Looking down from a plane at a volcano is one thing, but climbing it, camping on its flanks, riding a horse or mountain bike across the paramo, or hiking around it are much more rewarding. The high Andean paramo here features wild horses and llamas grazing. Below the volcano, the flat plains are peppered with volcanic boulders that give stark evidence of the power and fury of Cotopaxi's relatively recent eruptions. And everywhere you turn there are fantastic views of the snow-covered crater -- that is, when it's not shrouded in low cloud cover.
Climbing to the summit is serious business, and not for those in merely average physical condition or with no experience at high altitudes. Nonetheless, every year, thousands of intrepid climbers take out their ice axes, strap on their crampons, and conquer the summit. An embarrassing admission: I've never done it. But according to those in the know, the climb is not terribly technical or difficult. On the other hand, I have met several experienced climbers who have been severely affected by the altitude and were forced to turn back early. Be sure to spend several days in Quito and at higher altitudes acclimating before you attempt to summit Cotopaxi. Even if you're feeling fine at 2,800m (9,186 ft.), the air will feel a whole lot thinner at 5,000m (16,404 ft.), especially if you're exerting a lot of energy. You should also note that the climb typically starts at about 11pm to midnight and you will be going uphill on glaciers for about 8 continuous hours before you reach the top. This way, you reach the crater in the early morning light, before the clouds settle in.
Fortunately for the less adventurous and less fit, you really don't need to climb Cotopaxi to enjoy it. A host of outfitters in Quito, and all the hotels close to the volcano, organize day trips to the national park. Many day trips bring you to the small museum and visitor center, which has a somewhat sad collection of stuffed animals, including an Andean condor, as well as a relief map of the volcano and some explanatory materials. From here, these trips commonly take any number of short-to-midlength hikes around the park, most commonly to the Laguna de Limpiopungo. The museum is located at 4,500m (14,764 ft.) above sea level, and most of the hikes around the park take place at this general altitude -- note that even at this altitude, the air is quite thin and it's not uncommon to feel lightheaded.
Organizing a Climb to the Top -- It's very important to make sure that you're climbing Cotopaxi with an experienced guide and good equipment. The best companies provide one guide for every two climbers. The finest and most experienced outfitters include Adventure Planet Ecuador (tel. 02/2863-086; www.adventureplanet-ecuador.com) and Safari Ecuador (tel. 02/2222-505; www.safari.com.ec). Rates run $150 to $300 (£100-£200) per person for a 2-day/1-night trip to the summit, depending on the size of your group.
The above companies also organize longer treks around the park, as well as climbs to the summits of other nearby peaks, including Rumiñahui, Iliniza Norte, and Iliniza Sur, all of which are good practice climbs to tackle before attempting Cotopaxi.
Visiting as Part of a Day Trip -- Just about every tour desk and tour operator in Quito offers a day trip to Cotopaxi. The details may vary some, but most head first to the small museum and then spend anywhere from 1 to 3 hours hiking. In addition, most operators offer options for mountain biking or horseback riding.
The best general tour operators, in my opinion, are Metropolitan Touring (tel. 02/2988-200; www.metropolitan-touring.com) and Surtrek (tel. 02/2500-660; www.surtrek.com). Day trips to Cotopaxi run $30 to $90 (£20-£60), depending on the size of your group and whether lunch is included. The park entrance fee is rarely included.
If you want to tour the park on a mountain bike, contact Aries Bike Company (tel. 02/2380-802; www.ariesbikecompany.com), Safari Ecuador (tel. 02/2552-505; www.safari.com.ec), or Surtrek (tel. 02/2231-534; www.surtrek.com).
For horseback-riding tours of Cotopaxi, I recommend Ilalo Expeditions (tel. 09/7778-399; www.ilaloexpeditions.com), Hacienda La Alegría, or Safari Ecuador (tel. 02/2552-505; www.safari.com.ec).
Mountain-bike or horseback excursions to Cotopaxi run around $45 to $90 (£30-£60) depending on the length of the tour and several other variables, such as group size and equipment requirements.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.