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Home > Ecuapedia > Mountains & Volcanoes of Ecuador Cotopaxy volcano description ascent route, itinerary, history. Ecuador information letter on the Cotopaxi volcano.

Cotopaxi volcano a perfect cone
Mountains and Volcanoes of Ecuador

Cotopaxi - 5897 m / 19,347 ft

"Of all the colossal peaks of the Andes, Cotopaxi has the most beautiful and most regular forms.

'It is a perfect cone covered by a thick layer of snow which shines so intensely at sunset that it seems detached from the azure sky."

Alexander Von Humbolt

The Cotopaxi volcano is considered as the most beautiful, the most symmetrical and the most perfect mountain cone. The name "Coto-Paxi" is of Quichua origin (Inca language still being spoken among the Indians of the Andes) and means "the neck of the moon".

This mountain is located in the Eastern Cordillera of the Ecuadorian Andes and is the cornerstone of the Cotopaxi National Park. This volcano is a symmetrical volcanic stratum with average slopes of 40-45 degrees. It is covered by huge glaciers, particularly on the east face. The other side recorded a significant decline in glaciers.
Photo Ron Plotkin
Cotopaxi west face
Photo C.Bichwiller
Cotopaxi ascent: passage of a crevasse
General Considerations:

The ascent of Cotopaxi is not considered as technically difficult, but in no case the ascent should be attempted by people without sufficient experience, without specific knowledge in snow conditions and without going with a professional mountain guide
The crevasses and seracs are very beautiful, but they are also treacherous. Falling into a crevasse without the security of a rope handled by a confirmed guide can lead to death. It is also necessary to take into account altitude, because it makes the climb much more difficult. The use of crampons, ice axe and rope is essential.

Several other peaks located inside the National Park and surrounding the Cotopaxi are less high, so they can be climbed with fewer difficulty, less equipment and they allow a good acclimatization to altitude.


With its 5897 m, Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world. Historically its activity started in 1534 when the Spanish conquistadors began to venture into the territories that are now Ecuador. It was during a decisive battle between Indians and Spaniards that the volcano erupted. This eruption frightened the two camps, so since this event, the Indians consider the mountain as a god, interpreting its sudden activity as a manifestation of divine wrath. As for the Spanish soldiers, unfamiliar with such a natural phenomenon, they went into full panic.

After this episode, Cotopaxi has erupted several times, destroying its environment. The biggest and most devastating eruption occurred in 1877. The lahars produced by melting glaciers went down fast with enough force to devastate cities and valleys and to continue to the Pacific Ocean, situated at 250 km. Currently Cotopaxi is dormant, but it is still active.

The first ascent of the volcano was made by a German, Dr. Wilhelm Reiss, who climbed till the edge of the crater, accompanied by Angel Escobar, a Colombian citizen. This ascent took place in 1872. The route followed a fresh lava flow on the eastern side of the mountain. But it's the famous British climber, Edward Whymper, who, nearly a decade later, reached the summit through what is now known as the normal route, on the north side.

The Ascent:

The melting of the glaciers in Cotopaxi, as on other summits in Ecuador, is significant. Glaciers are therefore constantly moving and the climbing route is always changing.

Departure from the refuge at 4800 m. It is recommended to start the ascent very early, just after midnight to find the best snow condition, reducing the risk of avalanche and facilitating your progress.

Pictures of Cotopaxi, Climbing Route, Summit and Crater

You start to climb by a small path on the right of the refuge ascending in zigzag a stony and ashy slope. Fairly soon you will come to a glacier wall that you'll have to cross. The ice itinerary starts by an ascending route towards the right. Tracks will help you. Then, the climb continues directly up towards the top into a more or less moderated ice slope. At the end of this slope, you will find a large crevasse you will have to circle on the right side.

From there on, you go straight until you arrive on the right of Yanasacha, a huge black rock situated just below the summit. From that point, the slope becomes steeper and the snow is usually softer, but the summit is not very far anymore (+ / - 1 hour).
A smell of sulfur welcomes you when you approach the summit. Return via the same route.

If your ascent takes place outside of the traditional holiday periods (June to September / December-January) and during the working week, it's maybe a good idea to bring banners to mark your route. There is a possibility that you will be alone on top and fog or bad weather can make uneasy find back the descent route.

A normal schedule to reach the summit is normally around 5 or maximum 6 hours. Schedule variable of course depending on the quality of the snow, the weather, the physical condition and degree of acclimatization of climbers.
Photo C. Bichwiller
Cotopaxi arrival at the summit
Descent takes 2 to 3 hours until the refuge "Jose Ribas". Return to the refuge must be scheduled at 10 - 11 A.M. at the latest.
Pictures on this page were lend to us by various of our customers . Those pictures are of their exclusive propriety.
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