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Cotopaxi is a stratovolcano, also called composite volcano, in the Andes Mountains, located about 75 kilometres (50 mi) south of Quito, Ecuador, South America. It is the second highest summit in the country, reaching a height of 5,897 m. Cotopaxi has an almost symmetrical cone that rises from a highland plain of about 3,800 metres (12,500 ft), with a width at its base of about 23 kilometres (14 mi). It has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world, which starts at the height of 5,000 metres (16,400 ft). The mountain is clearly visible on the skyline from Quito. It is part of the chain of volcanoes around the Pacific plate known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. However, claims that Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world are incorrect. Llullaillaco volcano is considerably higher and is definitely in an active phase, having erupted as recently as 1877. Ojos del Salado is higher still, and there are indications near its summit of recent activity, although its remoteness precludes a definitive statement as to whether it is currently active.
There have been more than 50 eruptions of Cotopaxi since 1738. Numerous valleys formed by powerful lahars (mudflows) surround the volcano. This poses a high risk to the local population, their settlements and fields. During a war between the Incas and the Spaniards in 1534, the volcano erupted and put an end to the fighting as both fled from the battlefield. Cotopaxi's most violent eruptions in historical times occurred in the years 1744, 1768, and 1877. In the 1877 eruption pyroclastic flows descended all sides of the mountain, with lahars traveling more than 100 km into the Pacific Ocean and western Amazon basin draining the valley. There was a major eruption in 1903 through 1904, and some minor activity in 1942 as well as 1975 but it did not produce any major events. In the most recent case, fumarolic activities and sulfuric emissions increased and ice around the inside and on the southeastern side of the cone started to melt. The main danger of a huge eruption of Cotopaxi would be the flow of ice from its glacier. If there were to be a very large explosion, it would destroy most of the settlements within the valley in the suburban area of Quito (pop. more than 1,000,000). Another city which would be in great danger is Latacunga which is located in the south valley. In 1744 and 1768 an eruption destroyed the colonial town of Latacunga. Experts believe another eruption may come soon.
The volcano is the subject of 1855 and 1862 paintings by Frederic Edwin Church.