At 19, 347 feet, Cotopaxi is the world’s 3rd highest active volcano. It’s not a difficult technical climb but it does require acclimatization because 19,000 feet is high and human bodies don’t like to operate without enough oxygen.
We been advised to spend a few days on the Quilotoa Loop, hiking and sleeping at altitudes of 12-13,000 feet to acclimatize, but we didn’t have quite enough time to do that and everything else we planned for our last few days in Ecuador. Having read a lot about altitude sickness – headaches, nausea, vomiting and blacking out – I didn’t want to risk not acclimatizing so we chose the day trip on the north face instead of an overnight summiting trip. Our hostal in Latacunga – the Hostal Tiana – set us up with our climbing guide, Diego, who was fantastic. We had a great experience with Tiana and Diego and I’d highly recommend them both.
Diego drove us through crazy thick fog to get to the parking lot in the Cotopaxi park. We could hardly see out the windshield and it’s a good thing he climbs this volcano 3x a week because he drove most of that road blind.
Even out of the car it was hard to see but I tried to manufacture some enthusiasm.
The climb to the refugio was a grim breathless trudge up a steep hill covered in loose scree and falling rocks in thick fog with no view. Not my idea of a good time.
Nicole’s water bottle was our best view of the Cotopaxi summit
But we made good time and got to the Jose F. Ribas Refugio (base camp) in about 45 minutes
All the materials for the Refugio behind us - wood, metal, furniture, stoves, etc. – were brought up on the backs of climbers. They couldn’t get machinery up that grade so they dragged everything up. Having dragged myself up that incline, I can’t believe anyone could carry anything much more than a backpack. You can see better pictures of the Refugio here.
After a couple cups of tea, Jules wanted to try for the glacier so I said I’d go along. The fog was still intense but it cleared slightly once we hit the glacier line at 16, 500 feet.
This was our best view of the summit
And this is us (especially me) happy to be done with the climbing portion of the day!
The fog cleared dramatically as we descended (of course) and anyone climbing later that afternoon probably had clear views of the summit. Oh well… can’t control the weather. We did see the chuquiragua, the flowering shrub that only grows in the Andes above 13,000 feet
And some beautiful wild mustangs on the lower slopes of the Cotopaxi park
I’m glad we did this day trip, even though the conditions were less than ideal. I have zero experience with mountaineering and I didn’t have trouble with this climb, except for being breathless for all of it. We didn’t wear any special gear and in fact I wore trail runners, which had enough tread even for the snow line. I didn’t suffer from any altitude sickness but that’s not something you know until you get up there so we did bring Diamox just in case.
We paid $40 apiece for the whole day trip, which included lunch, our guide and transportation. Diego picked us up at Hotel Tiana and drove us into the National Park to the parking lot, guided us up the volcano to the refugio and then to the glacier and drove us home with a stop at the Laguna de Limpiopungo. We also each paid a national park entrance fee of $10.
If you want to summit, this site has a lot of good info (though it’s outdated because there’s now an entrance fee for the park). It is possible to go cheaply without a guide and take a bus to the entrance or a taxi 3 miles further on to the parking lot beneath the refugio. Only climbers who plan to summit can stay overnight at the refugio but they do have a little cafe where they sell tea and hot chocolate at really expensive prices.
This wasn’t the most fun thing we did this trip but I’l always remember it because it was no easy climb. I even might try mountaineering again but I’d like to pre-order some sunshine next time!