Tour to Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador – An Experience Report

The Cotopaxi volcano

The volcano Cotopaxi, with its 5897 meters, is the second highest mountain in Ecuador and one of the highest active volcanoes on Earth. Although active, it is one of the most climbed mountains in South America. It is located in the Cotopaxinational Park of the same name, which has a beautiful plateau where you can also observe wild horses.

Cotopaxi is not only a volcano, it also looks like a volcano:absolutely round, dark flanks and with a chicken snow cap on the top. However, the Cotopaxi is a bit bitchy when it comes to be photographed, he wraps himself with pleasure a bit bashfully in clouds. But in addition later more.

The volcano was not really active in the last hundred years. In 1904 it erupted properly for the last time, until 1940 it occasionally spewed a little, in 1976 it reported with a few earthquakes, In 2015 but it spewed a several kilometers high ash cloud. However, the state of emergency that was subsequently imposed in Ecuador was more politically motivated to stop protests against a constitutional amendment.

However, when he really gets going, Cotopaxi, the mountain can get uncomfortable. In 1877 he proved this unpleasantly when he let his complete glacier melt at once during an eruption and flooded the urrounding country within a radius of 100km with the resulting mudslides. Thereby he destroyed also whole localities. Who visits the Cotopaxi, should bring therefore as a precaution always very much positive energy and hope that Pachamama has good mood.

By the way, from March to May and in November there is themost precipitation at Cotopaxi. Our tour took place at the end of May.

The booking of the Cotopaxi volcano tour

The first tour we found to Cotopaxi cost around $120 per person and would have been a private tour through Airbnb. After some Google research, we then found another tour provider called Quito Bus Tour where the tour was available for $60 per person including breakfast and lunch. We had booked about three weeks in advance. The on-line reservation brings with the offerer occasionally additionally 10% discount, as we booked however straight not.

The approach to Cotopaxi

The tour started for us in the morning at 7:05 am at a bus stop near our accommodation (Bulevar Naciones Unidas Stop). Waiting with us were about eight other people and one of the guides. However, departure times may vary depending on the pickup location, as there were already six fellow travelers on the bus when we boarded.

After we left, we were given a concise introduction in Spanish and English. Among other things, our route took us along the famous Avenue of the Volcanoes, a route that was christened so by Alexander von Humboldt because 22 of Ecuador’s 73 active volcanoes lie on it. We heard more about Mr. Humboldt that day, because the German naturalist was very active in Ecuador, exploring its nature, geography and indigenous tribes. He was also one of the first Europeans who tried to climb Cotopaxi, but he had to stop at the level of today’s parking lot.

While we were driving to the volcanoit started to rain and as the rain came down, so did our spirits. While we were well equipped, the low cloud cover was not particularly promising. We saw nothing of the avenue of volcanoes.

Breakfast on the Cotopaxi tour

After a good hour of driving out of Quito, we turned off the main road into a small town and from there into a narrow country road. At the end of it we came to an ecolodge surrounded by forest and meadows. Here we had breakfast. The room was not particularly well heated but cozy and made entirely of wood. For breakfast there was a large roll, scrambled eggs, butter and jam and fruit. In addition green tea, blueberry tea or coffee. We had hoped a little for coca tea. However, there was not yet that here. During breakfast we got to know our fellow travelers a bit for the first time. Most of the participants were from North or South America, and there was also a couple from Switzerland in the group. After half an hour we went on.

The last kiosk at Cotopaxi

On the further drive to the volcano Cotopaxi, which took about half an hour, a list was passed around on which onefor the park administration name and origin had to note. That we were approaching the Vulka we noticed mainly by the ever worsening road.

Below the park we stopped for the first time and Paulina our nature guide got in. The young woman came directly from one of the villages at the foot of the volcano and knew the region very well. She explained quite a bit about the plants along the road, such as the pine trees that grow along the roadsides, but are not native here at all, but produce wood.

Then we came to a small hut. Here we had afifteen minutes to visit the restroom and drink a Coca Tea ($1.50). The hut here is one of the few places in Ecuador with a special permit to sell coca products, we were told.

Max and I each drank a cup of the very green-tasting tea, which flavor-wise reminds me of nettle tea. We also bought a small pack of tea leaves($3) for our further stay in Ecuador and candy with coca extract (4pcs $2) for today.

Coca tea, coca leaves, and coca candy are available for strengthening

The Cotopaxi National Park

Then our drive continued through Cotopaxi National Park. It is noticeable that there are no trees shortly after the border of National Park. The pines are not allowed to be planted here and for natural vegetation thepark is just too high with 3200-5897m.

The roads in the park are even worse than below. We were asked to buckle up. My belt, however, was defective.

Paulina told us some things about the vegetation on the plateau. One pink gentian in particular caught our eye. The flower colors all of the barren meadows pale pink. Also some yellow flowers grow here and again and again orange-flowering-shrubs. These shrubs its good for the kidneys and the prostate, Paulina explained.

Cotopaxi National Park photographed from a moving car

In addition, there would be a species of hummingbird that lives and feeds here. A book of the birds of Ecuador was passed through the bus. The little bird in question has a blue head and is otherwise green, the female brown. I flipped curiously a little in the book back and forth and was a little gobsmacked how many different species of hummingbirds live in Ecuador.

After some time we saw the first wild horses on the plateau of Cotopaxi. The first herd was grazing far away from the bus, but we also passed some herds grazing right by the road. I write passing because the driver didn’t even slow down so we could enjoy this sight. Only after the bus occupants began to grumble did the driver brake at a herd. But we had barely a minute for photos. After Max and I sat on the averted window side, we didn’t get our turn with the camera until the bus was already moving again. Meanwhile, the horses didn’t even feel disturbed by the bus and continued to graze without lifting their heads.

Wild horses in Cotopaxi National Park

This one minute also remained the only stop in the valley before the Cotopaxi parking lot. The few photos we managed to take from the moving car were almost without exception blurred. For us as landscape photography lovers the tour was already at this time very frustrating.

The ascent of Cotopaxi

The parking lot of Cotopaxi where we parked is at about 4,500 meters. Wikipedia talks about the Cotopaxi volcano being passable up to an altitude of 4,658 meters

When we got off, it quickly became clear thatMax again had problems with the altitude and therefore could not continue to the refuge. Therefore he stayed with the car. The rest of the group now started to move to the hut.The rain had turned into snow at this altitude, which fell ungraciously on us. Only Paulina our guide was happy about the snow. Even for Cotopaxi, snow is probably quite a rare phenomenon in Ecuador – even more so at the end of May. Pachamama meant it today probably particularly well, or also particularly badly with us.

The path up the mountain meandered through brown volcanic ash that was also reddish in some places from the contained iron. Vegetation is extremely sparse above the parking lot.

Due to the snow and clouds, we had no view during the climb. Max, who had kept his drone with him on the bus peeked to see if a hole in the clouds would open up, but we were out of luck.

Accordingly, the ascent was similar to a moonwalk or even a walk on Mars. Most of the group was panting properly during the ascent. Whether I was acclimatized well enough by now, the coca tea helped, or ensured that I had a terrific placebo effect, I don’t know, but I didn’t find the ascent challenging. After about twenty minutes we took a short break, further twenty minutes later we were already at the refuge.

The landscape on Cotopaxi is otherwise only known from images of Mars

The Jose Ribas Refuge on Cotopaxi

The Jose Ribas Refuge is located at 4864 meters on Cotopaxi. The view from here is certainly magnificent, unfortunately I did not see anything of it. The hut is visited either by day tourists like us, but also serves as base for climbers, who ascend to the summit of the Cotopaxi. They spend the night here and set out shortly after midnight for the 8-9 hour climb.

Martina at Cotopaxi’s Jose Ribas Hut at 4864 meters

This tour is considered comparably easy and harmless, but it is certainly because of the height of the summit of almost 6000 meters alone only suitable for professionals who have previously acclimatized extensively. Since Max had altitude sickness and we also learned a lot about the effect of pressure on the body during the diving certificate, we have very much respect for the mountains become and now prefer to work our way up very slowly. The problem with altitude, in short, is that thepressure is so low that oxygen no longer reaches the capillaries of the lungs and therefore does not reach the blood. You virtually suffocate while you breathe.

But the hut also has a lot to offer day tourists. The cocoa here is exceptionally good. There is also coca tea and sandwiches here. Tea and cocoa cost $2.50 each. In addition, who wants can get a stamp in his passport, as confirmation that he was here. Max and I had taken the passport extra, but I had forgotten my passport stupidly with Max in the valley. I got as a small consolation the stamp on a sheet of paper.

Those who wish can have their visit to Cotopaxi authenticated in their passport

A cocoa, a coca tea and some photos at the sign in front of the refuge later, the hike already went back to the parking lot. The last from the group arrived by the way only over twenty minutes after me and Paulina on the refuge. Here one notices evenly nevertheless, how well someone is accustomed to the height.

The descent from Cotopaxi

For the descent we took a somewhat shorter but steeper route. Since the material of the path is somewhat loose, it is important to ram the heels into the ground vigorously when stepping and to stretch the leg through to avoid accidentally twisting the knee. Although Paulina had explained that  the Cotopaxi often goes through all four seasons in an hour, on our hike it remained stubbornly winter for the two hours for the ascent, the stay at the hut and the descent.

Back at the bus we swept off our shoes and taught the ash out, then we went on again.

Little vegetation persists above 4500 meters at Cotopaxi

The Laguna Limpiopungo

The next stop was the Laguna Limpiopungo. The lagoon is not very big and relatively shallow. With a little luck, it’s a good place to see birds. When we arrived it was raining. We made unmotivated a few pictures of the water birds there and asked ourselves, why this nevertheless quite unsightly lagoon was headed for. Only afterwards we saw in the Internet that it lies directly at the feet of the Cotopaxi and in good weather grandiose photos allows with reflections of the snowy peak in the water. But during our visit, Cotopaxi was so cloudy that we couldn’t even glimpse it at the edge of the lagoon.

Laguna Limpiopungo looks quite unspectacular in bad weather

Lunch at the Cotopaxi tour and return to Quito

This was also the end of our tour again. We drove past some horses again and through the flowering plateau, without having a chance to photograph them.

It was back to the ecolodge again. For lunch we had lasagna, vegetarian for me. We chatted some more with the rest of the troop. A fellow traveler had already been four times in the Cotopaxi National Park and showed us some impressive pictures of the mountain and the horses. Then, however, it was already blown again to the departure and it went back to Quito.

Although we were the last station that was approached, we already stood shortly after 17:00 again at the bus stop, where we had been picked up in the morning. On the website the tour duration was indicated until 19:00.

Summary Cotopaxi tour

We had bad luck with our tour provider. The guides were all super nice and very knowledgeable. But the tour was two hours shorter than described on the website. Together with the journey it was more like a half day tour. Also, we are very annoyed that we could not see more of the national park. Overall, we came the complete time very rushed before. Had we still had the two hours more, we would have liked the tour probably better. In addition, we had Pech with the weather. With better weather would have been generally the mood certainly better. Also, we are sad not to have a picture of the mountain.  It was only today, about three days later, that we saw Cotopaxi for the first time from a lookout area at Pichincha . Five minutes he showed himself without clouds, then he wrapped himself already again.

The view of Cotopaxi is unfortunately not for everyone

Cotopaxi tour – what to take?

  • Firm shoes with tread: The ash is relatively loose so you can slip easily
  • Rain jacket, hoody, hat, gloves: The weather at almost 5000 meters is not only cold, but also unpredictable. Equip yourselves therefore for temperatures up to the freezing point, bright sunshine and also for heavy rain.
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen: Whether the weather is good or terrible, high altitude sun is very aggressive
  • Water: Depending on weather and constitution about 1.5-2 liters per person.
  • Money: Both at the hut and at the kiosk in the valley you have the opportunity to buy tea, cocoa and snack.
  • Passport: If you want to have in it a stamp from the hut.
  • Camera: Maybe you have more luck with the weather than we do and can take great pictures

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