Cotopaxi is a huge volcano located in Ecuador in Cotopaxi national park. It’s around 2 hours south of Quito, and the peak is all 5897 meters (19347 feet) above the ocean. It has become more and more common to pay the park a visit when passing through the area. But tours can be a bit pricey for long-term backpackers, and not to mention, crowded. So here is my one day guide to hiking Volcano Cotopaxi on a budget and seeing some of what the National Park has to offer.
The Cotopaxi National Park elevation range from 3400 up to 5897 meters above the sea, not to mention that the park covers a huge area of about 33 393 hectares. That’s like, too big for me to grasp, but more or less the same size as the state of Philadelphia in the US(!). In other words, hiking in Cotopaxi national park and seeing some of what it has to offer, is fully possible without ascending to 5000 meters above the sea.
Let me just say, if it’s not clear, that this guide is for the Cotopaxi refuge hike, climbing Volcano Cotopaxi to the José Rivas refuge. So it’s a day hike, to a part of the volcano. Hiking the whole volcano in a day is definitely not recommendable without a lot of preparation beforehand, and a guide. After all its almost 6000 meters!
Cotopaxi has the second highest summit in Ecuador and is one of the worlds highest volcanos. Hiking Cotopaxi has apparently been a thing since 1872. Even though it has had several eruptions since then. Cotopaxi’s last eruption ended in January 2016, so not too long ago. It’s actually so tall that on a good day, you’ll be able to see it’s top from Quito. Needless to say, it was not an option to hike the whole thing, but I wanted to pay the volcano a visit.
I really want to hike up to over 6000 meters at least one time in my life, but with some mental and physical preparation before, as hiking in altitude is so challenging. If you haven’t done it already, just take my word for it. So if you’re considering visiting Cotopaxi, or hike to Jose Rivas refuge without a tour, or if you are just curious about it, continue reading.
How to get to Cotopaxi National Park by bus
When in Quito I ended up meeting a couple of other backpackers, and we all decided that we wanted to climb Cotopaxi without a tour. We were all headed that way, and we were all traveling low budget. After a little research, we found that there is no problem getting from Quito to Cotopaxi by bus. We decided on a day hike and started out from Quito in the morning.
Bus from Quito to Cotopaxi
We caught a bus from the historic center to Ouitumbe terminal. Basically, ask your hostel or hotel what bus to take there as it depends on where in the city you are. Or check google maps, it’s actually impressive how well Google works for public transport in some cities ( f.eks. in Colombia). From the terminal, it was easy to find a bus passing Cotopaxi, again ask the bus drivers haha.
As we got off the bus, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere on the side of a highway, but there where a couple of men with pickups waiting. After negotiating the price from 25 dollars, we ended up paying 10 dollars per person for the drive in the park.
The Climb to José Rivas Refuge
The drive up to the hikes starting point is about a 40 min into the national park and will take you up to about 1500m elevation. This means that the cotopaxi parking lot elevation, where you start the hike, is about 4100 meters above the sea. That is 13450 feet! When we got out of the car it was cloudy and snowing. The driver told us it would be about half an hour hike up to a refuge, and we decided to start the hike despite the bad weather. 30 min seems like a piece of cake. When you take into consideration that you’re 4100 meters above sea level and about to hike around 700 high meters, it gets a bit more complicated. After around 40 min we arrived at the refuge Jose Rivas, at 4864 meters above the sea. And out of nowhere, the sky decided to clear up, to reveal an amazing view of the area beneath us. We bought some mediocre hot chocolates and really dry buns in the cafe before we headed down in sun and almost clear sky.
Checking out the Cotopaxi National Park
When we got down to the car again, the driver took us to Limpiopungo lagoon. On the way, we passed wild horses wandering the fields. A beautiful experience, as usually when seeing horses they’re owned by somebody. At the lagoon, we did a stroll along the lake to different viewpoints, got to see a variety of birds and was even lucky enough to see a wild bunny jumping around. After that, the driver took us back to the highway. From here it’s easy enough to catch one of the passing buses to go to Latacunga or back to Quito. Another option is to try and negotiate a price for the driver to get you to your next destination. We headed for Latacunga and paid the driver 75 cents extra each for the ride.
Other ways to see Cotopaxi National Park
You can see Cotopaxi with a day tour, but there are several camping sites there as well. If you want to go by your self, or with a guide, consider the option of staying a night in the national park. There are also different kinds of tours leaving from Quito to take you climbing Volcano Cotopaxi. This saves you the effort of getting back and forth yourself. Some even give you also have the option to bike down the hills after hiking up and down to the José Rivas refuge. Most of the hostels and tour agencies in Quito will have information about these tours. Still, me and my friends decided to visit Cotopaxi without guide, and here is my guide to how you can do it too.
Planning for your Cotopaxi visit
Things to know before you visit Cotopaxi
- There is no entrance fee to the park. You still need to sign in at the entrance with your passport
- The whole park area is in altitude, if you plan on spending several days there it might be smart to do a hike in Quito first. I hiked to volcano Pichincha while in Quito! Very recommended:)
- The hike I’m writing about here is easy, hiking to the summit of Volcano Cotopaxi Volcan is for experienced hikers.
- There are camping and parking areas in the park.
- Bring everything you need(see below for what I recommend to bring on your Cotopaxi hike), also food, as there really isn’t a lot offered in the Park or area around.
Climate and weather Cotopaxi National Park
Before you go, you should check the weather forecast, especially if you plan on camping in the national park. The area around Quito, including Cotopaxi National Park, has a wet season and a dry season. Its recommended to hike or visit in the dry season, from july to september. Even though the difficulty of the hike is pretty low, I would say most people could do it if they have time, its good to not hike up in snow or heavy rain. Even though we kind of did the first(haha)
What to bring to hike Cotopaxi:
- Warm clothes(and lots of them)
- Cloves, beanie, scarf
- Sunscreen. Even if it’s not super sunny and all, keep in mind that you’re at altitude. You’re closer to the sun, therefore the sun is, naturally, stronger.
- Optional, coca leaves to get energy when hiking. This isn’t the longest hike, so it isn’t really necessary, but if you’re nervous about the altitude you can try it out. You get it in the market in Quito. Read about the market and other stuff to check out in Quito HERE.
- Ofc. food and all that haha
Trail details for hiking to Jose Rivas Refuge:
Total distance and time of the hike to the Jose Rivaes Refuge: 700 hight meters, 30-40 minutes
Difficulty of climbing Cotopaxi: Easy
Maximum Elevation of the Jose Riva hike: 4800 meters
Cost of hiking Cotopaxi
My Ecuador backpacking budget was as already mentioned pretty tight. I already traveled 3 months longer than I planned to at this point. If I only knew I would manage to stretch my budget to a total of 16 months in Latin America haha (More about me and my journey). Anyway…
- Bus to terminal and bus to Cotopaxi tour starting point(aka. in the middle of the highway). I don’t remember exactly, but sure the total was less than 5 dollars.
- Tour/Car to get around in the National Park 10 dollars
- Ride to Latacunga 75 cents
- Entrance fee: none required
A total of less than 15 dollars for this experience. Plus some cash for an expensive hot chocolate and bun in the refuge.
Hiking Volcano Cotopaxi or at least a part of it is definitely something you should consider doing if you’re anyway passing by!:) Check out stuff to do in Quito HERE, or of your next stop is Banos, read my tips about the beautiful town HERE.