Mt Cotopaxi and Cotopaxi National Park

April 20, 2010 § 2 Comments

When you think of iconic mountain peaks the image of the triangular shape with the crooked tip of Matterhorn Comes or perhaps the clouds that always dust the peak of Mount Everest, yet in Ecuador it is the iconic Cotopaxi.

Mt Cotopaxi Ecuador

Cotopaxi is a symmetrical cone soaring from the green grasses and wildflowers of the surrounding paramo, to the brownish-black volcanic rocks climbing towards the summit to the snow-covered peak. Dominating the capital City of Quito skyline to the South, at 19,347 feet in elevation Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador and the highest continually active volcano in the world.

Cotopaxi means “Smooth Neck of the Moon” and the indigenous people have revered the mountain for centuries. The mountain was the bringer of both good rains and good crops. Pre-Incan civilizations believed god dwelled at the top of the mountain.

During the reign of the Incas, Cotopaxi was revered and the unmistakable landmark made it the perfect junction for Incan Roads heading between the fertile valleys of the Sierra and the sultry Amazon jungle. Traces of it’s ancient past can be found in the Incan walls near the springs at Santo Domingo and the remains of the Incan Fortress can been found at Pucara Salitre that controlled traffic on the Incan Roads between the jungle and Latacunga Valley.

The Cotopaxi Volcano with its long history of eruptions. The most famous of which occurred in June 1877, lava poured from the crater melting the glacial snows and creating lahars (avalanches of mud). The lahars sped down the mountain reeking havoc along the way. Much of the neighboring countryside was buried as a wave of mud cascaded over it. The city of Latacunga to the South of Cotopaxi was demolished it’s residents unable to escape were buried alive. These lahars continued with such a magnitude that within an 18-hour period the mudflows had reached the Pacific Coast town of Esmeraldes. Evidence of that catastrophic flow can still be seen throughout much of the countryside of the Sierras. Though Cotopaxi remains active; it has been many years since the last large eruption.

Today, Cotopaxi National Park is the second most visited national park in Ecuador after the Galapagos Islands and it’s the mountain’s natural beauty and a thirst for adventure that draws thousands of tourists each year. Within Cotopaxi National Park there are picnic areas, camping groups, a visitor center, lakes, rivers for fishing, hiking trails and the center the great volcano.

Much of the park is located above the tree line and this wide-open space. The park consists of over is home to Andean gulls, ducks, several species of hummingbirds, Andean Condors, wild horses, deer, rabbits gazelles, wolves, bears foxes, weasels as well as llamas and alpaca the majority of the wildlife lives in the lower elevations.

The great peak is a favorite for mountaineers. The call of the mountain reached famed mountaineer Alexander von Humboldt who failed to reach the summit in 1802. It was geologist Wihelm Rajass who was first person to reach the peak nearly ¾ of a century later. Today, there are 100’s of people who attempt to summit the mountain each week.

With the number of climbers seeking the summit each week, you might almost think the climb is easy. While not considered technically difficult basic mountaineering skills and equipment are required including the use of crampons, ice axe, ropes, and an experienced guide. The elevation is possibly the most difficult part of the climb and for the best chance of success we recommend spending several days in and around the mountain hiking or enjoying other active sports in order to get ready.

The night before the climb is spent at the Jose F. Rivas Refugio. The refugio hosts a large living room with a cozy fireplace, a very basic restaurant, bathrooms and bunks for sleeping. More importantly is it’s location at the base of the glacier it’s the perfect location for your mid-night start for the 6 hour steady climb to the top. Making your way up the mountain one foot after another seeking to reach the summit before the sun’s rays have a chance to soften the snow and causing you to turn around.

Bad weather can also inhibit you reaching your goal, for the best chances of clear skies we recommend planning your summit attempt around the full moon. Though you can climb the mountain year round, December and January are considered the best months followed by February to April it is also considered good conditions from July to September.

The grasslands of Cotopaxi are a favorite day tour for tourists visiting from Quito. A couple hour drive south from Quito allows you to visit the paramo, lakes, visitor center and refugio before heading back to the capital city. Or to combine the day’s visit to Cotopaxi National park with a multi-day tour heading down the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Making Cotopaxi their first stop, and spending the night at one of the lovely historic haciendas before continuing South to explore some of the traditional local markets, the hot springs of Baños and the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca.

Learn more about Cotopaxi


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