Cotopaxi's shape is the most beautiful and regular of all the colossal peaks in the high Andes. It is a perfect cone covered by a thick blanket of snow which shines so brilliantly at sunset it seems detached from the azure of the sky .Picture the perfect conical point of Japan's Mount Fuji, tack on another 2,000 meters, and stick it in the Andes. Add dozens, even hundreds, of climbers a month, and you'll have a good picture of Volcán Cotopaxi (5,897 meters). There's some debate as to whether or not this famous mountain is the highest active volcano in the world, but it's definitely in the top three. The name means "neck of the moon" in Quichua .—Alexander von Humboldt
It's hard to believe this beautiful peak is also one of Ecuador's most historically destructive volcanoes. The first recorded eruption disrupted a battle between the Spanish and the Inca in 1534, and eruptions in 1742 and 1768 flattened Latacunga, killing hundreds of people. A deceptively quiet century followed before the volcano began to belch again in 1853. The latter half of the 19th century saw many eruptions, including one in 1877 that sent a lahar (landslide of earth and melted ice) all the way to the Pacific, leveling Latacunga again just for good measure. The 20th century has been relatively quiet—only about two dozen minor murmurings .
A German and Colombian climbing team first set foot on Cotopaxi's glacier-covered peak in 1872, followed 10 years later by Edward Whymper, who opened the northern route still in use today. The climb is not difficult, as the many climbers who scale the volcano regularly will attest. Crevasses are usually large and obvious, making the climb mostly a long uphill snow hike. However, it's not for the inexperienced—technical equipment is necessary (ice axes, crampons, ropes, and marker wands), along with the services of a guide or experienced climber fully up to date on the changing glacier conditions .
Although Cotopaxi can be climbed year-round—it sees more clear days than almost any other peak in the Ecuadorian Andes—the best months are December and January. August and September are also good, but windy. Feb.-April can be clear and dry as well, while Aug.-Dec. is usually windy and cloudy. Acclimatization is essential, either by spending a week or two in Quito or by climbing a shorter peak such as Rumiñahui or Sincholagua beforehand .
The road to the refuges heads south from the main park road for nine km to the abandoned Armada Nacionál refuge at 4,400 meters. There's a parking area 200 meters higher. The José Ribas refuge, built in 1971 by the San Gabriel Climbing Club, waits at 4,800 meters. The shelter is fully equipped with three dozen bunk beds, cooking facilities, running water, and lockable storage space for gear .
The only major obstacle in the standard north-face route is a towering rock wall below the summit known as Yanasacha ("large black rock" in Quichua). Most climbers bypass this wall to the right and continue up left to the peak. The open crater peak, anywhere from 6-10 hours' climb from the refuge, contains smoking fumaroles reeking of sulfur. Leave the refuge between midnight and 2 a.m., and plan on three to five hours for the descent. An alternate route scales Cotopaxi's south side near Morurcu. Regardless, be off the snow by 10 a.m .
A hike completely around Cotopaxi's 20-km base is an ambitious undertaking. Follow the park road clockwise to the eastern border, then follow the Río Tambo upstream to the southwest after crossing the park boundary. From there head west, passing north of Quilindaña to reach the Pana eventually. The full circuit can take up to a week .