Finally, the big day arrived and we were ready. My friend Jabi and I were about to face our biggest mountain challenge ever: climbing the Cotopaxi volcano, nearly 6,000 meters high.
After hiking Rucu Pichincha and North Iliniza as part of our acclimatization, we were full of energy and motivation. Actually, we had spent a few months between Colombia and Ecuador completing several hiking routes, so our bodies seemed ready.
Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano with a perfect conical shape. It has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country. While most visitors don’t climb beyond the shelter, a few venture into the frozen summit.
Total distance: 3.8 km from the shelter to the top
Time: 2 days
Maximum Elevation: 5,897 meters
Instead of booking this tour with an agency, we decided to go on our own. Obviously, we got a guide to come with us, we were a little stingy and didn’t want to spend much money, but the two of us weren’t crazy enough to do it alone, as though we were taking a walk in the park. The climb to the summit is a battle against the height, the darkness of the night and the freezing wind.
Despite what tourist agencies say in their eagerness to sell more tours to the mountain, the climb is not as easy as it sounds. I’m not saying it is technically difficult, but it’s a six hour climb spent dodging cracks in the ice while the darkness of the night doesn’t let you see the path ahead of you. You feel cold, fatigue and a lack of oxygen, and every step is harder than the previous one.
The first 3 hours of the climb were, let’s say, easy. We still had lots of energy and motivation. From the fourth hour on, the freezing wind and lack of oxygen began to take their toll. Rest breaks lasted not minutes but seconds, but still helped us recover some energy. The final climb, the last hour, was pretty tough. The higher the sun rose, the more we felt the weight of the mountain on us. One step more, one step more, we’re almost there!
Despite the exhaustion, we celebrated the conquest of the mountain with joy, excitement and stunning views. The few of us who managed to hit the summit (more than half of the people turned back due to fatigue or altitude sickness) congratulated each other with hugs, smiles and tears.
After a few photos on the top, Jabi and I (and our frosty mustaches) started the descent. We couldn’t waste much time, as the morning sun had begun to open some cracks in the ice and it could be dangerous. The descent had to be quick.
Finally, we got back to the shelter, had a cup of tea and were ready to return to Quito. I have to admit that I had never been so tired in my life… but there we were, happy and proud!
Climbing Cotopaxi volcano program
This climb is done in two days. The first day you get up to the Jose Ribas shelter, located at 4,800 meters, and sleep there. Cars can drive only up to the Cotopaxi parking area; from there you walk one hour to the shelter.
You can have dinner at the shelter and sleep a few hours. You start climbing at 3:00 am, using your headlamps. The climb usually takes between 5 and 7 hours. In our case, it took us six hours to get to the top.
After hitting the summit, you take the same path down to the shelter; this lasts about 3 hours.
Budget for climbing Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. How much does it cost?
We managed to climb the volcano for $130 per person total. This included the guide ($65 per day divided between 2 people) + equipment rental ($30 for boots, crampons, an ice ax, and a helmet) + Jose Ribas shelter ($10 for camping) + transport (bus + $ 25 Jeep).
The agencies usually charge about $160 to $180 for this tour.
The Jose Ribas shelter offers the following options:
Overnight: $20 in a bunk bed
Dinner + overnight + breakfast: $30
Camping area: $10
Hostel in Quito: Discovery Quito. Nice, economic and well located.
Bus Quito – Cotopaxi Park: $1.50
From the park entrance you’ll have to find a car to get you up to the parking area near the shelter. The price for this ride is around $10.
If you need to fly to Ecuador, check out Skyscanner to find the best flight deals.
You better bring your own food from Quito. You can get meals, teas and snacks at the shelter but it is quite expensive.
If you are traveling in Ecuador, even on a short trip, I highly recommend that you get a good travel insurance. Trusted by thousand of adventurers, World Nomads is one of the best and more reliable options.
WEATHER. WHEN TO CLIMB COTOPAXI
The best seasons for climbing the Cotopaxi volcano are from June to September and from November to February.
If you want to find the cheapest flights to Ecuador, I recommend that you download the free Skyscanner app. It shows a comparison calendar with the cheapest prices and airports in each month.
TIPS FOR HIKING THE COTOPAXI VOLCANO
Although many agencies says it’s a very easy climb that almost anyone can complete, this is not true. Half of the groups do not hit the summit. It is not technically difficult for someone with experience, but I don’t think this is a tourist attraction. Think carefully about whether or not you are trained before attempting a climb like this.
If you think you are not ready to climb to the top, you can hire a day tour from Quito, and enjoy beautiful views from the shelter. I recommend the tour by Getyourguide, which has professional guides.
Prepare a good plan of acclimatization before climbing Cotopaxi. The most popular hikes you can start with are Rucu Pichincha, Quilotoa Lagoon, Pasochoa and Iliniza Norte. Some info about altitude sickness.
Next Read: Hiking the Huayhuash circuit in Peru
Do you have any question about Climbing Cotopaxi volcano, Trekking Ecuador? Please, contact me!
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book or buy a service, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I love.
Hi, I’m Miguel; Adventure traveler, scuba diver and hiking lover. I have been traveling the world for the last 12 years and I hope my experiences, photos and hiking routes inspire you to travel the world too.
Thanks for the trip planning beta. This peak is on my bucket list.
Sure Don, it’s an amazing route. just ask me about any doubt you have before you do it!
Hello.I like your page..Full of usefull information. Can you please tell me,how did you arrange a guide for summit to Cotopaxi, without agency. Is it possible to rent only a gear? I am a bit sceptic about renting the shoes.I have good climbing shoes and crampoons but I don*t know if I should take them..It takes lots of space and they are heavy..In what condition are normally shoes for rent?Muchas gracias por tu respuesta y que sigues disfrutando en tus viajes.Saludos,Sabina
Hola Sabina. There are few hiking and outdoor stores in El Mariscal neighbourhood.. they rent climbing gear too, a bit old sometimes, but it will do it. it also depends on how much you wanna pay. 🙂 They know guides. You don’t need to take a tour if you don’t want to, ask around for a guide and rent some gear. and you’re ready to go!
Hey, do the guides speak in english or only spanish?
I want to do summit in a few weeks, is it good time to go in beginning of may?
I did a lot of trekking in Nepal and north india, and planing to go to Peru. Do you have any recommendations for trekking solo in North Peru, less touristy ereas?
Thanks man a lot for your answers.
My wife and I are going to Ecuador December 2017. Cotopaxi is on the itinerary. What guide company did you use for climbing Cotopaxi
we didn’t use any company.. we hired just a guide. unfortunately I lost his contact. Sorry about that.
Just wanna know if its possible to stay overnight in refugio even if iam not climbing the top? Do I need a guide to get there??
Yes, you can stay in the refugio. no problem, a lot of people do that. and you don’t need a guide.. it’s a road.. most people go there by car.
Eduard Goretoy says
Hi Iguel, can u please tell me where El Mariscal neighbourhood is? I can’t seem to find it. Thnx
Hi Eduard, La Mariscal is around Plaza Foch. Good luck!
Steffen Kind says
Hey I’am about to fly to Ecuador and Cotopaxi is on my list. Your articel is really helpful. I just have a few questions:
1) where die you hire the guide?
2) where did you borrow the equipment?
3) why did you borrow boots? Can’t you use the boots you used for the other hikes?
Hi Steffen! That sounds cool. Look.. I went to La mariscal neighbourhood, there are many hiking shops around Foch square. They rent all gear you might need.. and they know guides and could give you some contacts. 🙂
No, you can’t use regular boots. You need to use crampons, and so, you need to use special boots for crampons.
So did you ride to the base camp with the guide from quito? Is there anywhere closer to cotopaxi that I could rent boots,crampons, polls, a heavy jacket/pants? Did you pay for the guides travel/accommodation? Would you attempt this again without a guide? Thanks!
Hi, yes I arranged everything in Quito which is only an hour or so from Cotopaxi. Yes, I paid for the guide’s travel and accommodation. NO.. I would never attempt this without a guide. NEVER. You climb up at night, and it’s a glacier. It’s not a hike, it’s a serious climb. You need a guide. Safe travels.
Hello! Thanks for this post– so helpful. I am here in Ecuador right now actually– I see you made this post in March, did you climb in March?
I realize this is sort of the “off season” but from what I have read and who I have talked to, you can still climb year-round.
I think I’m going to go for it, but was wondering if you actually climbed in March, or just made the post in March 🙂
Your pictures are amazing!
Hi, I climbed Cotopaxi a few years ago. I don’t know about the current situation as I’ve heard it’s been quite active lately. Please, check it out in Quito to be sure! Good luck!
Hi, this is really useful — I hate being ripped off by travel companies, so want to sort things at a local level rather than online. I’m really looking forward to this!
I have a few questions:
a) Do you know if the guides charge per person or per trip (i.e. I’ll be solo, so will it cost more?)
b) I know you hired climbing equipment — what else did you take? Looks like gaiters, wet weather gear etc?
c) Any other hikes in Ecuador you’d thoroughly reccomend? I’m going to do the Quilatoa Loop as part of acclimatising.
Hi Grace, how are you? a) they charge per trip. b) I had climbing clothes so we just rented crampons, helmets, etc. c) I can recommend Iliniza and quilotoa loop.. most people do Pasanchoa too. those are great hikes! 🙂 Safe travels, Miguel
I’m thinking of attempting the summit and was wondering how far in advance you made the accommodations with the guide?
Hi Matt, I contacted the guide just a few days before, but I had done the proper acclimatization before. 🙂 Safe travels!
Just wondering, as I am about to climb the volcano soon, what guide organization did you use?
Thanks for all the info! I am planning to do the Cotapaxi hike. But before we want to go to Lake Quilotoa. I won’t have so much time, so thought about just doing a day trip there.
So the idea is to go there and next day do the hike to Cotopaxi. Do you think it would be to much? Also Im thinking on the way, to not take so many buses..thought about arrive at night in Latacunga, sleep, do the trail to the lake and sleep again at Latacunga and so go to Cotopaxi. Or better go back to Quito to start the from there?
Hi Leticia, you need to do a proper acclimatization before attempting Cotopaxi… keep in mind that it’s near 6,000 meters high. You need to climb two or three other mountains above 5,000 meters and sleep one night in the shelter before climbing Cotopaxi, otherwise it’s gonna be really hard! Safe travels,
Thanks for sharing your experience with Cotopaxi, I found your blog super helfpul. I’m planning a trip next year, and I was curious about the equipment rental. I saw you rented ice axes, crampons, and helmets – do you remember if other items were available, such as gaiters or belay jackets? If possible I’d like to minimize what I have to take in my luggage. Thanks!
Hi Kevin, there are many climbing shops in Quito. I’m sure you can find pretty much anything you need. Safe travels
I don’t have any ice climbing experience yet but have climbed a few mountains (Kili, Mt. Toubkal, Mt. Whitney). What is the best course of action you would recommend to help me prepare for / learn the skills before attempting cotopaxi? Is it necessary to learn before climbing or can it be taught during the climb or in the days before?
Something like doing some of the smaller hikes where a guide teaches you the skills, etc?
Hi Monica, how are you?
You can ask for short climbing courses in Quito. Anyway, the day before you attempt Cotopaxi, you’ll do some exercises on the glacier right next to the shelter. That involves the use of crampons, ice axes, etc. Most agencies and guides do that. It’s what 99% of unexperienced people do before climbing Cotopaxi. However, you’ll need to hike other mounts before Cotopaxi for the acclimatization. Also, depends on you fitness shape, etc.
How large of a day pack do you need? I was thinking of just taking a normal size one that I use for literally day hikes. Similarly, do you have a sense what kind of sleeping bag we need if staying in refuge? The one I have is ideal for weather conditions as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hi, you don’t need a big backpack for the climb up to the volcano. You’ll bring some water, camera, and little more. However, you’ll need to bring your sleeping bag, some food, warm clothes, etc., to the shelter. A 30 or 40 liter backpack should be probably enough. I can’t tell you about temperatures inside the refuge because I slept outside. Sorry about that,
Great trip report and thanks for helping all of us out with logistics. I am wondering if Cotopaxi is acceptable to climb without crevasse rescue gear? I would be looking to ski the mountain and have a lot of experience with crevasse rescue but would like to go light and not have to bring a harness, rope etc. Is this a bad idea on such a glaciated volcano? Thanks for your time!
I don’t think it’s a good idea unless you are a pro climber.
Hey ! I am currently trying to find a guide to go to the Cotopaxi, also on a budget.
But all the answers I get is that they have to be hired for two days. How did you find your guide ? Do you remember how you contacted him or his name ?
Hi François, well it’s technically a two-day hike. First day, you get to the parking lot, next day you get to the top and back. I found my guide asking around in the gear rental stores located around Foch Square in Quito. Safe travels, Miguel
Thank you for all of the useful advice.
Would you recommend renting a car to get to Cotopaxi or would the guide help to get you there? And how about Quilotoa? Can you easily find transportation there and at a reasonable rate or would you recommend having a rental car?
Thanks in advance.
Hi Todd, you can go by bus to the base of the park, and then find a taxi to the parking lot. Safe travels! Miguel
Todd Kimberlain says
Thanks, Miguel. I saw your response to Chase (above), where you mentioned that you found your guide at Foch Square in Quito. Would it be safe to not make a booking with someone and then to go there a couple of days prior to find a cheap guide? I wouldn’t want to take a chance of not finding someone to accompany me, but I’m also on a budget too. Thanks again for your willingness to answer all these many questions.
Hi Todd, if you don’t find a guide a couple of days before, you’ll always have the chance to go with a trekking agency. There are many in Quito. Safe travels!
Todd Kimberlain says
Hi Miguel –
I wonder if you could help me answer a couple of additional questions that I had. You’ve been super helpful by answering all of my others questions, and I appreciate that very much.
I found a gentleman who would take me to Cotopaxi for $420 (all transportation, lodging, gear, etc. included). Are you reasonably confident that by going to Foch Square several days prior to the time I’m scheduled to go I’d be able to do better?
Also, would you advise buying waterproof pants before the trip or can these be rented in gear shops?
great blog and really useful information! Thank you for sharing!
Could you also tell us which peaks you climbed before for acclimatization and what your schedule for that was? Thanks!
Regards and have a wonderful new year 2020,
Hi Sven, I climbed Pichincha, Iliniza Norte and Quilotoa before Cotopaxi. Safe travels!