Most Important Facts
- Organize: If you are up for this adventure, you have to book a guided tour. It is not allowed to do this hike on your own. There are many tour operators based in Quito. We booked our tour with Happy Gringo Travel.
- Costs: Can vary depending on agency and season. For a three day Cotopaxi trip including summiting another peak for acclimatization on the first day, a rest day on the second day and the summiting day, we have payed 490 USD per person (including all accommodation, transportation and meals).
- Elevation gain on summit day: You start at around 4800 meter at the Refugio José-Ribas and hike up to 5897 meter altitude to the summit of Cotopaxi.
- Hours needed: On the summit day, we needed six hours to climb up to the peak and three hours to return. More experienced mountaineers might be quicker.
- Infrastructure: Depending on the first peak you climb for acclimatization, the first night you will spend in a basic hostel with all infrastructure needed (just hope for a hot shower). The second night in the mountain Refugio is less comfortable, you sleep in a dorm and there is no running water.
- Preparation: Altitude is the biggest challenge on Cotopaxi, the second highest mountain of Ecuador. Technically, it is not a very difficult mountain, as there is no ice climbing or rock climbing involved to reach the peak on the normal route. If you are (like us) unexperienced mountaineers, you should take your time for acclimatization. This will be key to your successful summiting experience.
- Useful links:
Our Packing List
- Small day backpack with a rain cover
- Hiking shoes
- Sandals / sneakers
- Hiking trousers
- Long underwear
- Long sleeve (two layers)
- Down jacket
- Rain jacket
- Sleeping bag
- Two pair of woolen socks
- Woolen cap
- Some snacks
- Camel bag and water
- First aid kit
- Hand sanitizer
- Water purifier tablets
- Toilet paper, wet-wipes, toothbrush, soap, towel
- Sun cream, sun glasses, sun hat
- Camera gear
- Torch light
- We rented crampons, ice axe, harness with two karabiners, plastic mountaineering boots, gaiters and warm, waterproof mountaineering trousers and the helmet from the tour operator (which was included in the above mentioned price).
Our Way of Climbing
Date of hike: September 5th to September 7th 2018 – To give you an idea what you can expect from this summit adventure, I summarize how we have spent these three days in the province of Cotopaxi.
Cotopaxi from a distance at sunset
Day 1: Acclimatization. Getting started. As a preparation for Cotopaxi and in order to get to know our guide Cristian, Mirko, our friend Flo and I climbed the volcanic mountain Illiniza Norte. We were lucky with the weather. The view was bright all day long and besides some heavy winds and some icy parts, we encountered no snow or rain. The first and more easy part of the hike was the ascend up to the Refugio de Nuevos Horizonte on 4800 meter above sea level. It took us around two hours of hiking from the trailhead to reach the Refugio – we enjoyed great views towards the twin mountains (see picture below, Illiniza Sur on the left and Illiniza Norte on the right).
At the Refugio we drank some Coca tea and ate our snacks. Then it was time to get ready for the more technical part. The ascend to the peak was steep but continuous and soon we got used to the heavy winds and rocky path. Cristian did a very good job in leading the way and securing us with a rope, where it was needed. After another two though hours, several minutes of soft knees and some great views towards Cotopaxi and down the valley we finally reached the peak. Unfortunately, the peak was covered in clouds and our summit selfie turned out a little gray… But nevertheless, we were really happy that we made it safely to the top.
As expected, the way down was tedious and long. We were quite tired and still had to concentrate a lot. One steep part requested abseiling – which was fun for Mirko and Flo, but for me a test of courage. The best part about our way back was the final down-hill hike, respectively slide on the volcanic stones. This footage shows how we had to find our way down. For me it felt a bit like skiing in hiking boots – I loved it.
Day 2: Preparation day. Resting and preparing. On the second day, we took it very slow and easy. After a late breakfast we re-packed our backpacks and got ready for entering the Cotopaxi national park around lunch time. Today, only one little hike from the parking lot at the feet of Refugio de Nuevos Horizonte up to the Refugio was planned.
The evening before summiting Cotopaxi
At the Refugio (on the picture above), we discussed our summiting plans with our guide and co-guide (as we were three people, we needed a second guide for safety reasons). After an early dinner, we went to bed around seven and tried to get a little rest. (I must admit, I was very nervous and had a hard time falling asleep, but I assume this is part of the game.)
Already at 11 pm we got up, put on all our warm mountain cloths and climbing gear and around midnight, our little group was ready for the mountain. (Side note: At that night, only one other climber was summiting, so we had Cotopaxi almost for us alone.)
Day 3: Summit day. Pushing boundaries. I remember the first hour of the hike clearly. Afterwards, everything got a little blurred as I lost track of time and concentrated only on my steps and steady breath. I will never forget the first icy gust of wind that welcomed us to this adventure. I felt physically really fit, but my nervousness was comparable to the feeling before an important examination. After the first fifteen minutes, a warmer feeling started to spread within me: The motivation to actually succeed together with my good company. I could sense, Mirko and Florian were feeling similarly and it was great to share this moment with them.
The first part of the hike was technically easy. For roughly one hour, we were following a steep path through volcanic stones until the border of the glaciers. At this point we turned off our head-lamps and glanced up at the sky. There were millions of stars shimmering. I had to open and close my eyes twice in order to really grasp how wonderful this was. We spotted the warm lights of the provincial villages down in the valley, where most of the people were sleeping in their warm beds. And also, we registered that there were no clouds in the sky; a promising sign for a beautiful sunrise.
From this point upwards, the tough part started. We climbed with crampons and ice hacks through deep snow fields and two rougher, icier glacier parts. We had to pass by and cross several crevasses, which asked for a lot of concentration. The mountain guides secured us on ropes, varying distances depending on the terrain. For me, during this whole ascend, I was in a status of what I would call a “flow”. I was so fully immersed and involved in climbing upwards, I could not really think of something else. It was just me and the mountain. At some parts in the dark cold night, I was really not sure, whether I am going to make it to the top and asking myself “why am I actually doing this…!?”, at other parts the positive motivation to reach the top overcame me and I pushed forward.
Finally, I heard Mirko and Flo loudly cheering from a distance (they reached the summit a few seconds before me). Once I joined them up there, my joy was of a more silent nature. I had tears in my eyes and could not fully realize what I was perceiving. It seemed that everything was golden around me: The golden morning lights shining on the surrounding peaks made me realize, how high we actually were, the exhaustion I felt during the hours before was quickly washed away with a warm and golden feeling of success and gratitude to have made it safely, and finally hugging Mirko and Flo to cheer together was pure and “golden” happiness. (Sorry, if that part was a little cheesy! ;D)
Panoramic view from the top of Cotopaxi, down the crater. On the right in the far distance you also see the mountain Chimborazo, which is the highest peak in Ecuador.
Me giving a grateful hug to our guide Cristian.
Golden lights at Cotopaxi summit.
The three hours climb down the volcano were again quite demanding. We all felt tired and exhausted and a slight headache started, caused from the rapid change of air pressure. We were all looking forward to the warm bed that awaited us down in the valley…
After some hours of rest and a delicious dinner in a restaurant in Latacunga, Flo, Mirko and I agreed quickly, that this was not our last summit. But first, we needed some recovery days (or weeks) and a change of scenery in order to be able to realize what we actually experienced on Cotopaxi.
It took me also three weeks to sort my thoughts and memories in order to be able to start writing this recap. Thanks for your patience and for sharing your time with me, reading this blogpost.
- Do some other peaks on a high altitude before this trip. The better your acclimation is, the more probable you are to summit Cotopaxi. Volcano Pinchincha in Quito would be a good option to get started, here you don’t need a guide for it.
- Book your guided climbing tour directly in Quito in order to get the best price. It is worthwhile comparing some last minute offers from different agencies.
- If your travel plans and backpack allows it, bring your own mountaineering equipment. The rented material was not as comfortable as we wished.
- Have a plan ready where to relax after summiting. You will be really tired and therefore happy, if you have already booked a hotel with a hot shower after the tour. We stayed in Latacunga, a nice little town with some good restaurants.
- Be brave and do it. Cotopaxi is a perfect mountain for passionate hikers without mountaineering experience for a first and unforgettable summiting experience.
Our Trek Rating and Résumé
- Technical difficulty: 9/10
- Necessary fitness: 10/10
- Scenery: 9/10
- Wildlife: 2/10
- Fun: 7/10
Natalie, Flo and Mirko at the top of Cotopaxi.