Since it’s quietened down, Cotopaxi has become Ecuador’s most popular climb and you don’t need to be a mountaineer to attempt it yourself.
Cotopaxi’s charms have beguiled mankind for centuries. Prior to the Spanish invasion, Incan and even pre-Incan indigenous groups revered the volcano as a ‘rain sender’ which ensured the success of crops. Later, including twice during the eighteenth century, eruptions completely levelled the local town of Lacatunga.
Climbing the peak is now so popular that up to 100 climbers can descend on the mountain at weekends. Nevertheless, it’s rare to find it this busy and, though you’ll probably be with a tour group, serenity is never hard to find.
First of all, unless you’re a seasoned climber, you won’t want to attempt the ascent without a guide - preferably one certified by ASEGUIM (Asociación Ecuatoriana de Guías de Montaña). Tours are best organised in Quito where agencies’ offices are scattered about the the Mariscal area of the city. Make sure you shop around, and try and bargain the price down - there are deals to be had, especially in low season or if you’re part of a large group. You’ll typically be looking at around $200 per person, though you can pay more. The price should include transport to and from Cotopaxi.
Here are a few reputable companies:
Tierra Zero Tours, Padre Salcedo 4-38, Quito. Well run company with experienced guides. Can lend equipment.
Ecuadorian Alpine Institute, Ramírez Dávalos 136 y Amazonas 1er Piso, oficina 102, Quito. Offer Cotopaxi as part of larger tours which often include several peaks over a week or ten days. Book well in advance.
Tovar Expeditions, Calle Guayaquil 5-38, Quito. Guides speak good English and climbing gear is provided.
Gulliver Expeditions, Juan Leon Mera N24-156 y Jose Calama, Quito. Highly regarded tour agency with friendly, enthusiastic guides.
Many tour agencies provide equipment such as crampons, ropes and ice-axes. What you need to make sure of however, is that you have enough warm clothing. Most tours begin at midnight and climb through the darkness to reach the 5,897m peak for sunrise as the snow and ice melts and during the day, making for a difficult ascent. For this reason, a head torch is well worth investing in. Needless to say, it can get very cold and snow storms are not uncommon so you’ll need a warm hat and scarf, thick gloves and good insulation. Sunglasses and sunblock are recommended for the descent and the glint coming off the snow and ice can be powerful.
Stuff to remember
Though Cotopaxi is summited by most people who attempt it, it is strenuous and you should only consider it if you’re in very good physical condition. You don’t want to be the person who forces your group to turn back. If you think you might not be up to it, many tours offer alternative trips to the national park with short to mid-length treks which are far less taxing.
As for acclimatisation, it’s recommended you spend some time in and around Quito before the climb. Altitude sickness is common, so this way you’re reducing your chances of suffering.