Climbing to the summit of Cotopaxi Volcano

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
9
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
1
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
8
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
10
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
5
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
8
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
87 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
South America
country
Ecuador
Length of time
1-2 days
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 270
Time of year visited
February
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
5th/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 5% SUMMARY RATING: Unmissable

Summary

If you’re in Ecuador and keen for a challenge that doesn’t need a huge amount of preparation, climbing Cotopaxi is a great option.   1,000m / 3,280ft of elevation to climb up the volcano and glacier; 10 hours mainly in the dark with head torches, crampons, ropes and ice axes; -15˚C / 5˚F; and dealing with the altitude challenges of a volcano that reaches 5897m / 19,347ft.  Yep, that’ll do it

Some train for months for this, but if you’re fit, already partially acclimatised and determined, you can do this.  You’ll be rewarded (hopefully!) with world-class view across the valleys as far as Quito, an otherworldly experience through the glaciers and crater and, of course, a deserved feeling of accomplishment

highlights

#1 Catching the sunrise and the feeling of accomplishment when you reach the summit at 5,897m

#2 Passing through the beautiful ice structures of the glacier that represents the only way up to the summit

#3 Seeing the crater itself. Smouldering and awe-inspiring

#4 The views out across the valleys below. The twinkling lights in the evening as you make the ascent and the beautiful green colours of the valley as you make the way down in the morning

#5 Spending a few days afterwards relaxing in the gorgeous national park

#6 The challenge of the climb. Whilst it is "only" a 1,000m / 3,280ft climb, it has the added challenge of being cold and at altitude

#7 The gear! Getting a chance to give the crampons and ice axes a go!

Rough itinerary

  • Day 1:
    • Meet your guide at your hotel / hostel in Latacunga around lunchtime to get your gear
    • Drive up in the afternoon through the national park and to the car park around 400m below the Jose Rivas refuge
    • Walk up to the refuge and sleep the night there until 11pm
  • Day 2
    • Wake at 11pm to start your accent
    • After around one hour you’ll reach the glacier to put on your crampons
    • Go through pain for 6 hours or so
    • Reach the summit around 6am to see the sunrise around 620am
    • Stay at the summit for 45mins or so for photos and to watch the sun rise
    • 2-3 hours to descend
    • Back at the refuge around 9am
    • Sleep (guide will want to sleep) for 2 hours or so
    • Walk back down to the carpark and head to your next destination
  • For 2 days or so, I would highly recommend staying somewhere in the national park (to recover more than anything!)

Travel Tips

  • How to arrange it? – I went with Tovar Expeditions as organised via the Hostal Tiana backpackers in Latacunga.  The guide, Julian, was simply wonderful – very experienced (he’d summited 692 times), very supportive and just a great guy. The rental equipment was first class and varied. I decided to go with a personal guide because the idea of having to go back because someone else couldn’t go any further wasn’t very appealing
  • Its tough – you’ll be told this a few times, but it really it’s tough. I was 35 when I did it, relatively fit, usually keen for a challenge, don’t mind the cold and had spent the past 2 weeks or so travelling at altitude, so from that point of view I was well set.  Then again, I’d never been above 5000m before, hadn’t really done any hiking in preparation, only decided I wanted to do the climb a couple of days before and had never used crampons etc. There are multiple factors that make the climb difficult:
    • 1. It’s a long slog of around 7 hrs uphill, 1,000m / 3,280ft vertical at around 45 degree angle
    • 2. It’s cold – around -15˚C / 5˚F
    • 3. It’s dark – this is good and bad.  Good – you’re less likely to get vertigo at the crevasses you pass.  Bad – you’re reliant on your head torch if little moonlight
    • 4. You’ll be starting without much sleep. You go to bed around 7pm and everyone is up at 11pm. I didn’t really sleep much as was used to going to sleep way later and unfortunately had some erratic snorers next to me
    • 5. The altitude means less oxygen, so you’ll find yourself breathing deeply, going v slowly and needing far more rests
    • 6. The altitude sickness. Thankfully, I only had a banging headache and broad feeling of not being quite right. Others vomit or have to go down in the case of disorientation, lung issues etc
  • The route – this will be decided by your guide and the conditions.  We took the original route rather than what is known as “The Heartbreaker”.  It was the only one available and not at all technical.  I had images of needing to climb ladders or cross bridges, but there is none of that (well, there is a less than 1 foot step over a crevasse but its more like a small hole) – its just a slog
  • The way down – actually a bit harder than you’d think.  It takes 2-3 hours and, although you can slide down, your legs will start to tire quite quickly. I wasn’t really prepared for it, so it came as a bit of a surprise
  • Some extra tips to help with the climb:
    • 1. Take your time – it’s not like normal hiking.  You will need to take rests and will be going at a very slow pace relative to low altitude walking.  I had a few people zip past me and similarly I zipped past them a few times.  We all got to the top for sunrise within around 30mins of each other
    • 2. Vary your technique – I couldn’t believe how slow I had to go at times so tried a few techniques to help. The constant one foot after the other was ok for the first bits, but higher up I found planting in the ice axe, taking two steps then stopping very briefly got me into a rhythm I could keep up for a while (I noticed most were doing this towards the top, including the guides)
    • What to bring – on top of the warm clothes and gear. I brought too much – 4 bars of chocolate, 2 bananas, m&ms, peanuts, 2.5 litres of water. Too much. If I did it again, I’d only take equivalent of two chocolate bars, 500ml bottle of water and a Powerade
    • You won’t be wearing your hiking boots – they will provide boots the crampons can be added to. Like ski boots but a bit more flexible. Also, you’ll be provided with two layers of pants (inner and waterproof), probably 4 layers for upper body, gloves, balaclava, hat, helmet
    • The refuge is quite cool – very friendly and lots of food / drinks. My girlfriend came along up to stay at the refuge and enjoyed it
    • Be sure to consider staying in the beautiful national park for a day or two afterwards.  Its a nice rest after the climbing, but also a great spot for walks and generally sitting gawping at the perfect cone of Cotopaxi.  We stayed for 2 nights at Hacienda Los Mortinos which was lovely, if a bit pricey
    • For preparation – the Quilatoa Loop only around an hour or so drive to the South West is a fantastic 2/3 days of hiking through mountain valleys like something from a Lord of the Rings movie and will give you time to acclimatise.  See the entry 3 days / 2 nights hiking the Quilatoa Loop for more details
    • Finally – best of luck for those attempting it!

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Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone