Refugio José Rivas Hiking Trail
Hike to Ecuador’s most popular refuge
- Season: January-December
- Difficulty: Medium
- Distance: 1.7 kilometers (out‑and‑back)
- Elevation Gain: 240 meters
- Duration: 1.5-2 hours
About Refugio José Rivas
José Rivas refuge is the cozy base camp for the volcano, Cotopaxi, and is used almost exclusively by climbers. Located in Cotopaxi National Park at 4,864 m.a.s.l., the refuge is a 1.5-hour drive from the capital, Quito. On a sunny day, you’ll get magnificent views of the top peak. Often times, upon arrival at the refuge, the view of the valley below is foggy, making it difficult to see the landscape through the thick clouds.
It’s best to visit a few days after getting acclimated to the local altitude in Quito or the surrounding areas. Remember to take breaks, no matter your fitness level or how adjusted you are to the altitude. The park opens at 8:00 so arrive early for the best weather and to avoid the majority of the crowds. Another tactic for avoiding lots of hikers is to go on a weekday.
Cotopaxi is located 50 km south of Quito in the Andes Mountains. Since 1738, the volcano has erupted more than 50 times and was relatively active in 2015. The refuge was built in 1971 and its orange square shaped roof can be seen in a clear day from the Limpiopungo Basin at the base of the volcano. Park authorities take safety very seriously and you’ll see clear signage for evacuation routes throughout the park.
If traveling from Quito, go to the bus station called ‘Terminal de buses Quitumbe’, located in the southern end of the capital. Get a ticket for any bus heading southbound to Latacunga, buses leave about every 10 minutes. Tell the driver to drop you off at ‘El Chasqui’, the South Entrance of Cotopaxi National Park, located on the Pan-American Highway. It helps to know that the entrance is located 20 minutes after passing the town of Machachi and 30 minutes before Latacunga. Once at the entrance you have about another 30 kilometers before reaching the parking lot. You have two options, hitchhike or possibly find a taxi which is usually waiting for bus passengers.
From Quito, head south on the Pan-American Highway also called E35. To reach the most popular entrance, the Southern Entrance, drive on the Pan-American Highway for another 20 minutes once you pass the town of Machachi. The entrance will be on your left-hand side.
Upon reaching the entrance, it is another 30-kilometer drive to the start of the hike. You will first pass the Park Ranger's Office and then the Limpiopungo Basin, before taking the southbound road to the parking lot. The first few kilometers are paved, followed by a very bumpy gravel road to the parking lot of the refuge.
Please note, the refuge can be easily reached by the Cotopaxi National Park South or North Entrances.
The trailhead starts at the parking lot, which is at about 4,500 m.a.s.l.. There are two trails to choose from, both take roughly 40 minutes to one hour to hike.
The first trail starts just beyond the parking lot and is the more popular of the two. It is a steep, loose sand and soil trail. The second option is also visible from the parking lot and can be accessed on the left side of the parking lot. It involves many switchbacks along the visible ridge. This trail is less steep and the trail is more packed down.
At the refuge, you’ll be at 4,864 m.a.s.l.. On clear days, you can see many surrounding mountains. Once at the refuge, take advantage of the available toilets, snack bar, and the amazing hot cocoa, then either continue another 500 meters to the start of the glacier or descend back to the parking lot. Please keep in mind, hiking beyond the glacier requires a guide and special equipment.
The entrances to the National Park are open from 7am to 3pm.
- Parking (free)
- Cafe serving hot beverages and snacks (at the refuge)
- Toilets (free) at top of refuge.
- also get a Cotopaxi stamp on a piece of paper or on your passport
Where to stay
If you plan to summit Cotopaxi, your guide can arrange for you to stay at the refuge. This must be done in advance.
Tambopaxi Lodge, located in the nearby town of Machachi provides breathtaking views of the mountains for the lodge’s garden. It’s also a great place to get an afternoon snack or coffee.
Other noteworthy accommodations include Albergue de Alta Montaña Paja Blanca and Refuge campground.
Questions or comments? Let us know.