Ecuador - Cotopaxi Skills Expedition

COVID-19 UPDATE:  AAI is open and operating with new policies and procedures for COVID-19. Click the following links to learn more about AAI's COVID-19 Operating Plans and cancellation policy. Note that AAI requires proof of vaccination for COVID-19 beginning October 1, 2021.


We do it all on this trip: Learn or refresh skills with expert instructors, Climb Cotopaxi and Cayambe -- two of Ecuador's most famous volcanoes -- Immerse ourselves in a rich culture, and Take rest days in well-appointed haciendas with good local food.


Cotopaxi Climbers Below Serac

Climbers navigate around a serac near the summit of Cotopaxi. Dewey Photo.

In addition, for climbers who are still hungry for summits after Cotopaxi, it is possible to extend this trip with a four-day Chimborazo climb, summiting Ecuador's highest peak at 20,703 feet.

In sum, the variety and beauty on this trip are awe-inspiring, and the personal rewards are of such variety and depth that this is commonly one of those experiences that people describe as "a trip of a lifetime." You can also absolutely guarantee that categorization if you add on a five to seven-day boat-based journey through the Galapagos Islands after your climbs. Many who have made ascents with us here have enjoyed ending their Andean journey with a few days in that wonderful archipelago off the coast of Ecuador.

Zero Carbon Footprint Expedition

Climbers For The Climate

This expedition has a zero carbon footprint. Through AAI's Climate Initiative, the Institute pays to offset all carbon emissions incurred by the guides and clients on each trip, including emissions from flight, local transportation, electricity in hotels, and fuel burned to cook in the mountains. To learn more about how this works and AAI’s dedication to environmental protection, click here.


We take a conservative approach to acclimatization, and the wisdom of our itineraries is seen every year in the safety record of our trips and the tremendous success rate of our climbers. We have been guiding the high altitude peaks of Ecuador since 1977, and the days we allocate to acclimatization are based on our decades of experience.

Ecuador, Cotopaxi - High on Cayambe.

High on Cayambe. Dylan Taylor

COVID-19 Itinerary Notes:

The observations of our staff in Ecuador indicate that the citizens of the country have achieved a high rate of compliance with requirements for face coverings and social distancing. However, because we believe that social distancing is more difficult to achieve with consistency in areas of high population, we have moved our center of operation in the Quito area away from a downtown hotel to the very nice Ilatoa Lodge located to the east in the countryside. Similarly, we have eliminated our traditional stay in the town of Baños at the end of the optional Chimborazo program.  

Lodging in the Mountains: Because of the use of bunk beds and their general close quarters, we consider the use of huts unsafe during the pandemic. Instead all climbers will camp in tents.  

Additionally, in lodges and tents we will pair up two climbers who a) are from the same home living pod; b) are from the same friendship pod and who are satisfied with each other's practices of masking and social distancing who want to room together; or c) who have received their full COVID-19 immunization and who want to room together.  Those not in one of these categories will be provided with a single tent without additional charge and single lodge rooms at a special discounted rate.


Ecuador - Cotopaxi Skills Expedition

Structure and Goals

Part 1: Skills Training and Acclimatization

Exploring and Acclimatizing in Ecuador 

The Andes of Ecuador run as two parallel and impressive chains of peaks, rising dramatically from Pacific coastal lowlands on the west and even more abruptly from the Amazon Basin on the east. Our flight into Ecuador gives us a grand view of the entire range as we cross the country's northwest coast and pass just over the Pichinchas - 15,700-foot volcanoes standing right above Quito - then drop down to the capital's new Mariscal Sucre International Airport (7907 ft / 2410 m).  It is an exciting entrance into a spectacular country and beautiful city.

Quito is South America's second highest capital (after La Paz, Bolivia), and its high altitude allows us to begin our acclimatization as soon as we arrive. The city fills a gently sloping valley beneath thirteen to fifteen thousand-foot peaks, and from several points just above Quito it is possible to look up and down the "Avenue of the Volcanoes," as the Ecuadorian tourist industry is fond of calling it, and see most of the country's major summits.

A climber purchasing food in a traditional Ecuadorian market.

climbing team member purchasing food in a traditional Ecuadorian market. Paul Galvin

The program begins with climbing team members traveling to Ecuador on a Saturday and meeting our lead guide that first evening for dinner. The following morning, we meet for breakfast and then the guides will do an initial program orientation, followed by a thorough equipment check. After the orientation and equipment check, the team will embark on the first acclimatization hike to Ilalo Volcano.

The Ilaló Volcano is an inactive volcano located between the San Pedro River to the west and Chiche River to the east. It is located eight kilometers east of Quito, rising from a fertile green valley that enjoys a very mild climate and temperatures. Ilaló splits this valley in two: Valle de Los Chillos to the south and Valle de Tumbaco to the north. There is a small lava dome to the south called Milivaro which is extinct as well. This entire volcanic complex has been covered in its totality by cangahua which is a fertile ash deposited by the wind from other, younger volcanoes in the region.

The hike to Ilalo is a pleasant three to four hour hike, and from the summit there are great views of the surrounding peaks including Pasochoa, Pichincha, Cotopaxi, and Cayambe. 

Acclimatization Hikes and Skills Training

Our first acclimatization hike is on 13,776-foot (4199 m) Pasochoa, an extinct volcano about twenty miles south of Quito. Its large, eroded crater opens to the west, and its northwest flanks support a forest like those that once covered the entire Quito basin. We establish a very easy pace on this day hike as we begin to get our bodies used to altitudes above 10,000 feet.

Our second acclimatization hike is on either Rucu Pichincha (15696 ft / 4784 m) or Guagua Pichincha (15,695 ft / 4783 m), depending on conditions. Our primary goal on both of these days is to give our bodies a chance to begin their further adjustment to the altitude while we enjoy some beautiful hiking and outstanding photographic opportunities. These rocky ridges, high grasslands, and summits provide great views of the entire cordillera and an excellent orientation to Ecuador's geography. 

Part 2: Ascent of Cayambe (18,997 ft / 5790 m)

Cayambe is Ecuador's third highest peak. Forty miles northeast of Quito, it stands at 18,997 feet, looking out over Reventador ("The Exploder", one of South America's most consistently active volcanoes) and over the Amazon Basin. Cayambe's glaciers are large and among the most active of all equatorial ice flows, and the varied glacial terrain here provides an excellent training ground and a rewarding summit climb.

Having spent at least seventy-two hours above 9000 feet, group members should be well enough acclimatized to begin sleeping and climbing at greater altitudes. Driving north to the mountain we pass through high, rolling grasslands with wildflowers and occasional herds of sheep and llamas. Leaving paved roads, the track we follow passes several working haciendas, steadily narrows, and becomes more rugged as it climbs higher and higher, finally to reach a point within a half-hour hike of a large stone hut - Ruales Oleas Berge Refuge - that serves as our base on the slopes of Cayambe at 15,290 feet.

As we continue our adjustment to the altitude, we spend our first afternoon and the following day in moderate activity on a low section of the glacier where we work on glacier travel skills, protective systems techniques, and the general procedures we will use in our ascents. The route we will take is not technical, but the number and size of the crevasses make the route serious and the route finding and overall climbing very interesting.

During the glacier skills training, we will cover the following subjects:

  • Crampon technique
  • Principal ice axe positions
  • Roped glacier travel
  • Self-arrest techniques
  • Discussion of high altitude physiology

After skills practice, we will return to the Refuge for a hearty meal and an early night of sleep.

Climbing with headlamps, we leave long before dawn in order to have firm snow conditions throughout the ascent. For the first four hours we make an easy glacier climb to a saddle, and then continue onto steeper and more exciting ground. We traverse around large crevasses, many with enormous tropical icicles hanging from their edges, pass some spectacular seracs, and climb 35-degree slopes with occasional and short, steeper sections as we work our way to the crater rim. The final climb to the summit follows a photogenic line along the glaciated edge of the volcano's crater, a fittingly dramatic ending to an ascent that is varied and scenic throughout.

Part 3: Ascent of Cotopaxi (19,348 ft / 5897 m)

Cotopaxi is the world highest active volcano. It stands in Ecuador's eastern cordillera, towering high above a small altiplano along with three other major peaks within the borders of the beautiful Cotopaxi National Park: Ruminahui (15,602 ft / 4755 m), Sincholagua (16,360 ft / 4986 m), and Quilindana (16,134 ft / 4917 m). Before entering the park, we drive south from Cayambe and stop for a night of rest at a seventeenth-century hacienda, from which we enjoy great mountain views of Illiniza Sur (17,268 ft / 5263 m), Illiniza Norte (16,861 ft / 5139 m), and Cotopaxi.

Sunrise on Cotopaxi from Cayambe. Our route follows the S-shaped sunlit snow ridge below and right of the summit.

Sunrise on Cotopaxi from Cayambe. Our route follows the S-shaped sunlit snow ridge below and right of the summit. Melissa Park

The next morning we leave the fertile and richly green central valley and drive east into Cotopaxi National Park. We travel through pine forests, then through drier and more open country as we ascend a rugged escarpment and finally reach a small altiplano beneath the park's towering summits. As we make our way up to and across the plain, we are fairly likely to get good sightings of wild horses, llamas, and condors. Following a rather remarkable track in our vehicle, we are able to drive to 15,100 feet, and from there, a forty-five minute climb with full packs takes us to the Josa Ribas Hut on Cotopaxi's flank at 15,729 feet.

On summit day, we again leave long before dawn in order to have firm snow conditions. We first climb non-glaciated slopes and then ascend a series of uniform snow and ice ramps of 30 and 35 degrees to reach a glacial platform at 17,000 feet. As dawn approaches, we enjoy one of the most spectacular color displays in the Andes. Almost every morning, the sun rises over a low trail of clouds which drifts in from the tropical forests of the Amazon Basin. As the sun moves further above the horizon, we are treated to a magnificent array of colors in the clouds, on the multi-hued soils and rock faces of the parkland, and on the massive glacial slopes of 18,714-foot Antisana, which rises to our north.

We belay across occasional snow bridges, skirt large crevasses, and ascend moderate terrain and occasional short steep slopes towards the huge summit cone. We reach the base of the 400-foot rock wall that is called Yanasacha (which means "black wild place" in Quechua), and to its side encounter a gaping bergschrund at the base of the final glacial slopes that we must climb to reach the summit. We traverse out to the far end of the bergschrund, make an easy descent to its floor, and then return to a point below our original position to reach a climbable section of its upper wall. A belayed ten-foot move on steep ice puts us on the 55-degree face, and from there we belay up some of the most enjoyable snow and ice climbing pitches in Ecuador. The gradient eases off as we reach the crater rim, and from there it is an easy ten-minute climb to Ecuador's second highest summit. From the top we enjoy views of nine major equatorial peaks, the seemingly limitless Amazon Basin to our east, and Cotopaxi's spectacular 1000-foot deep summit crater.

Optional Chimborazo Climb Extension 

(20,703 ft / 6310 m)

Many people wish to climb Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador at 20,703 feet (6310 m), and a summit with the further distinction of being furthest from the center of the earth. (Because of the ellipsoid shape of the planet, Chimborazo's location close to the Equator makes it "higher" by this measurement than Mt. Everest.)

Click on the link to learn more about the five-day extension to climb Chimborazo.

Ecuador - Cotopaxi Skills Expedition

Program Dates

The Cotopaxi Skills Expedition can be combined with a 4-day extension to summit Chimborazo (20,703 ft.), the highest mountain in Ecuador. Scroll down for 2019-2020 dates.

Upcoming 2021 Dates 

  • Trip 11: Nov 13 - 22, 2021 - Waitlist Available
  • Trip 12: Nov 27 - Dec 6, 2021 Waitlist Available
  • Trip 13: Dec 11 -20, 2021 - Waitlist Available


2022 Dates 

  • Trip 1: Jan 01 - 10, 2022 - Filling! 
  • Trip 2: Jan 15 - 24, 2022
  • Trip 3: Jan 29 - Feb 7, 2022
  • Trip 4: Feb 12 - 21, 2022 - Filling! 
  • Trip 5: May 07 - 16, 2022
  • Trip 6: May 21 - 30, 2022 - Filling!  
  • Trip 7: Jun 04 - 13, 2022
  • Trip 8: June 18 - 27, 2022 
  • Trip 9: Nov 05 - 14, 2022
  • Trip 10: Nov 19 - 28, 2022
  • Trip 11: Dec 03 - 12, 2022
  • Trip 12: Dec 17 - 26, 2022

Chimborazo Extension: Please click on the link to view course dates.

Team Summit Success History:

Cayambe Summit Success: 79%
Cotopaxi Summit Succes: 92%


Ecuador - Cotopaxi Skills Expedition


Pricing: $2860;  Prices are based on a minimum of 2 people per trip

Max Ratio: 2:1

Capacity: 10

Single Supplement: $450 

Private Trip Pricing: 

1:1 $5220

Climbing in Ecuador can be an amazing adventure to share with friends or family! Please contact the AAI Office for additional information on private trips, or to arrange a customized trip that fits your unique schedule and availability: 360-671-1505 (Toll Free: 1-800-424-2249) or email: [email protected] We would be happy to set something up for you!


  • Excellent physical condition - We will be happy to advise you on a conditioning program; more information is provided in the registration packet
  • Previous experience camping in a backcountry environment and carrying gear, or multi-day backpacking trips or treks
  • Previous climbing experience is not required

Program Cost Inclusions and Exclusions

Inclusions: Lodging in hotels, haciendas, huts, and tents on a shared basis for the dates of your program (available on a private basis by special arrangement, subject to availability, and at added cost); Meals while at huts and while climbing; Group cooking equipment; Admissions to museums and national parks; Group climbing equipment; Transportation during trip.

Exclusions: Airfare; Personal equipment; Meals in cities, hotels, haciendas, and lodges; Gratuities to guides; Government and airport taxes; Inoculations; Personal insurance; Excess baggage.

Ecuador, Cotopaxi - Map


Flight Information

Flight arrangements should be made so that you arrive in Quito on the first scheduled start day of the trip, and you depart the day after the last scheduled day of the trip. Please email or call our Travel Coordinator, Lisa Greif, if you would like assistance with travel arrangements (509-972-4028).


Other Programs & Custom Itineraries in Ecuador

Both the Skills Expedition and the Antisana-Illiniza climb can be followed with an ascent of Chimborazo. Our El Altar Expedition may be of interest to you if you are looking for more a technical challenge on a remote and rarely climbed Ecuadorian peak. See the program pages for more details on each of these expeditions. We can also provide custom itineraries of any length for hiking, trekking, backpacking, scrambling, and climbing.

Galapagos Island, Amazon Basin, Rain Forest add-ons

Travelling as far as you are to get to Ecuador, you may want to take advantage of your presence there to make a visit to the Galapagos Islands--an area that is on most people's short list of "sites I have to see in my lifetime." You can meet blue-footed boobies close up, swim with penguins and seals, and photograph amazing reptiles--all with no fear of humans. We can also arrange tours to the Amazon Basin and to lodges in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. Tours can range from a few days to a week or more. Call the AAI travel coordinator if you'd like to discuss some of your ideas or our recommendations.

Ecuador - Cotopaxi Skills Expedition


"I had a great experience in Ecuador, and enjoyed every minute. The trip was very rewarding regarding beauty and the mountain experiences, but I expected this. What I did not expect were the friendships and relationships that developed between our lead guide, who was a fantastic human being, and the climbers. The guide was a very knowledgeable and experienced guide and I completely trusted him. He was completely committed to the climbers in situations in and out of the mountains, and we traveled effortlessly through his country. The combination of great company and great guiding made this trip a fantastic experience. Thanks AAI!"

Mike Brennan, Scranton, PA

"Not only was my guide technically solid on the mountains, he showed balanced decision making skills on each of the climbs. He did a great job tailoring the trip to our individual needs and abilities."
George Henderson, Harrisburg, PA

"Our expedition was truly an excellent experience. I believe this was due in large part to the character, skill, and personality of our two guides. They were exceptional, made us all feel like we could push ourselves safely, and helped me experience great personal success."
Josh Katzman, Arlington, MA

"AAI is by far the most experienced guide service in the Andes."
Adventure Travel Magazine

Ecuador - Cotopaxi Skills Expedition

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