Cotopaxi: Ecuador’s Other National Park

July 30, 2014 Jason Allen

The number-one reason people visit Ecuador is to see the Galápagos Islands. (And frankly, it should be; the islands and the wildlife that inhabit them should be on everyone’s must-do list.) But there’s another place in Ecuador that most people don’t think of. In fact, it just might be the country’s physically hugest, yet best kept secret: Cotopaxi National Park.

Located roughly 50km (31 mi) south of the capital city of Quito, Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s second-largest park after the Galápagos. It contains three volcanoes, (two of them dormant), but the real star is the park’s namesake. Incan for “smooth neck of the moon” and with a peak that reaches 5,900m (3.7 mi) above sea level, Cotopaxi Volcano is considered the highest active volcano in the world, not to mention the most volatile in South America.

Cotopaxi volcano in ecuador

Cotopaxi Volcano is considered the highest active volcano in the world. Photo by A Ashrafi.

So what do you do on the world’s highest active volcano? You climb it, of course. Every weekend, about 100 people undertake the challenge of ascending to the summit. While the climb itself isn’t terribly challenging, (as far as climbing the world’s largest active volcanoes goes) the real difficulty in summiting Cotopaxi comes from its sheer altitude. It’s recommend that if you’re going to attempt this, you should spend several days in nearby Quito first to acclimatize to the higher altitude.

trekkers walking up cotopaxi

Acclimatization is the key to success for reaching the summit of Cotopaxi. Photo by J Rubinic.

For those of us without the interest in seeing Ecuador from the top (or are afraid of heights), there are loads of other ways to enjoy Cotopaxi. There are plenty of expeditions over the adjacent páramo (“grasslands”) by hike, bike, and horseback, and all of them are family-friendly if you need them to be. Throughout your time in these areas, you’ll encounter several huge boulders scattered over the landscape like grains of salt – a reminder of the power of the volcano as a thing to be both reckoned with and respected.

There is, of course, some amazing wildlife here too. (This is Ecuador, after all – home to a disproportionate number of the world’s species given the country’s size.) You’ll have the chance see lots of unusual animals, including wild horses and llamas, the Andean fox, and the Andean spectacled bear – a name that brings such an image to mind, it’s almost worth the trip just to check this guy out.

Can you spot the Andean fox? Just one of the animals you might be able to see. Photo by Mor.

Can you spot the Andean fox? Just one of the animals you might be able to see. Photo by Mor.

In any case, no matter what kind of experience you could possibly hope for out of a visit to Cotopaxi, the one thing that unites every single trip there is the quite literally life-changing view of the snowy peak of the mountain. And whether you see it from near or far, it is an image so breathtaking you might just forget to catch your flight to the Galápagos after all.


La Laguna de Quilotoa

La Laguna de Quilotoa, Ecuador. Photo by Sara y Tzunki.

Getting There

Interested in getting to Cotopaxi and trekking over one of the southern hemisphere’s largest, yet best-kept secrets? G Adventures offers the perfect itinerary throughout inland Ecuador. And with departure dates in every month of the calendar year, this is the perfect time to see the wonders of Cotopaxi. Check out the itinerary for the Ecuador Multisport tour here.

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