Folks here will tell you that Cotopaxi, at 5,897 meters (19,347 feet) above sea level, is the highest active volcano in the world. Technically, it's not, but the massive, snowcapped mountain is still one of Ecuador's iconic sights. Although mountaineers risk their lives to reach Cotopaxi's icy summit, you need risk little more than a possible case of lightheadedness to wander around its lower slopes, which are protected within Parque Nacional Cotopaxi.
The drive here is unforgettable. As you make your way past the stands of red pine and into the higher altitudes, you are likely to spot llamas, white-tailed deer, and wild horses, as well as Andean condors and sparrow hawks. Fewer animals roam the semiarid plains called the páramo, extending from 10,496 to 15,744 feet. There are no trees here, only small plants that have adapted to the harsh environment. Above the páramo lies the permafrost zone, where giant glaciers extend across the volcano's summit. Cotopaxi is most impressive at dawn, when sunlight sprinkles rays across the surface of the glaciers and casts shadows on the surrounding mountains.