Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador and probably the most recognizeable. From Quito and Ambato it appears as a nearly symmetrical snow-covered cone. The entrance is a bit understated for one of Ecuador's most visited parks. A gravel road leads off the Pan American highway, past a couple of tour operators and to a small fee station. A few locals sell wool crafts nearby. These might actually be useful (besides being nice souvenirs). Despite being only 80 km (50 mi) south of the equator, it snowed on us while we were in the park. This is the map of Cotopaxi. We recommend a digital picture of it since you can only see it at the entrance and at the museum. We came with a guide to Cotopaxi so it wasn't entirely necessary but signs inside the park are more or less non-existant.
The entrance to the park and the paramo around the mountain are at roughly 3500 m (11,500 ft) above sea level. From Quito this isn't a huge gain in elevation but with the enormous peak of Cotopaxi looming nearby, it's easy to forget how high you already are. Paramo are high-altitude grasslands. Near Cotopaxi they have a definite volcanic character. Old lava flows have been reclaimed by the grasslands to varying degrees. The edges of the park also feature eucalyptus forests, although those are non native species. They were brought in as an effort to provide useful (building grade) lumber for Ecuador. As is so often the case with introduced species it has caused more problems than it has solved.
The lake here is limpiopungo, it changes size and shape seasonally and has a great view of both peaks inside the park. Besides Cotopaxi, the volcanic crater of Rumiñahui (visible here behind the lake) is a major reference point. Between the entrance and this parking area there is a small visitor center and museum on the geology of the area and the wildlife (most of which is very rare). There's also a small restaurant nearby where we stopped to have a cup of coca tea. Coca is somewhat controversial as it is the natural plant from which cocaine can be refined. In neighboring Colombia the US government has exfoliated vast tracts of land to try and get rid of the plants because one potentially harmful product can be made from them (with a lot of chemical help). Good thing no one has figured out how to make a narcotic from redwood trees. A few leaves from the plant steeped in hot water produces only a mild stimulant along the lines of coffee. Supposedly, coca tea is helpful with altitude sickness.
It's a little dark, but those creatures at the bottom of the picture are 'wild' horses. For the most part they are the descendants of tamed horses that either escaped or were released nearby. They seem to have adapted nicely to the paramo surrounding Cotopaxi. The glaciers on the slopes of the mountain can be seen in the background.
Halfway up the slope in this picture is a tiny yellow box. That would be the Jose Ribas refuge, the primary target for most visitors to Cotopaxi. In this view it's clear that one can hike up (actually out to the left, up is too steep) to get to the glacier from the refuge. Beyond that specialized ice climbing equipment is needed to continue on towards the summit.
There aren't many hiking trails in Cotopaxi. One of them ascends to the refuge which is where this picture was taken from. Another circles the lake (this is limpiopungo again from above). There are a couple others but they tend to follow alongside the roads so they don't provide much of a wilderness experience.
The trail up to the refuge isn't particularly long, but it is steep, the ground is covered in a layer of fine volcanic dust and there's substantially less oxygen up here than one (like us) might be used to. As you can see, there are three buses and several cars in the parking area. Our guide said this was the most crowded he had ever seen it. Speaking of our guide, his name is Guillermo Valencia and we got in touch with him through the Hostal Rabida in Quito. He does trips just about anywhere within the borders of Ecuador, speaks excellent English and seems to have an unending supply of snack foods in his van so we recommend his services heartily.
Look! Quick! The summit! While we had long distance views of it from Quito we only saw it in brief moments while we were on its slopes. Here the clouds cleared long enough for a decent picture. The 'summit' is really the rim of a crater. Cotopaxi, despite the glaciers, is an active volcano most recently showing signs of life in 1975. It ended at least one major battle between Spain and the Incas in the 16th century by erupting spectacularly and it has destroyed the nearby city of Latacunga three times. This begs the question of why anyone lives in Latacunga now. We don't know the answer but there are several thousand of them.
Here we are at the refuge. As you can see it's at 4800m (15,800ft) above sea level. The summit is still well above us at 5987m (18,500ft). Here there are primitive bathrooms. Inside the lodge are several tables where they serve hot drinks and occasionally go by with a pot full of stew or soup. Upstairs is a dormitory. Guillermo tells us that mountaineers ascending to the summit generally leave well before dawn when the ice is more stable. Most people make the summit from the refuge in about 6 hours.
This is the edge of glacier as seen from the refuge. Like glaciers everywhere this one is receding and a decade ago this picture could have been taken from the refuge without the high powered zoom lens.
The descent from the refuge is entirely different. The path down this old lava flow is covered in a thick layer of volcanic dust and ash. As a result each step covers about twice as much distance as normal. With a bit of a bow-legged gait you can slide-walk down the mountain at a remarkable rate. We descended 330m (1000 ft) from the refuge in just under 15 minutes. As a bonus, all of your apparel will be the same shade of greyish-brown when you get there, regardless of what color it was when you started.