from the Traveler's Ecuador Companion © The
Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission.Photos
by Dominic Hamilton.
possesses some of the tallest and most active volcanoes in
the world. The country is bisected by two parallel mountain
ranges, rather like a ladder, with hoya valleys separated
by nudo highland rungs.
The road south of Quito was
dubbed the "Avenue of Volcanoes" by the indefatigable
German explorer Alexander von Humboldt in the nineteenth century.
On clear days, the lofty, snow-capped peaks do indeed form
an avenue as you travel south.
volcanoes, and its accompanying sizeable seismic activity,
have defined its history in many ways, looming like talismen
above the fields of hard-working Indians who have inevitably
personified them the great Chimborazo, for example,
is known as Taita, father.
Towns such as Latacunga
and Riobamba south of Quito have been founded and re-founded
as a result of earthquakes and lava flows over the centuries.
More recently, scientists monitoring Volcán Tungurahua
had the spa-town of Baños evacuated for fear of
a major eruption, and in October 1999, Volcán Guagua
Pichincha exploded, creating an eighteen-kilometer (11-mile)
high atomic-like mushroom cloud above Quito.
you spend any time in the country, youll soon find yourself
confronted with white-shrouded, amazing mountains, rising
up from the cultivated patchwork of plains. As you do, like
keen birders, youll find you create a sort of list,
ticking off the volcanoes youve seen as you travel the
At one point in my Ecuadorian travels, I became unhealthily
obsessed with capturing Cotopaxi on film. I once spent
the best part of a day at the car park, just waiting for the
weather to clear. It didnt. Youll be lucky to
spot all of Ecuadors peaks even if youre
in the country for weeks. Theyre more often than not
skulking behind banks of cloud. In Ecuador, its worth
getting into an early-morning routine, since thats when
the mountains are most likely to reveal their full glory.
an almost perfectly symmetrical cone, the beautiful Volcán
Cotopaxi, at a height of 5,897 m (19,655 ft),
is the second tallest mountain in Ecuador and considered to
be the tallest continuously active volcano in the world. Its
probably the countrys most famous volcano. To get the
feel of Cotopaxi you can drive through the wild and beautiful
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, and up to the parking lot on the
mountain itself at 4,600 m (15,332 ft).
climbers continue upwards to the refugio where they
rest before attempting to climb the peak in the wee hours
of the morning. For something more laid-back, check into the
Hacienda San Agustín de Callo, from where you can enjoy
the view from a comfy armchair, whiskicito in hand.
on anyones list is Chimborazo, the countrys
highest peak and at 6,310 m (20,697 ft) trivia buffs
get your pens out the farthest point from the Earths
center (due to the bulge at the equator). Until Mount Everest
was discovered and measured, it was thought Chimborazo was
the highest mountain in the world. In the nineteenth century,
Humboldt climbed it, writing afterwards that the ascent ranked
among one the most spiritual moments of his life. Even Bolívar
had a go, but his ascent, like his dream of a Gran Colombia,
failed. The first summit was made by the intrepid British
climber, Edward Whymper, in 1880.
Riobamba, Chimborazo appears gargantuan: the extinct volcano
is up to 20 km (12.5 miles) wide at its base alone. As with
Cotopaxi, you can drive up to its breath-inhibiting refuge
at 4,800 m (15,744 ft), within a fauna reserve peopled by
Opposite Chimborazo, Carihauirazo (5,020 m or 16,466 ft) challenges even the most experienced
On the other side of Riobamba, the incisor peaks
of El Altar (Cupac Urcu or "sublime mountain"
in Quechua) bite into lapis skies. Within its amphitheater
crater of jagged peaks, a stunning yellow-green lagoon can
be reached on a three- or four-day hike from near Riobamba.
Altar is just one of the three volcanoes which puncture the
wilds of Parque Nacional Sangay. The most famous of these
is Tungurahua, on its northwestern border, and currently highly
active. Although intrepid climbers are starting to return
to the peak, most visitors are content with a visit to the
various viewing stations. These are spectacular at night,
when the volcano lights up the sky with firework explosions.
Volcán Sangay, the third volcano, competes with
Cotopaxi for its photogenic, symmetrical cone, rising to 5,230
m (17,154 ft). However, unlike Cotopaxi, Sangay is an angry
mountain, considered to be one of the most active on the continent.
Although climbing it is not discouraged per se, because of
ash and rock explosions, the ascent is regarded as very high-risk.
Hikers wanting just to get near to the volcano, and camp around
its base, can arrange guides at the village of Alao, southeast
of Riobamba. Arguably the best views of Sangay parks
volcanoes is from Macas, or on the eastern skirts of the Andes
in the Oriente. On a clear morning or evening, the snow-capped
peaks seem to float above the tumbling forested hills.
the north of Quito rises the countrys third-highest
volcano, the mammoth Volcán Cayambe. The 5,790
m (18,991 ft) peak is regarded as one of the hardest and most
dangerous climbs in the country. The beautiful volcano glowers
above the vast Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca, protecting
some ten life zones as it descends from dizzying heights,
through dense cloudforest and on down to the jungle of the
Oriente. For the best views of the mountain, take the old
road round from Cayambe on the Panamericana towards Zuleta.
The refuge at 4,700 m (15,416 ft) can be reached in a four-wheel
of the capital, on the road down to Coca, or else in the Oriente
itself, lucky individuals can spot the four great glacier-tipped
peaks of Volcán Antisana at 5,753 m (18,870
ft) soaring into the sky. The best view of the volcano however
has to be from a hot spring at the thermal baths of Papallacta
on a brilliant bright morning.
of Quito, you can also tick the Ilinizas (two for the
price of one!), the twin peaks 5,248 and 5,126 m (17,738 and
16,813 ft) high, often lacquered with fresh snow. Though not
capped in snow, Volcán Imbabura (4,621 m or
15,157 ft) which dominates the weaving towns around Otavalo,
is nonetheless an impressive sight, and one of the countrys
most famous. By now, you will have ticked off all of the countrys
ten volcanoes above 5,000 m (16,400 ft). These are Ecuadors
most touted peaks, and explain why the country is often known
as "Volcano Land." Get ticking!
of people now climb these and other Ecuadorian peaks each
year. Conditions vary from mountain to mountain, though climbing
is usually best from June to September and in December to
There are refugios on the high slopes of
most of the big mountains where climbers rest, preparatory
to making their ascents around midnight in order to
reach the peak at dawn when visibility is at its best and
before the sun softens the snow. Weather conditions also tend
to be favorable during the full moon, aiding night-time climbs.
Proper acclimatization and experience is essential before
climbing any of the higher peaks.
Ecuadorian mountain guides association is called ASEGUIM
TEL (022) 568664, Calle Juan Larrea 657 and Rio de Janeiro,
just off Parque El Ejido, Quito. They run a rigorous training
program monitored by other experienced mountaineering associations.
All guides carry two-way radios for contact with the nearest
town or city. The ASEGUIM guides are also the only ones which
have a mountain rescue service. This is costly (so come with
adequate insurance!) but reassuring. Unfortunately, due to
squabbles in Baños, not all the guides there are members
of the association. Some that arent are still very good,
while others are cowboys. Check carefully who youre
of the most experienced and reputable climbing operators for
the country include
Alta Montaña Tel/fax (022)
504773, Jorge Washington 425 and 6 de Diciembre, Quito, in
riobamba TEL (03) 963694 fax (03) 942215, León Borja
35-17, e-mail email@example.com;
Safari Tours TEL (022) 552505 or 223381 fax (022) 220426 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org web site www.safari.com.ec , Calamá 380 and Juan León Mera, Quito;
Surtrek TEL (022) 561129 fax (022) 561132 e-mail email@example.com web site www.surtrek.com, Amazonas 897 and Wilson;
Andinismo TEL (022) 223030,
9 de Octubre 479 and Roca; and
Sierra Nevada TEL (022)
224717 fax (022) 554936, Pinto 637 and Amazonas.
contact the Asociación de Andinismo de Chimborazo TEL (03) 960916, Chile at Francia and Andes Climbing and
Trekking Z/fax (03) 940964 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org , Colón 22-25. This list is by no means complete! Most
of these also sell or rent climbing equipment.
the SAE for a list of the Quito-based climbing clubs
which meet regularly and can be a great source of advice.
There also some Ecuadorian mountaineering journals,
such as Montaña and Campo Abierto which
are worth looking out for, as well as the great photographer-mountaineer
Jorge Anhalzers mountain guides to the five most-climbed