Snow-capped and burnt-red Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s most striking natural icons, but also one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, rising nearly 5,900m above sea level and erupting more than 50 times in the last 300 years. It is an absolute highlight to see this volcano up close, and at just 2hrs from Quito, it’s also incredibly easy to include a visit to Cotopaxi National Park in any itinerary.
Foreigners are required a professional mountaineering guide in order to attempt the summit (not to mention experience and a lot of technical gear), but it’s actually possible to hike to the volcano’s “base camp” at Refugio José Rivas and as far as the base of the glacier without the need for any expensive guide, alpine skills, or specialised equipment (beyond a warm jacket and comfortable shoes)! In terms of reward for effort, this is hands-down one of the best hikes in Ecuador, bringing you right to the icy Cotopaxi Glacier at 5,000— breathtaking in every possible sense!
All the details: Hiking to Refugio José Rivas
Cost: The best way to do this hike is probably with a tour company, as the park is quite large and poorly connected to public transport. Ecuador Hop has an excellent 1-day tour out to Cotopaxi for just $49USD, including a knowledgable local guide, amazing meals at Chuquiragua Lodge, and heaps of park highlights. There’s also a 2-day option that combines the visit to Cotopaxi with Laguna Quilotoa and includes an overnight stay at the beautiful Chuquiragua Lodge for $149USD.
Getting there: Cotopaxi National Park is only about 90min from Quito, but it will take an additional hour to drive to the carpark at the base of the volcano. To my knowledge, it’s not possible to get to a public bus all the way here, so the tour recommended above (or another similar tour) is the best option.
Where to stay: Beautiful Chuquiragua Lodge is just outside the national park and offers either dorm beds or private rooms for $15USD/night (per person). The food here is simply spectacular, and there’s even a free spa and sauna on-site! Otherwise, Secret Garden Cotopaxi a bit farther north is a top choice for exploring Cotopaxi, with amazing views of the surrounding mountains, a great social vibe, and staff that can help you plan other activities.
I am incredibly excited to be back in the mountains— following an entire month of non-stop hiking in Peru, I briefly traded my hiking boots for fins and spent some time diving in the Galápagos, but I am more than ready to stretch my legs on a new trail (even if I did post my hiking boots home and have to wear my runners instead).
With only limited time to see the highlights of mainland Ecuador (and regrettably not enough time to actually attempt the summit), a hike to Refugio José Rivas and the Cotopaxi Glacier is at the very top of my list. I don’t really know what to expect in terms of difficulty, as there’s surprisingly little written about this hike on the internet, but I do know that the views will be spectacular, and that’s all the convincing I need.
What to wear/bring on the hike to Refugio José Rivas:
– Warm fleece & possibly a down jacket for the top
– Runners/hiking boots— preferably boots & long socks if you have them!
– Warm hat, gloves, scarf
– Sunnies— that glacier glare can be strong!
– At least 1L of water
– Some coca candy/leaves to ease altitude headaches
After a wonderful breakfast at the Chuquiragua Lodge and some sightseeing around the National Park, we finally cruise into the carpark at the base of the volcano and step out of the bus at a dizzying 4,500m. I am at a serious advantage after all the high-altitude trekking last month, finding that I can breathe and walk without any difficulty at what would normally be a headache-inducing altitude— which is confirmed by pretty much every other passenger, none of whom are properly acclimatised to such heights after just a few days in Quito at 2,850m.
As we start our ascent, moving very slowly and steadily up the switch-backing trail to the left of the carpark, we pass dozens of locals and travellers sprawled out on the ground in agony. What’s even more concerning is the hiker who looks nearly catatonic, being half-carried up the trail by friends against all better judgement.
Thankfully no one in our little convoy of 6 hikers reaches this level, but it’s pretty alarming to see how underprepared a majority of the people hiking to Refugio José Rivas really are. At just 360m elevation gain from the carpark to the Refugio, it’s not a long or arduous climb and it really shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes, but without at least some acclimatisation (and common sense), you may not make it!
Tips for trekking at altitude:
Decreased barometric pressure at high elevation, which in turn decreases the availability of oxygen in the air, triggers a host of altitude-related physiological responses to occur in our bodies within a few hours of ascending above 2,500m. In plain English: there’s less oxygen in the air at high altitudes, which can lead to unpleasant symptoms, like headache, shortness of breath, and general fatigue.
Refugio José Rivas (4,864m) and Cotopaxi Glacier (~5,000m) are both well above that 2,500m threshold, so it’s very possible that you will experience altitude-related symptoms or even altitude sickness if completing this hike without prior acclimatisation. Spending a few days in Quito (2,850m) might help with acclimatisation, especially if you make a trip up the TelefériQo and hang out on Pichincha Volcano (4,100m), as will spending time in Cotopaxi National Park before hitting the trail.
Even with some acclimatisation, though, it’s important listen to your body and go slow on the hike up. If you become dizzy, develop a bad headache, lose coordination, or start to feel intoxicated, stop immediately and evaluate whether you need to turn around and head back down. You do not want to be one of the people laying on the trail in agony!
For heaps more on altitude sickness in the mountains, check out this post: HIGH-ALTITUDE TREKKING: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO PREVENTING & TREATING ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN THE MOUNTAINS
Delightedly arriving at the 4,864m Refugio José Rivas without any casualties, the group heads inside the hut for a relax and some warm drinks while I power-hike ahead to the glacier. Contrasted against the brilliant rust-coloured ash and rocks of the volcano, Cotopaxi Glacier is blindingly white and insanely beautiful. Coupled with the sunny, clear skies (pretty rare in the mountains!), the view couldn’t possibly be more perfect.
Although it’s typically not wise to run up a mountain at altitude, if you’ve had the luxury of more than a month of conditioning, you can pretty well fly by every single hiker on the trail and easily make it to the base of the glacier in 30 minutes. For those moving a bit slower, 45-60 minutes is a more than conservative estimate to make the roughly 100m gain up the loose red trail.
The return route to the Refugio and onwards to the carpark is far quicker than the ascent, especially as you can skid down the loose volcanic rock on the steeper, more direct trail (the switch-backs are better on the way up, but opt for the straight-shot on your way down!). I made it down from the glacier and back to José Rivas in about 15 minutes and then it took the group around 25 minutes to slip and slide our way down to the carpark.
My shoes collected about 2kg of rocks along the way, which is yet another reason to opt for hiking boots and long socks if you have them— but still, a fun end to a superb hike.
All said and done, it’s not a long or overly demanding trek to Refugio José Rivas and the Cotopaxi Glacier a bit farther ahead, but it is undeniably spectacular in terms of both the views over surrounding volcanos and the intimate look at Cotopaxi itself. On the return trip to Ecuador I’m already planning in my head, I’ll be attempting that summit for sure.
Trail stats & tips:
The 360m climb from the carpark to Refugio José Rivas takes around 45min at a modest pace, and I’d recommend the switchback trail to the left of the carpark, since it’s a bit gentler and just generally in better condition.
From the Refugio, the final 100m climb to the glacier only takes 45-60min, there and back.
Allow a total of 3-4hrs to hike to the glacier, stop for photos, spend some time relaxing at Refugio José Rivas, and then return to the carpark.