In the central highlands south of Quito, Cotopaxi province boasts some of Ecuador’s most popular attractions. As well as the eponymous volcano, there are charming market towns, shimmering lakes, evocative festivals, nature reserves and much more to explore.

Overview

In the early 1800s, legendary German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt dubbed the parallel branches of the Andes stretching south from Quito as the Avenue of the Volcanoes. The Cotopaxi region, roughly the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, sits at the heart of this majestic “avenue.” Its focal point is the conical, snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi, one of the highest-altitude active volcanoes in the world and an unforgettable sight. While the volcano draws countless travelers to the region, which is easily accessible from Quito, Cuenca, and several other tourist centers, it is far from the only attraction. The Cotopaxi region offers dramatic Andean scenery and windows into traditional ways of life, as well as riotous festivals and little-explored nature reserves. 

Experience Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

Entrance to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

One of the country’s most-visited protected areas, Parque Nacional Cotopaxi spans around 205 square miles. Throughout the year it draws in crowds of tourists eager to snap a close-up photo of Cotopaxi’s perfect cone, amble through the surrounding páramo (rolling alpine tundra), and perhaps spot a hummingbird, Andean fox or white-tailed deer. As well as a (rather underwhelming) museum, there are several walking trails in the park, and many day-trippers trek to the José F. Ribas Refuge. To make the most of the park, make sure you are fully acclimatized to the altitude before visiting. 

Parque Nacional Cotopaxi is only one of the many gems you can find in Ecuador's countryside—for more, read our list here

Climbing Cotopaxi

Campers at the base of the Cotopaxi volcano

The chance to climb Cotopaxi is also a major draw. The volcano is active—the last significant eruption was in January 2016 and in the past it has devastated the nearby town of Latacunga. As a result, the authorities sometimes close it for climbing, though it was open as of mid-2018. One of the big attractions is that the peak (19,347 ft) can be scaled by climbers with little or no experience—providing they are fit, in good health, well acclimatized to the altitude and accompanied by a professional guide—and provides a satisfying challenge for accomplished mountaineers. The ascent takes around five hours—climbs generally start around midnight to allow enough time to reach and explore the summit by sunrise. The descent takes two-three hours.

If you're interested in incorporating a Cotopaxi climb into your trip, consider this six-day itinerary filled with trekking in Ecuador's high altitude plains. 

Take part in Latacunga’s Mama Negra festivals

Mama Negra Festival in Latacunga

The capital of Cotopaxi province some 56 miles south of Quito, Latacunga is an attractive market town. It is a good hub for exploring the region and an enjoyable place to spend a few days in its own right, thanks to the well-preserved colonial architecture in the downtown. The town is most famous, though, for its pair of Mama Negra festivals, held at the end of September and during the week of November 11th. Two of Ecuador’s most enjoyable fiestas, travelers are welcome to participate, or can just join the crowds to watch the marching bands, parades, and general revelry.

Shop at the Saquisilí Market

Sasquili Market

Few activities offer a greater insight into the daily life of people in the central highlands than a visit to a rural market. For most of the week the town of Saquisilí, around 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) north of Latacunga, is a quiet, subdued place, but every Thursday it becomes the buzzing hub of the surrounding region. The bustling market, spread across several plazas and numerous streets, has a lower profile than its well-known equivalent in Otavalo, and a result has a more authentic feel. The action kicks of around 7am with a rowdy—and pungent—livestock sale featuring everything from donkeys to alpacas. Later in the morning, the focus moves to textiles, fruit and vegetables, household items, electronics, and everything in between. There’s also plenty of local food on offer: those with an adventurous palate can even sample a famous Andean specialty, cuy – roasted guinea pig.

For more markets and other local activities to check out while you're in Ecuador, take a look at this roundup of local experiences

Travel Around the Quilotoa Loop

Boy on horseback near Quilotoa Lake

This 125-mile circuit around the eye-catching, emerald-green Quilotoa Lake is one of the most popular trips in the country. Lasting anything from one day to two weeks, depending on the route you take and the form of transport you use, it is ideal for travelers short on time but keen to get a taste of life in the highlands. Although guided tours are available, the Quilotoa Loop is easy to do independently, and there are plenty of opportunities for side trips and activities, notably horseback riding. (For the equestrian-minded, the Cotopaxi region has many opportunities for horseback riding; this five-day itinerary is a good example). 

Explore Reserva Ecológica Los Ilinizas

View of Los Illinizas

The northern section of the Quilotoa Loop passes through the horseshoe-shaped Reserva Ecológica Los Ilinizas, which deserves further exploration. Encompassing over 900 square miles of páramo, cloud forest, and rocky mountain terrain, it is dominated by the twin, partially joined peaks of Iliniza Sur (17,218 ft) and Iliniza Norte (16,818 ft). Both can be climbed: Sur should only be attempted by accomplished mountaineers; Norte can be scaled by fit, acclimatized hikers accompanied by an experienced guide—it is a good place to practice ahead of an attempt on Cotopaxi. Less energetic travelers can explore the terrain around the base, unencumbered by the crowds that pack into Parque Nacional Cotopaxi.

Visit the Tigua Art Gallery

Easy to include on a trip around the Quilotoa Loop, the tiny settlement of Tigua has spawned a renowned school of indigenous art. Run as a cooperative, the Galería Arte de Tigua showcases the work of local artists. Known as the Tigua style, their art typically takes the form of paintings on sheepskin canvases. The Cotopaxi volcano features heavily in the imagery, as do vivid depictions of daily life, religious celebrations, myths and legends, and stunning highland scenery. Pieces are available to buy, as are high-quality baskets and finely decorated boxes.