Wet montaine forests fill Cotopaxi's lowest altitudes, characterized by short trees and bushes. There's not much of this zone left, but what does remain ranges from 3,400 to about 4,000 meters. Sub-alpine páramo covers everything between 4,000 and 4,500 meters, which is where you'll find most of the park's animals: puma, dwarf deer, páramo rabbits, and the endemic marsupial mouse. Even casual birders will probably spot carunculated caracaras, shrike- and ground-tyrants, great thrushes, rufous-naped brush finches, Andean gulls and brown-backed chattyrants (related to flycatchers). American coots, speckled teals and pintail ducks flock around the park's lakes, while Andean lapwings claim the shoreline. Above it all soars the occasional condor.
Many of the plant species
in the páramo grasslands have relatives in North America,
since Ecuador's high altitudes simulate the northern hemisphere's higher
latitudes. Shrubby blueberries and lupines bloom next to Indian paintbrushes
and members of the daisy family, while the occasional terrestrial bromeliad
is probably pollinated by hummingbirds. You might spot the urcu rosa,
a small blue mountain rose, hidden among the tough tortora grass
used by locals to weave mats. Above 4,500 meters to the snowline at 4,700
meters, plunging temperatures keep the mossy tussocks of the alpine tundra
A road runs southeast from Machachi to enter the park from the north, but to reach the main entrances to Cotopaxi you head west from the Pana. There are two turnoffs. The first, 16 km south of Machachi, is also the entrance to El Boliche National Recreation Area. It passes an old NASA satellite tracking station before forking three ways. Take the right-hand fork; then follow the train tracks for 500 meters. From here it's six km downhill through a forest to a campsite with fireplaces and minimal shelters. One km farther is the Raúl Daule campsite, with water available from a nearby river.
The second turnoff to the main entrance from the Pana is nine km south of the one above, marked by a wooden park sign. The road here is the best of all the entrances and sees the most traffic, making it easier to hitch a ride into the park. It joins with the other Pana access road before crossing the park boundary, where the entrance gate is open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The road through the park curves in a semicircle north around Volcán Cotopaxi.
As it heads northeast
the park road passes an abandoned administrative center at Campamiento
Mariscal Sucre, a five to six hour hike from the Raúl Daule campsite.
A small museum is next, 10 km from the gate, with exhibits on the geology,
history, and flora and fauna of the park. Shortly beyond the museum you'll
reach the Llanura de Limpiopungo, a wide plain at 3,800 meters in between
Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui. The birding along the shore of Lago Limpiopungo
is excellent .
On a small hill 15 km beyond the lake are the ruins of El Salitre, formerly an Inca pucara (fortress). A large oval perimeter wall encloses the small dwellings of guards and officials who once manned the outpost. But the spectacular views of Cotopaxi, Rumiñahui, Sincholagua, and Pasachoa weren't enough to make up for Cotopaxi's constant eruptions-El Salitre was all but abandoned by the arrival of the Spanish. Still, a small battle was fought here in 1534 .
A trail leaves around the lake to the northwest for access to Rumiñahui. Shortly beyond that trail, another jeep track heads south nine km to the Cotopaxi refuge. After joining the road from Machachi the park road eventually crosses the eastern park boundary, passing north of Cerro ChuguilasÌn Chico. Ten km outside the boundary the road meets the Río Tambo and a hacienda of the same name near the base of Quilindaña .
The IGM 1:50,000 Cotopaxi, Mulaló,Machachi and Sincholagua maps cover the park .