Ahh, Cotopaxi. The volcano I admired most from my Quito bedroom window since my first day in the country. Snow-capped, majestic, imposing. And, a quick day trip from the city! It doesn’t get any better than this.

The view from Jose Rivas Refuge

Jose Rivas Refuge Hike

  • Hiked: mid-December
  • Distance from Quito: 2 hrs
  • Accessibility: Difficult. While the first part of the drive is on Ecuadorian highways, the latter part is about 45 minutes on an unpaved, bumpy road in the national park.
  • Length: ~3 miles roundtrip
  • Difficulty: 7/10
  • Crowds: 4/10
  • Trail views: 8/10
  • Water features: 0/10. There was no water to be seen!
  • Overall: 8/10

The unique factor of this hike gives it a higher score than you might otherwise think, based on the criteria listed above. Seriously, I’ve never done a hike this unique before!

At the welcome center at the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park

The hike to the Jose Rivas Refuge at Cotopaxi is not for the faint of heart. The road alone that takes you to the trailhead is…insane. About 15-20 minutes into the park, the road gets so difficult that there is a park employee informing people with smaller cars that they can drive no further. In order to access the trailhead for the refuge, you’ll need a car with decent clearance and preferably four wheel drive. It’s serious off-roading conditions the closer you get to the parking area! In typical Ecuadorian fashion, our group crammed all 8 of us into a 5-passenger car to make the last haul up the road.

This wasn’t even the worst of the road!

Successfully having arrived at the parking area after a harrowing journey up through the dirt, we bundled up to start the hike. There are two options to get to the refugio: the “zig zag” trail, or “arenal” trail. The zig zag trail is labeled as moderate, and the arenal trail is labeled as more difficult. The arenal trail is almost straight up, so you can understand why we opted for the zig zag trail. Even then, I don’t know that I’d consider it particularly easy. Especially not while wearing a mask! I basically hiked with my mask hanging off my ear and put it on when people passed by. It was an impossible challenge to hike uphill at that elevation with a mask on.

The zig zag trail heading up

The trail is short, but being at 15,000 feet means you work for every single step. Thankfully, we had been in Quito for about two weeks before doing the hike, so we’d had the chance to acclimate a bit, but even then it was a challenge. I was pausing for rests very frequently. Even our quiteña family was struggling!

Along the trail, a rest and a photo opp

The aptly named zig zag trail does indeed zig zag up the side of the volcano. It’s a dusty, dry hike sprinkled with various volcanic rocks that are convenient for the breaks you’ll be wanting to take as you ascend. The views of the surrounding nature only get better as you climb. Vast, open, seemingly endless Andean páramo sprawls out behind you as you get closer to the refuge. Be sure to look around when you take your hiking breaks.

Taking in the views. The golds, browns, and reds of the park were so distinct!
Three generations of Vega family: my husband, our niece, and my mother-in-law!
Saving Gonza from falling off the mountain!

Though we were hiking on a partly sunny/partly cloudy day, we still got some excellent views of the surrounding volcanic landscape, and we caught glimpses of other peaks. On a clearer day, you’d be able to spot a bunch of other mountains in the area.

We meandered our way up to the refuge within 90 minutes or so, going slowly and stopping to take pictures along the way. And we were greeted by this sign when we arrived!

Letting us know just how high we were!
Views near the refuge
Right by the refuge!

On the way down, we decided to take the more direct arenal trail. It was slippery, sandy, and I almost fell a few times. I can’t imagine going up this trail–for every step forwards, you’d slide back half a step! It was fine going down, but definitely requires a bit of caution to make sure your knees don’t suffer too much and also to be sure you don’t end up on your bottom. Also, the views from the zig zag trail are much nicer/more expansive than the views on the more direct trail–another reason to do the zig zag trail for at least one way!

The sandy straight-down trail. This video doesn’t capture how steep it was.

We headed down just in time, because a massive cold fog rolled in right when we started the return hike. We got our volcano views just before it became totally obscured!

Yep, not much to see here!

On the way out of the park, we stopped to check out the Laguna Limpiopungo. We didn’t end up hiking there, but there is a pleasant trail that goes around the lake that I’ve done in the past. It’s lovely, and mainly flat, so it’s a great place to cool down after your hike to the refuge. Sometimes there are even wild horses grazing in the area.

Adventure crew! Minus me, who is taking the photo.

So are you inspired to hike to the Jose Rivas Refuge on Cotopaxi now? If so, here are some tips!

  • Go early. The park is currently opening at 8 am, and I’d recommend arriving at that time. The weather is often nicer in the mornings in the Andes, and also, the park is closing at 3 pm, so you’ll want to be sure you have enough time to enjoy the park.
  • Carry your passport or cédula. You will need to present it at the entrance to the national park. Since it was covid-19 times, we just read the number aloud, but in normal times you have to hand over your physical ID document.
  • The park is entirely free to enter. Hurrah!
  • Bring warm layers. The weather can change quickly and dramatically. I had on a Smartwool 250 base layer top and a thin vest. I also had a mid-layer fleece zip up and a down jacket packed in my backpack for when it got colder. I brought wool socks, a wool hat, and wool gloves. While I didn’t end up needing to use all of my layers at once, I’m glad I had them, because conditions change quickly.
  • Head to the refuge first, and do the Laguna on your way out. That way, you won’t be worried about timing as you’re hiking the volcano.
  • Apply sunscreen. At this elevation, you will get burned rapidly. I put on sunscreen and I still got burned.
  • Wear boots. Even though it’s a short hike, and some people do it in street shoes, you’ll be glad to have the additional grip and ankle support of the boots.
  • If possible, acclimate for a few days before hitting the trail. Your lungs will thank you.
  • Drink a couple of bottles of water the day before your trip to ensure you’re hydrated, and carry plenty of water and consider bringing some pain medication. If you get an altitude headache, these two items will help alleviate the pain and make your hike more enjoyable! Two of the people in our group got headaches–it’s pretty common.

    And to finish it off, how about a few Spanish vocabulary words for this hike?
  • soroche = altitude sickness
  • arenal = sandbank
  • volcán = volcano
  • altura or altitud = altitude
  • páramo = moor/moorland
  • nevado = literally means snowy, but volcanos that are snowcapped are called nevados

Enjoy your trip to Cotopaxi National Park!

Posted by:Elizabeth

Wandering Californian living in Seattle. Nature-loving, thrill-seeking weekend adventurer. Storyteller.

3 replies on “Cotopaxi National Park Day Trip: Jose Rivas Refuge Hike

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