Looking for Lava in All the Right Places

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, May 1997

Looking for Lava in All the Right Places

Hike like the Incas. Meet a friendly ex-headhunter or two. And see mountains vent steam. All within Ecuador's Avenue of the Volcanoes.
By Bob Payne

In the past, Ecuador has been most renowned for its offshore Galžpagos turtles. Recently, it's also been a showcase for presidential election buffoonery. But its most topical claim to fame is that, in a hot year for volcanoes, it's a nation overloaded with the things. The highlands of Ecuador in fact have one of the world's greatest concentrations of molten mountains. And while the satisfactions of seeing stunt lava and steam decimate downtown Los Angeles may be considerable, they pale beside the sight of the original — especially at the loftiest active lava producer on earth, Ecuador's 19,347-foot Cotopaxi. Only 30 miles outside Quito, the capital, Cotopaxi regularly vents steam from its ice-rimmed crater while condors spiral lazily overhead, wild stallions gallop along the windswept plains at the mountain's base, and intrepid climbers peer into the mountain's heart, wondering when the next eruption might occur.

But then, part of the pleasure of a trek through Ecuador's highlands is its unpredictability. In contrast to the country's tamer, more touristed coast, the highlands are rugged and densely forested, their infrastructure makeshift, and the scenery and culture fantastic. Here you can kayak to welcoming villages where residents were hunting heads a lot more recently than you might care to know. You can hike routes the Incas took. Or you can climb the peaks that rise like smoking chimneys out of the coastal lowlands to the west and the Amazon Basin to the east, forming the famous Avenue of the Volcanoes.

Because of the difficult terrain and the few amenities in this region, most visitors opt to go with a tour operator. But if you've got sufficient patience and personal gear — few places in the highlands rent equipment — you can complete any trip on your own. Ecuador is a traveler-friendly country. Unless you're running for president, it's unlikely that anyone will make you feel less than welcome.

Quito is the base for most highlands adventures. But "base" is a relative term. At 9,350 feet, this is the second-highest capital in South America, after La Paz, Bolivia. Give yourself several days to acclimatize; one popular method is to make the 5,800-foot nontechnical scramble up nearby Pichincha, a twin-peaked volcano. To reach the mountain, take a local bus from downtown to the Cruz Loma hill and start walking up. Rucu Pichincha, the lower of the two peaks, takes about two and a half hours to ascend; its neighbor, Guagua Pichincha, about half a day. From either, you'll be able to peer down into the volcano's sulfurous depths, with geysers spouting steam far below.

Back in Quito, get updates on highlands conditions or find up-to-date maps at the clubhouse of the South American Explorers Club. To enter you have to be a member, which costs a well-spent $40 per year and includes a subscription to the club's quarterly magazine. Join before you leave home by calling 607-277-0488. If you were so busy with such last-minute details that you forgot your ice ax or thermal underwear, buy or rent quality climbing and trekking gear at Quito's Andisimo Outdoor Shop (011-593-2-223-030).

In the Avenue of the Volcanoes itself, about a dozen worthy peaks, most thrusting up past 15,000 feet, lie within an easy day's drive of Quito. Because they're almost as common as automatic teller machines and not among the world's most technically challenging, it's possible to summit three or even four during a two-week trip. And consider the bragging rights: Climb round-topped Chimborazo, for instance, the highest at 20,561 feet, and because of a bulge in the globe at the equator, you'll be standing farther from the center of the earth than if you were atop Everest.

The most popular climb in Ecuador, and one of the best introductions to the beauties and rigors of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, is to the top of Cotopaxi. For the firmest footing, begin the six-hour ascent around 1 a.m.; by late afternoon the snow will be treacherously soft. Little of the climb is technically challenging, but you do need basic ice-climbing and glacier-travel skills.

Inexperienced climbers should go with a guide. To avoid getting one who has less experience than you, ask at the South American Explorers Club. Your reward for summiting: a sunrise view of as many as nine snow-capped equatorial peaks and, extending way off forever toward the east, the Amazon Basin. You'll also have a slightly vertiginous view into Cotopaxi's round, snow-encrusted crater. Peek in cautiously. The volcano's last major eruption was in 1877, but steam and heat still escape regularly from this, the world's highest display of leaky pipes.

To reach Cotopaxi's base from Quito, follow the Pan American Highway 30 miles south until you come to the turnoff for Cotopaxi National Park. Before ascending, you can bunk near 15,750 feet at the Josë Ribas refuge hut (about $5 per person; no reservations required), which is accessible by four-wheel drive and a 45-minute hike. If you don't have your own vehicle, take a bus from Quito to the village of Lasso and hire a local driver and his pickup for about $20 per ride, depending on your ability to bargain in Quechua, the language spoken by these descendants of the Incas.

Those who lack the skills or the gumption to climb shifting glaciers to reach the tops of active volcanoes can content themselves with trekking the network of trails that crisscross the Avenue of the Volcanoes. But this will not be a walk in the park. Some of these trails rise above 17,000 feet through fields of snow and boulders. But the payoff is in the pžramo. A high-altitude vegetation zone inhabited mostly by green and gold grasses, pžramo transforms what otherwise might resemble a moonscape into a rustling vista of color. All this against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks and glacier-fed streams and lakes.

Some of the best and most traveled treks circle the same volcanoes popular with climbers. A number of these paths traverse Cotopaxi National Park, while others snake around the base and lower elevations of Antisana (18,714 feet), home of the largest condor population in Ecuador, and Altar, a mountain that sports nine separate peaks, the highest reaching 17,725 feet.

But the classic Ecuadorian highlands trek is a three-day hike along the old Inca Trail, which, though most closely associated with Peru, actually started in Quito. Today its remnants in the Ecuadorian highlands remain so obvious that a guide is unnecessary. You travel mostly along ridgelines above a long, steep-sided valley carpeted in pžramo grasses. In the evenings, scramble down to the flat valley floor and camp beside a glacial lake (good for trout fishing) or stone ruins that served as pre-Colombian rest stops. To begin, head south from Quito by car or bus about 175 miles on the Pan American Highway to the town of Alausì, where, if you need private transportation, you can hire a truck for the 90-minute ride to the mountain village of Achupallas, trailhead for the trek. The ride costs about $10 per person, with mountain scenery thrown in for free.

The Inca Trail jaunt ends in the town of Ingapirca. From there, catch a bus to the town of Cuenca, a manufacturing center for Panama hats. Hang your new chapeau at the colonial-style Hostal Macondo, once a private residence, which has a pretty garden and, more important after a multiday trek, laundry service (doubles, $12; phone, 011-593-7-831-198; fax, 011-593-7-833-593).

While almost everyone else in the mountains is trying to get to the top, whitewater enthusiasts are mainly interested in the most exciting way to tumble down. And in Ecuador's highlands, with its parallel spurs of mountains, the tumble can be quite exciting.

You don't have to go far for your thrills, either. Two of the best whitewater rides are easily done on day trips out of Quito. Both Rìo Blanco and Rìo Toachi have put-ins for rafts or kayaks not far from the town of Santo Domingo de los Colorados, an eye- and ear-popping downslope bus ride from Quito. The most frequently run sections are Class III-IV, passing through rainforest and deep canyons on their way to the Pacific. Depending on which sections you choose, yours also can be a two-hemisphere trip, since the rivers cross the equator.

But the finest whitewater adventure in Ecuador is slightly farther afield, on the Rìo Upano, sometimes called the River of Sacred Waterfalls. The Upano will carry you into the wild, little-explored rainforest country of the Shuar Indians, headhunters as late as the 1960s and experts at shrinking their prizes down to souvenir size.

Because of the area's remoteness, this is a trip best undertaken through an outfitter. The only company currently running tours here is ROW, based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (800-451-6034). ROW will make arrangements to fly you from Quito to Macas, one of the last settled outposts before Ecuador drops into the Amazon Basin. The put-in here is in a wide valley, from which the river flows over Class III and IV rapids and then into a narrow canyon draped with waterfalls hundreds of feet high. In between, as you paddle past virgin rainforest, you'll meet up with the Shuar — friendly enough folks nowadays, though some of their huts are still decorated with their one-time souvenir specialty.

To go from the volcanic heights of Ecuador to the coastline 15,000 feet below is to pass through three separate climate zones, with temperatures rising as much as 40 degrees and oxygen levels more than doubling. For a spine-tingling experience of this, hop on a mountain bike and head downhill. Fast. A bike also allows access to the more remote Avenue of the Volcanoes villages that, unless you fancy long, slow bus rides shared with chickens and dozing drivers, are not easily reached otherwise.

Few good bikes are available for rent in Ecuador, so most mountain biking in the highlands is done through tour operators. But you can organize your own ride if you bring a good-quality bike from home, as well as tools and spare tires. You won't find many repair shops here, though local buses are equipped with roof racks that can accommodate cycles.

A mild but scenic introduction to biking in the Avenue of the Volcanoes, especially good for those who find the air a bit inadequate in Quito, is in the southern highlands town of Ba˜os. A five-hour downhill bus ride from Quito, the town is often overrun with foreign tourists during the summer. Don't stay long, unless you're there on Saturday, market day, when you can load up on such necessities as woolen vests, silver crucifixes, and bread-dough figurines. Then head outside of Ba˜os, where the hills are lush, steep, and empty, and Juan's Trail, one of the finest examples of scenic single-track in all of South America, zigzags down a hillside and back into town.

For an even grittier and more volcanic ride, bike the 30 eye-watering downhill miles from three-quarters of the way up Cotopaxi. You can hire a driver in the village of Lasso to haul you to the parking lot below Josë's hut.

Then take a breath, loose the brakes, and start rushing by the snow-covered fields, past scenic Lake Limpiopungo, and through increasingly green pastures, until you skid at last into the town of Machachi, 8,000 feet below. From there, you can ride the 20 miles north to Quito or, if you're feeling expansive, hop a bus and regale a few wide-eyed chickens with tales of your highlands derring-do.

Bob Payne is a frequent contributor to Destinations. His profile of Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula appeared in the November 1996 issue.

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