the town will be flooded.
The evacuation time for Lasso in case of volcano alert is 10 minutes for Latacunga 40 minutes. There’s around 75 volcanoes in Ecuador and 20 of them are active but Cotopaxi is the most dangerous one. Last big eruption took place in 1978 but there strong ash activity was registered in January 2016.
Hiking Cotopaxi to the glacier
It’s worth to check what’s the activity flag before hiking Cotopaxi. There are 4 flags: white, yellow, orange and red. By the time we were there (October 2018) the flag was white. It’s possible to hike Cotopaxi alone. The trail is quite visible and the last base is under altitude 5000 m. Instead, I would recommend hiring a tour guide, as it really does not involve any significant costs and I believe it’s safe to have experienced person on that altitude. Hostal Crossman is a place offering nice and comfortable accommodation and great guide for Cotopaxi is available for only 35$/per person. The trip includes: a guide with a 4WD car, visiting flea market, hiking Cotopaxi to the glacier, dinner and visiting Limpiopungo Lagoon (Laguna de Limpios).
It is important you drive 4WD car as the road is quite demanding, he takes you to the highest available point with a car parking. From this point you would need to walk app. 45 minutes to reach the Refugio camp (4900 m) – this is the last base before the summit. It’s not a common place for usual people. International flags are are covering all the walls. You can stay there overnight if you decide to climb the summit. We hiked Cotopaxi in October and the snow was already lying everywhere on the way to Refugio camp. The volcano was visible in early morning but when hiking everything was covered with huge fog and clouds. In Refugio you’ll take a small break before hiking another 100 metres to the glacier. This 100 metres will take another 45 minutes. Hot coca-tea and chocolate are available in the camp to warm you up. We also got coca leaves from the guide, as I felt a little weak while hiking.
Ho to prepare for hiking Cotopaxi. First of all I would advice staying 2-3 days at the altitude above 3000 metres to acclimatize. Be prepared you might feel weak on the way to Cotopaxi, not in the car but when walking. The heart is pounding and you might feel sick. Most important is to take it easy and try to take small breaks every few steps. Take plenty of water, although you’re not thirsty because of the cold weather you need to hydrate regularly. Some people carry coca tea in the bottle. It’s available in the Refugio camp together with hot chocolate. Chocolate – it’s another way you can descrease altitude sickness symptoms. And dry coca leaves, the guide gave us to chew them. In the instruction below you’ll find all the reasons for the use of coca tea in traditional medicine in Latin America.
When is best to climb Cotopaxi Volcano
There is no best time to climb Cotopaxi volcano. It depends what you expect to experience from this hiking.The visibility is best in summer – this means the air is clear and the view of the volcano is best. But the winds might be very strong and freezing, so you might need to be completely covered. October and November are best for climbing as there are no winds but it might get very cloudy and freezing.
At the foot of Cotopaxi Volcano
On the way to the volcano there’s plenty of things to admire. The landscapes of a deserted area along the mountain view is stunning. If the visibility is good the top of Cotopaxi is visible above the clouds level. Only then you realise how huge is this mountain. This is unforgettable chance to see wild horses. The lava in Cotopaxi is not the same as in Galapagos volcanic islands. The lava in Galapagos is very liquid. In the mainland the lava is very dense and the lava rocks are incredibly heavy. What’s very interesting the volcano ash is commonly and effectively used for road-building.
All you need to know before climbing the Cotopaxi summit
Stay overnight in Refugio camp. Generally above 5000 m you need to have a guide. One guide is needed for 2 people. If 3 people are going you need to have 2 guides. Start climbing at 11 p.m, it takes around 6-7 hours to climb the summit. You’ll probably reach the summit for 6 a.m. The way is not difficult, it does not require any technical climbing. But it does require crampons and ice-axe. There can be really cold at the summit, so you’ll be able to stay there for about 10 minutes. In Refugio camp there a picture on the wall with a record of a local climber, who manage to reach the top from Refugio and back in 1h 37 minutes. Crazy and unbelievable. The way back takes app. 3 hours.