Looking for Lava in All the Right Places
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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).
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
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
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
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
Bob Payne is a frequent contributor to Destinations. His profile of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula appeared in the November 1996 issue.