Every so often, on a clear night, a full moon rises just behind Cotopaxi, giving the illusion that it is resting atop the volcanoâ€™s immense icecap. At this moment, with lunar light reflecting off its pristine white glaciers, Cotopaxi is, as the Quichua indigenous people say, the â€śNeck of the Moon.â€ť
Cotopaxiâ€™s majestic cone, which at 5,897 meters (19,300 feet) is one of the highest active volcanoes on Earth, juts forth abruptly from the high-altitude grasslands and bucolic fields stretching south from Quito all the way to the Peruvian border. This soaring peak reaches so high that it is clearly visible 60 kilometers away in the nationâ€™s capital, despite being ringed by half a dozen other mountains, each exceeding 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) in height.
In addition to being among the most impressive and beautiful peaks in the Andes, Cotopaxi has become a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts, in part because even novice climbers can summit its lofty peak. Hovering close to the forbidding 6,000-meter figure, this mountain is perfect for anyone seeking to bag a high-alpine ascent. The route has changed over the years, due to shifting of the glaciers triggered by global warming, but it generally takes you up the right side of the volcanoâ€™s north face to the huge rock wall called Yanasacha, and then cuts back left, traversing a steep slope to the summit. Ascending along this route takes between five and seven hours, and the descent approximately half that time. Cotopaxi can be climbed year round, but December and January are considered the best months.
While Cotopaxi is the crown jewel of Cotopaxi National Park, the most popular protected area in Ecuador, there is plenty more to do nearby, including two other great ascents, Cerros RumiĂ±ahui and Sincholagua, which are within sight of the volcano. These two mountains are often climbed to acclimatize in the days preceding the main Cotopaxi climb.
If you are lucky enough to have a clear morning, Cotopaxiâ€™s summit provides dreamy views of the mountainous Andean landscape spreading out hundreds of kilometers in every direction. Or better yet, if you plan your climb during a full moon, you may just catch a glimpse of the indigenous Cosmo Vision that gave Cotopaxi its name.