An hour and a half south of Quito, along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, is the dominant image on the Ecuadorian national psyche: the perfectly conical Cotopaxi volcano (altitude 5,897 m / 19,350 ft), one of the world's highest active volcanoes and a mecca for mountain climbers. The volcano lies within Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, a 33,393-hectare (82,515-ac) national park created in 1975 to protect the fragile wet forest and pĂˇramo habitat of the endangered Andean condor and spectacled bear. It is the most popular of Ecuadorâ€™s reserves.
The national park has two types of mountain ecosystems: cloud forest, or montane forest, up to the timberline (3,600-3,000 m / 11,808-12,464 ft) and pĂˇramo (4,000-4,500 m / 13,120-14,760 ft). Andean blueberries, lupine, bromeliads, ugsha grass, mountain roses and other flora cover the landscape. Fauna species entail 17 mammals, including puma, white-tailed deer, weasel, an endemic marsupial mouse and wild horses; and almost 100 species of birds, including Andean gull, shrike-tyrants, brush finches and snipes.
Cotopaxi last erupted in 1942. The volcano is monitored by Ecuadorâ€™s Instituto GeofĂsico (URL: www.igepn.edu.ec). Besides Cotopaxi, the park is also home to other mountains and volcanoes: RumiĂ±ahui (with three peaks: 4,722 m / 15,488 ft, 4,631 m / 15,190 ft and 4,696 m / 15,403 ft), Morurco (4,849 / 15,905 ft) and Chiguilasin Chico (4,876 m / 15,993 ft). Just northeast of the park boundary is Sincholagua (4,873 m / 15,983 ft), which also can be summited. VolcĂˇn Cotopaxiâ€™s glaciers feed the Guayllabamba, Cutuchi and Daule rivers, which flow to the Pacific Ocean, and the RĂo Napo, which flows towards the Amazon.
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi may be accessed at three entrances: the northern (called Pedregal), near Machachi; El Boliche, where the train arrives; and the main entrance (Caspi), six kilometers (3.6 mi) north of Lasso. The roads from the latter two meet and head to the southern ranger station. About five to six kilometers (3-3.6 mi) beyond the main station is EstaciĂłn Mariscal Sucre, a complex that has a restaurant, lodging, a small museum displaying the parkâ€™s flora and fauna, and a self-guided hiking trail. The climberâ€™s refuge is another 15 kilometers (9 mi) uphill.
The national park offers a wide variety of outdoor activities, including climbing Cotopaxi and other mountains, hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Laguna Limpiopungo, which lays midways between the two ranger stations, just west of the turn-off for VolcĂˇn Cotopaxi, provides excellent birdwatching and vistas of the various volcanoes. Several pre-Columbian ruins scatter the park, the most impressive of which is the Inca fortress, El Salitre (Entry: $5).
If spending the night under Cotopaxiâ€™s starry skies, you have a choice of lodging options: camping, refuges and a variety of inns, from hostels to haciendas.
The national park service of the Ministerio del Ambiente publishes a downloadable interpretive guide (in Spanish) about Parque Nacional Cotopaxi (URL: www.ambiente.gob.ec/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/07/Parque-Nacional-Cotopaxi.pdf). For more details about hiking and climbing in Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, check out Ecuador Climbing and Hiking Guide (in English).
No entry fee into the park is now charged, although one must still pay for camping, refuges and other services. You may entire the park 365 days of the year, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Cell phone reception is difficult to nonexistent in this area.