Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

The beautiful snow-capped cone of
Volcán Cotopaxi
(5897 m) is at the heart of this lovely national park and is one of the prime tourist destinations in the country. If you only climb one of Ecuador's many volcanoes, then this should be the one. Many agencies run tours here, both the route and shelter can get crowded. Historical records describe various spectacular and destructive eruptions of Cotopaxi, most recently in the early 1900s. It remains an active volcano and is monitored by the
National Geophysics Institute
, www.igepn.edu.ec.

Attractions and park services

The park administration and a small interpretation centre are located 10 km from the main entrance, just before the plateau of Laguna Limpio Pungo. The
Centro de Interpretación Mariscal Sucre
, has a 3D model of the park, interesting displays about Cotopaxi's volcanic activity and stuffed animals.

The
Limpio Pungo
plateau (3850 m) with a shallow lake sits between Cotopaxi and
Volcán Rumiñahui
(4722 m) to the northwest. It is a lovely spot from which to observe Cotopaxi and a place to learn about the
páramo
flora and fauna. The hills at the base of Rumiñahui are excellent for birdwatching and it is possible to see several species peculiar to the
páramo
. On the plains watch for herds of wild horses, llamas and the odd mountain lion or wild bull. This is a very nice area for walking. Just north of Cotopaxi are the peaks of
Sincholagua
(4893 m) and
Pasochoa
(4225 m). To the southeast is the beautiful and elusive
Quilindaña
(4890 m). There are two very run-down
cabañas
and some campsites between the interpretation centre and Laguna Limpio Pungo; camping is not permitted around the lake itself. It is very cold, water needs to be purified, and food should be protected from foxes.

Past Limpio Pungo one road branches off to climb the north flank of Cotopaxi to a parking
area at 4600 m. The road can be covered in snow. From here a sandy trail continues to climb to the
Refugio José Ribas
mountain shelter at 4800 m. It is 30 minutes to an hour on foot; beware of altitude sickness, go slowly.

From the turn-off for the shelter, a narrow dirt road continues north and soon splits. One branch goes to the northern park entrance and on to El Pedregal, the second turns east along the
páramo
, making an incomplete clockwise circuit around Volcán Cotopaxi. Parts of the road are washed out and it crosses rock-strewn lahars (old mud flows), so a 4WD vehicle is recommended. Beautiful views and the undeveloped
El Salitre
archaeological site can be found in this area. The Inca fortress at El Salitre apparently guarded a pass from the eastern slopes of the Andes, which can be seen south of the site.

To the southeast of the park lies an area of rugged
páramos
and mountains dropping down to the jungle. This region has several large haciendas which form the
Fundación Páramo
, a private reserve.

On the southwestern flank of Cotopaxi, known as
Cara Sur,
is the
Albergue Cotopaxi Cara Sur
at 4000 m and four hours walking from it, at 4780 m,
Campo Alto
, a tent camp for climbers. This area offers good walking in the
páramo
, condors are sometimes seen, and you can climb Morurco to the base of the rock (the summit is unstable and not recommended).

Climbing Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui

Because of the altitude and weather conditions, Cotopaxi is a serious climb, equipment and experience are required. To maximize your chances of reaching the summit, make sure to be well acclimatized beforehand. Take a guide if you are inexperienced on ice and snow. Agencies in Quito and throughout the Central Highlands offer Cotopaxi climbing trips. Note that some guides encourage tourists to turn back at the first sign of tiredness, don't be pressured, insist on going at your own pace. There is no specific best season to climb Cotopaxi, weather conditions are largely a matter of luck year-round.

Check out snow conditions with the guardian of the refuge before climbing. The ascent from the refuge along the traditional route on the north face takes five to eight hours. It's best to start climbing at 0100 as the snow deteriorates in the sun. For climbing Cotopaxi, a full moon is both practical and magical. Due to the constant deglaciation the route changes from one year to the next.

To climb the southwest flank of Cotopaxi, the access is from Ticatilín, Albergue Cotopaxi Cara Sur, and Campo Alto. The route is reported easier and safer than the north face, but longer. The last hour goes along the rim of the crater with impressive views.

Rumiñahui
can be climbed from the park road, starting at Laguna Limpio Pungo from where it takes about one to 1½ hours to the base of the mountain. The climb itself is straightforward and not technical, though it is quite a scramble on the rockier parts and it can be very slippery and muddy in places after rain. There are three summits:
Cima Máxima
is the highest, at 4722 m;
Cima Sur
and
Cima Central
are the others. The quickest route to Cima Máxima is via the central summit, as the climb is easier and not as steep. Note that the rock at the summits is unstable. There are excellent views of Cotopaxi and the Ilinizas. From the base to the summits takes about three to four hours. Allow around three to 3½ hours for the descent to Limpio Pungo. This is a good acclimatization climb. Take cold and wet weather gear. Even outside the rainy season there can be hail and sleet.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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