Category: Hiking

:: cascada de peguche ::

It rains a fair bit in Ecuador.  Small streams are frequently torrents of water, thus leading to many waterfalls.  Most are hidden well out of site in the jungles and cloud forests, but some, like the Cascada de Peguche near Otavalo, are quite accessible.

The Cascada de Peguche is not a large waterfall, only a mere 20 metres or so, but there is an intensity to the water that is impressive.  And with usually only a handful of visitors it is quite a tranquil place amongst the trees.

We have been pleasantly impressed by the number of Ecuadorians who get out and enjoy the tourist sites, both natural and cultural, within their country.  On most of our visits to Peguche there were only a couple of dozen people around, enjoying leisurely walks and the falls.

During Carnival, however, we were among a thousand or more people – all of them spraying espuma (coloured shaving cream) and throwing water balloons at everyone else.  It was a very festive atmosphere but not at all conducive to quiet contemplation of nature or staying dry!

That aside, it is a lovely area with a nice easy hike through towering eucalyptus trees – at least one of which is 100 years old – along side a lovely stream.  It is very family and pet friendly, and you can find a few local vendors outside the entrance selling trinkets, souvenirs and local delicacies.

There are some small pools below the falls that are ritually important for the local Kichwa community.  Every year before the Inti Raymi Sun God Festival on June 21, people come and cleanse themselves in order to prepare spiritually for the celebrations.  I imagine that is quite a busy day as well, but more culturally significant and probably less chaotic than the espuma fights during Carnival!

All in all you can’t go wrong with a little side trip to Peguche if you are in Otavalo. The place really is beautiful and there are also some impressive traditional weaving workshops in the town itself that are well worth a stop.

:: imbabura ::

Up.  Then up some more.  Then straight up.  That is roughly how I would describe climbing Imbabura.

By its very nature mountain climbing involves going up, but this mountain is not like the rolling inclines of Pichincha.  No, it is a knock you in the lungs, step by step, assault from the moment you get out of the car.  But it’s truly stunning and well worth the climb!

The weather was beautiful and sunny to start as we slowly climbed up through the paramo with sweeping views of the valley and Ibarra below.  However Imbabura is infamous for inclement weather on the top and before long the clouds rolled down the flanks of the mountain and grey misty conditions became our reality.

This didn’t deter us in the least, in fact it was rather magical to climb through the ever rockier landscape with swirling clouds all around us.  Sudden reveals of steep, rocky descents were slightly off putting to our good friend Matt with his fear of heights, but they did keep us on our toes!

The climbing got a bit harder and more technical towards the top and with an increasingly restless toddler on our backs, we took the wise and well-considered decision to cut short our ascent just shy of the peak.  It had been a good, but tough, climb and we all really enjoyed the day out on the mountain.

:: living in the shadow ::

Ecuador is a country of volcanos.  Tall ones, extinct ones, and iconic ones.  From Quito they are visible in every direction and they truly capture the imagination.  For the beauty and majesty of spotting a distant volcano on the horizon, there is something truly spectacular about living literally underneath a nearly 16,000 foot active volcano.

Pichincha stands ever-present above the city and is impossible to ignore in your comings and goings.  The city stretches up its lower flanks and has repeatedly been showered in ash throughout the centuries – most recently in 1999.  The ever changing clouds and light playing off the expansive mountainside give texture to the shifting atmosphere around the city.  And if the natural beauty wasn’t enough, there is the historical significance of the location as well.

On 24 May 1822, a small battle on the slopes of Pichincha between the Royalist Spanish army and the army of independent Gran Colombia, which was a pan-Andean alliance, proved to be a pivotal turning point in the history of the independence movement of South America.  Fought at 3,500 metres above sea level and lasting mere hours, the decisive engagement permitted the independent forces to control Quito and therefore united the three areas of Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil under the independent banner of Gran Colombia.  Eight years later those three city-states would merge into the newly independent nation of Ecuador.

The historical significance is sometimes lost in the sheer grandeur of the place, but it bares thinking about as you pass the sheer slopes, thick paramo grasses, and unforeseen gullies on your way up the volcano in the cable car.  In mere minutes the TeleferiQo will take you more than 1,000 metres up in elevation and deposit you over 4,000 metres above sea level.  There, if you are lucky to have a clear day, you are treated to truly panoramic views of Quito and a dozen, often snowcapped, volcanos on the horizon.

Bring your layers, as the wind whips across the open expanse, and your sunglasses, as the sun is extra intense.  Then, wander up to the various viewing locations to see the entire 2.2 million person city spread out below.  It is an incomparable view down, but then you turn around and see the rocky outcropping of Ruku Pichincha still another 700 metres above you.

Pichincha is one massive volcano that actually split itself into two separate summits – named Wawa (Kichwa for baby or child) and Ruku (Kichwa for elder).  Wawa is the higher peak by almost 100 metres, but Ruku is the more easily accessible with a trail leading up directly from the TeleferiQo station.

The trail up Ruku is pretty straightforward with a series of short, steep climbs over the paramo grasses until you reach the rocky face.  Skirting the Paso del Muerte (Pass of Death), the trail leads to a wonderfully energy sapping scree slope before the final scramble over the terraced rock face to the summit.

We have summited Ruku twice – once just the two of us with Mosa and the second time with Piper on our backs.  It is not a mountain to be taken lightly as weather conditions can change quickly from lovely to atrocious, but with a good amount of fitness and sensible caution, it is one of the easier climbs of the higher peaks.  In fact, it is frequently used as an acclimatisation climb by people with plans to climb the highest peaks in Ecuador.

Our climbs really couldn’t have been much different – with lovely mostly sunny conditions the first time and cloud the second time.  And I mean cloud, because we were climbing in the cloud for the last parts.  It gave the summit a very ephemeral feel and a sense that you were literally alone in the middle of the sky.

We have been up the TeleferiQo with numerous visitors for everything from a quick look around the views near the top station to rather arduous hikes through the paramo.  Every time is a little different and unfortunately only once, when Cora was up with friends, have all the volcanos, including Chimborazo 140km away, been visible.  We hope to have at least one more chance to see that expansive view before we depart, but with the schizophrenic Andean weather we will just have to wait and see!

In the meantime, we will enjoy the views of Pichincha with snow, cloud, and sun from Quito.

:: captivating cotopaxi ::

It is a constant in our lives.  We see it from our bedroom, on our commute, and from the embassy.  It sits quietly in the near distance, yet that potential for catastrophic eruption persists.  It is impossible to be in Quito and not be drawn to its beauty.  Cotopaxi is an iconic volcano, one that occupies a central part of Ecuador’s identity as a destination of natural wonders and adventurous spirits.

Reaching nearly 6,000 meters into the sky, Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador and one of the tallest volcanos in the world.  Unlike the ‘active’ volcano of Pululahua, Cotopaxi was actively erupting from September 2015 until January 2016.  This most recent eruption cycle caused mass evacuations of nearby towns, extensive emergency preparedness drills, and not a few ruined car engines from the ash clouds.  Luckily a full fledged eruption didn’t occur, but the national park was closed at the time and the summit remains closed.

Eruptions of Cotopaxi would be disastrous due to the lahar mud flows that would follow.  Basically an eruption would flash melt the glaciated peak and the resulting fast moving mud would engulf all surrounding areas, especially along the various river valleys.  Past eruptions have twice completely destroyed the provincial capital of Latacunga and lahar once even made it to the Pacific Ocean more than 100km away!  Most scientific models show the lahar flowing in the river valley immediately below our neighbourhood – about 50 km from the summit of Cotopaxi – with enough force to do significant damage.  It is a form of nature that we would rather not see or experience.

Cotopaxi is a temptress though.  It is a mountain with sacred ties to the indigenous cultures in the area – including beliefs that gods lived at the summit and it being sacred as a form of rain producer.  That reputation for rain is not unfounded.  A completely clear day, all day, around Cotopaxi is exceedingly rare.  There are constant changes to clouds and light conditions, with rain, wind, sleet, hail, and snow all being common occurrences in the same day.  The best conditions tend to be first thing in the morning or around sunset.  Because of this we commonly inform guests that if the volcano is visible at first light, and clearly so, then we will rouse them and get them in the car by 7am in order to get to the park in time to see the summit properly.

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The drive to the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park is only about an hour from Quito.  After a short drive through some evergreen forests, you enter the rock strewn plains around the base of the volcano itself.  Here there are great hikes available especially around Limpiopungo Lake or a well hidden spring fed stream on the backside of the park.

The true draw however is the road up the volcano to the carpark at 4,600 metres above sea level.  Here the dusty slopes and intense winds can make walking rather difficult.  For the more hearty you can walk up to the refugio which sits at 4,900 metres.  This is currently the highest up you can go, but it used to be the key jumping off point for climbers attempting to summit Cotopaxi.

The snow line is usually above the refugio, but after extended periods of particularly wet weather, the snow descends down to the carpark.  We had a particularly fun family outing during one of these times – complete with michelin baby Piper!

Most people drive up and down from the carpark, but there are tour operators who will drive you up and then give you a mountain bike to descend the rutted dirt road.  Some really go for it on the descent and others appear out for a Sunday ride.  Either way it looks like a great way to experience the volcano and environs.

Of course there is the option to walk, or even run down as well, and with our good friend Thierry, I did run down quite a ways.  It is only a downhill run that is possible at that altitude – going up would require excessive amounts of training!

There isn’t a ton of flora and fauna up at that altitude, but the ground is covered in a wide array of flowers, lichen, moss, and grasses.  Little spurts of reds, yellows, and blues pop out from the white lichen to add colour and texture to the plains.

There are over 800 wild horses in the park along with foxes, deer, rabbits, lizards, and of course birds of prey circling – maybe for gringos stupid enough to run down a volcano!

Beyond the aforementioned 800 wild horses, there are numerous options for horseback riding in, and around, the park.  No matter whether it is an hour plod or a full day excursion, horse riding in the park is quite something.  Cora and our friend Ruth went on a lovely hour ride from Tambopaxi, with me acting as a horse for Piper as she rode in her backpack alongside!  Although the weather was quite overcast, it was lovely to wander out amongst the undulating terrain and really feel the true size and power of Cotopaxi.  The ride took us off into some of the hidden corners and dry river beds that would be filled in seconds should an eruption occur.  It was hard for this two legged baby pack heavy horse to keep up, but all in all we had a fantastic time.

You would think a behemoth like Cotopaxi would be sufficient to capture anyone’s attention, but there are actually several other volcanos surrounding, usually easily visible from the park.  Ruminahui – a jagged dormant volcano reaching over 4,700 metres – sits overlooking Limpiopungo Lake.

Sinchalagua – an imposing 4,900 metre high peak is also easily overshadowed by its more famous neighbour.

On clear days, Antisana, the fourth highest peak in Ecuador, is also visible as are numerous other peaks in the area.

Ruminahui, Pichincha and Sinchalagua all in site from the road on Cotopaxi

There are camping sites in the park, but only one indoor sleeping option – Tambopaxi.  This haven for climbers is very comfortable and is on the track to the more rugged northern entrance to the park.  Being in the park itself means that on a clear night or morning, you can go out and experience the star strewn sky over Cotopaxi or watch the sun come up.  Both are truly magical to experience.

Outside the park borders are numerous other options – our favourite little find is La Campiña – a small little farmstead with wonderful owners (post to follow soon).

Cotopaxi is majestic and magnificent.  Not a single day goes by where we don’t look for it.  Sometimes I will wander out our front door for no other reason than to look southeast and see if it is visible.  If it is, I will usually stand and look at it for awhile, immune from the visual distractions of the neighbouring houses and suburban detritus.

The park itself is one of our favourite places in Ecuador – rugged, largely empty, and with the mountainous surroundings that feed our souls.  You can have spectacular experiences throughout Ecuador, but not visiting Cotopaxi would be to deprive yourself of the opportunity to truly experience the unique and amazing wonders of nature.  Rain or shine, make an attempt and it will truly astound you.

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Thanks to all of our friends and family who have helped us to have so many opportunities to visit this majestic beauty — Aarne, Mom, Heather, the Brooke family, the De Saint Martin family, Mom and Dad and Ruth!

:: humming through the clouds ::

On the west side of Pichincha sits a wonderful little nature reserve covered in cloud forest.  Yanacocha Reserve is not well known, even though it is mere kilometres from central Quito, and the two separate visits we have made have been all the better for it.

Yanacocha is one of ten private reserves set up and managed by the Jocotoco Foundation.  Jocotoco identifies and establishes reserves in microclimates with endemic species, especially birds, many of which are endangered. Through education centres and eco-tours, Jocotoco provides a better understanding of the importance of conservation and retaining robust eco-systems throughout Ecuador.

A short drive out of the congested valley that houses Quito, you quickly climb the flank of Pichincha and into rolling farmland.  Then a left turn onto a dirt track leads up through the paramo and up to the small administrative building of Yanacocha.  With an education centre and small cafe as well, the main focus is really on the natural experience.  And you don’t have to wait long – as usually within moments you see a hummingbird darting through the flowering bushes!

A dirt track that soon turns into a well-kept path follows the curves of the mountainside and the fog rolls up from out of the valleys or hangs in patches dotting the landscape.  All this moisture allows for a wide array of plants to grow, including some leaves that could easy engulf not only Piper, but probably us as well!

It is a mystical place with the ever-changing fog, or cloud, enshrouding the path and giving fleeting glimpses of the surrounding mountains.  And then suddenly the bright equatorial sun will power through and the full beauty of the place will be on display.  The unique biodiversity right outside of Quito is a breath of fresh air – literally – and will keep your attention as you look left and right at new plants, flowers, or crane your neck to find the birds calling in the canopy above.

There are numerous bird species here, but the real draw is the variety of hummingbirds. Ecuador has around 130 varieties of hummingbird and around 15 are in Yanacocha.  Hummingbirds are truly magical to observe with their wing speed and ability to hover in place.  The colours on display are fantastic as well.  The only shame is that the reserve uses plastic feeders to help sustain the population.  Certainly a more natural solution would be preferable, but considering their hard work to help maintain native populations, it is hard to really argue with their methods.

All in all, this is a great little day, or even half day, trip out of Quito.  It’s provides the perfect opportunity to connect with nature in a micro climate not readily available even within Ecuador.

:: pasochoa paramo ::

It is abnormal to start a hike at almost 12,700 feet. The air is fairly thin, there are no trees, and the wind can howl like nobody’s business.  This is not terrain for a leisurely stroll, which was good, because we felt like a proper hike up a mountain.

Pasochoa is one of the smaller mountains in the Ecuadorian Andes, but it is also one of the more accessible.  It is overlooked by the riches of the Andean Sierra, with seven higher peaks visible from its summit, including Cotopaxi and Antisana, both of which are close to a mile higher.  At a mere 13,800 feet, or 4,200 metres, it is a fairly easy, non-technical climb.

Instead of climbing from lower down the mountain, which most people do from the northwest side, we drove up through the fields, cattle gates and onto the paramo from the west side.  We had been staying on a lovely farm and this access point was just a few minutes up the road so it was ideal.  We didn’t expect to be able to drive as far up as we did, but we were grateful given the inclement weather and additional weight of our 16 month old on our backs.

The paramo is a universal ecosystem up in the high Andes and is evident from the tussock grasses, empty spaces and large birds of prey circling above.  It is kind of like moorlands and certainly without good visibility, one could easily get lost in the fairly featureless expanses.

It was a fairly cloudy day so many of the peaks were mostly hidden, but we still enjoyed being on the lookout for the larger peaks.  Really we just wanted to get out and stretch our legs and finally have the chance to summit a proper Andean peak. The open expanses in all directions were quite stunning, it is hard to believe that when you stand atop the summit, it is only about twenty or thirty miles from the centre of Quito.

Fog seemed to roll in from all sides, but especially up from the crater of Pasochoa.  An extinct volcano, it’s thrilling to see how previous eruptions have moulded the landscape and provided fertile ground for unique high altitude vegetation.

All four of us made it up to the top, though Piper was the only one really exhausted from the experience! As you can see – climbing mountains is hard work!

:: cloud forest ::

Some places in the world on the tourist trail can seem off the beaten path despite how well known they are.  Mindo is such a place.  Settled into a valley surrounded by lush cloud forest and small rivers rushing off the Andes Mountains, this small little town is a place to slow down and enjoy whatever nature is willing to reveal.

The town center is home to a few blocks of dusty streets, little shops, wood houses and a half-neglected town square.  From every corner you can see the clouds rolling in and out over the lush green landscape that surrounds Mindo.  Within minutes of the town center you can find yourself a million miles away, on the banks of a rushing river or on a trail surrounded by enormous leaves, tropical flowers and cascading waterfalls.

The cloud forests of Ecuador are home to an amazing array of biodiversity and birds.  Hummingbirds are such a common occurrence here that you can become almost complacent about seeing them zipping around mere feet from you – always too fast for the camera unless you are dedicated to photographing them.  The natural beauty is extremely accessible and almost hypnotic.

One of the great natural highlights of Mindo is the chance to hike in the cloud forest of the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve.  A rough hewn path traces the edges of hillsides and takes you down sharp slopes to small secluded waterfalls.  It is a trail where you will see a few people, but you can still feel as if you have the entire expanse of nature to yourself.  To reach it, you ride the several hundred metre long tarabita over the river valley below.  The tarabita can best be described as a metal cart suspended off of a solid cable that holds about six people.  Think coal mining cart crossed with a zip line run by a diesel engine.  It is magnificently simple and beautiful to dart across the open vistas on something that undoubtedly would not pass a safety check in the States or Europe.

There are other hikes around town including down the quiet road along Rio Blanco with its waters that flow directly out of the crater of the Guagua Pichincha volcano.  Or head to the La Casa Amarilla and follow trails through the guava plantations and up to a rickety perch high above town.

Of course if hiking isn’t your thing, then you can go for a relaxing tubing ride down the river or check out the Mindo butterfly farm.

Then again, maybe you need more adventure, in which case the canyoning and zip-lining options await.  The latter was quite fun as I went with our friend Aarne one morning.  We had a great time flying from hillside to hillside, sometimes upside down in the mariposa (butterfly) position!  It might not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it!

When you need an escape from all the nature, you can check out one of the local chocolate businesses in town.  El Quetzal, now famous for its chocolate tours and treats, started as an internet cafe.  The owner’s brownies were so good, and the supply of sufficiently good chocolate so spotty, that the owners decided to start producing their own chocolate.  Now you can tour the small production site and have an interesting overview of the process, and most importantly get a custom tasting of them all!  The chocolate is very good, and it is only available in Mindo, Ecuador and in Michigan – the home state of the American owner.

With a laid back feel and nature at every turn, Mindo is a lovely little getaway.  Spend a day or a week and you will surely recharge your batteries and feel like you escaped the big city for a while.

Thanks to all of our family and friends who have explored this area with us so far – it’s been a great adventure discovering and rediscovering different parts each time!

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Amongst the many places to stay, we highly recommend the little unknown airbnb ‘wooden cottage’ set amongst gorgeous gardens and hosted by the fabulous Clemencia and Jaime Beron.  Stay tuned for more about their expansive botanical garden, pitahaya plantation, haven for the local birds, homemade breakfasts and their very own frog concert – an amazing experience overall!