Avenue of the Volcanoes

Ecuador’s position on the Ring of Fire has given it a geologically volatile landscape filled with extreme altitudes and surreally beautiful views. The part of the Andes that runs through Ecuador, also known as the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, offers a unique combination of difficult climbs and relatively easy peaks, many a short drive away from the capital, Quito.

October to February is generally the best time of year for mountaineering in Ecuador. Skies are clearer before the onset of the rainy season in March and April. Most major peaks can be reached by bus or 4WD, and plenty of haciendas and climbers’ refuges provide accommodation near or on volcanoes.

 

CAYAMBE

Located in the the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, just 70km north of Quito, Volcán Cayambe is a dormant volcano and the third highest peak in the country. It’s also one of the few remaining snowcapped peaks in the world located directly on the equator.

The climbers’ refuge (located at 4,600m) is accessible by car from the nearest town, which is also called Cayambe. Alternatively, you can trek up to the refuge, although you’ll want to save your energy for the ice climbing ahead.

Leave the refuge around midnight and you may reach Cayambe’s highest point, Cumbre Maxima (5,790m), in time to see daybreak over the surrounding region. This is a technically challenging ascent, passing glaciers and open crevasses, and usually takes 5 to 7 hours to complete. The descent takes approximately 2 hours. It’s best to hire an experienced mountain guide and ice equipment for the climb.

Beneath Cayambe, the sprawling Ecological Reserve covers over 4,000 square kilometres of cloud forests, highland prairies, waterfalls and pre-Incan ruins, and is home to over 1,500 species of rare South American animals, like the Andean condor, grey-breasted toucan and Andean fox.

 

PICHINCHA

 

 

Looming over Quito, Volcán Pichincha is the capital city’s nearest volcanic neighbour. Pichincha is home to the world’s second highest cable car (ending at 4,100m), which makes it ideal for a leisurely day trip.

The most popular route leads up to Pichincha’s newest and highest peak, Guagua (4,794m). It’ll take you 4 hours of non-technical, moderate intensity climbing to reach Guagua’s summit, from which you can take in an excellent view of Quito and Pichincha’s two other peaks.

Plenty of travellers take their mountain bikes up the Quito Teleferico cable car, and then make the descent by bike. The ride down is steep and difficult and leads into a cloud-forested area at Pichincha’s base.

Quito’s charming Old Town is located near the Teleferico’s boarding platform, and it’s worth exploring after your descent from Pichincha. Be sure to visit the Iglesia de San Francisco, a 16th-century church and monastery, and the bustling, lively Plaza de la Independencia.

 

COTOPAXI

 

 

Volcán Cotopaxi looks exactly like a perfect, textbook volcano – it’s cone-shaped, symmetrical, and extremely steep. At 5,897m, Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.

The climb up to the crater rim has a reputation for being challenging and exhausting, despite being technically straightforward. It’ll become obvious, at the crater, how active Cotopaxi is – the smell of sulfur is very strong.

The trip up takes approximately 5 hours, and the descent another 2. At the moment, the only available route up the mountain is the “Rompe Corazones” (or Heart Breaker), which, as its name suggests, is long and punishing.

Expect to cross multiple huge crevasses as you make your way up toward the glaciated peak. Less experienced climbers can opt to hike over some volcanic scree to the lower limits of the glacier at 5,000m. The refuge at 4,800m is a good place to rest and acclimatise to the altitude before you start your climb.

You can reach Cotopaxi by taking a bus from Quito towards Latacunga. Alternatively, arrive by car or 4WD, and you can drive up to 4,600m. On your way to Cotopaxi, stop by the Laguna Quilotoa, a 3 km-wide caldera lake with beautiful, emerald-green waters.

 

CHIMBORAZO

 

 

Volcán Chimborazo is Ecuador’s highest mountain, at 6,310m. Chimborazo has 5 summits and 2 climbers’ refuges, at 4,800m and 5,000m. Try to start your climb at night, because daytime temperatures cause rocks to expand and fall along the climbing route.

Like Cotopaxi, Chimborazo is not technically challenging, but climbers will need plenty of stamina and time to acclimatise. The most popular route to the top, El Castillo, takes approximately 8 hours to ascend, and will take you up Chimborazo’s north side.

The hardest route, Arista del Sol, is best attempted only by expert climbers – most of the route involves rock climbing, and takes at least 2 days to complete.

For a more sedentary (but no less exciting) experience, a scenic train ride from Riobamba takes you down Chimborazo on a stretch of railroad nicknamed “Nariz del Diablo” (the Devil’s Nose). An amazing feat of engineering, the Nariz del Diablo involves a series of switchbacks carved precisely into a near-vertical rock face, allowing the train to descend safely.

 

 

Other highlights along the Avenue of the Volcanoes include Volcán Tungurahua (responsible for the soothing thermal baths of nearby town, Baños), and Volcán Imbabura, from which you can see the famous and massive Otavalo Saturday market. Most peaks are generally safe for visitors, but be sure to check for news about unusual volcanic activity before your trip.

 

GETTING THERE

The average flight time to Ecuador (Quito) from Singapore is around 28 hours, with stopovers in the USA (2 stops) or Europe (1 stop) depending on the airline.

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