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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Are we going down there? Even the donkeys seem to be struggling. Standing atop the crater rim and looking down at the mineral infused water there were only three options – down, around, or back to the car. Though the waters beckoned, the whipping wind and impatient toddler led us back to the car. A well-measured decision.
Quilotoa stands on the western edge of the Andes and its crater lake is hypnotic. Looking down on the green waters and pondering the depth of over 250 meters, all the while surrounded by the parched rocky soil at the top, makes you realize the violent history of this place.
It is yet another place drastically affected by the seismic and volcanic upheavals under the earth’s surface. In 1280, Quilotoa erupted for the last time, further carving out the existing crater and creating the nearly symmetrical expanse of the current lake. Now you can swim, kayak, and wade into the peaceful waters. Some believe Quilotoa is the last resting place of Inca Atahualpa, so to some indigenous peoples it is sacred.
We didn’t spend much time right at the crater, but rather made our way to the cozy little retreat of Black Sheep Inn. There we settled into a diet of delicious brownies, cookies, endless tea and coffee, and the best high-altitude pancake recipe. The room was cozy, the fire powered sauna was warming, and the views were stunning.
It wasn’t all over-indulgence however, as we enjoyed the Skywalk – a hiking route around the surrounding crumbly hillsides that takes in much of the ever-changing scenery. We started in near sunshine and ended in fog, but thoroughly enjoyed the scrambling, climbing, and insight into the countryside.
On another hike, we explored a little known queseria, or ‘cheese factory’, hidden in the hillsides above Chugchilan. Here a couple of men were working hard, using traditional cheese making techniques learned by some Swiss missionaries. We explored the three room house that was the cheese factory and learned a bit about their process. We left with a round of cheese that we thoroughly enjoyed on our other hikes.
Cora returned again to Quilotoa with Piper and our good friend Ruth from the UK and was treated to a much kinder day in terms of weather, at least initially. The three of them climbed down into the depths of the crater and relaxed in the Ecuadorian sun along the turquoise waters. The hour long climb back up on foot was grueling, especially with a 30lb pack, but it was worth it to feel so close to this magnificent crater lake.
Many people do long distance hikes in this region – travelling from village to village – and it is easy to see why. Quilotoa is the main draw but the rolling hills, interspersed with rocky mountain outcrops, lend themselves to exploration. Little homesteads tucked away in forgotten nooks and crannies give evidence of a lifestyle unchanged over the centuries.
Quilotoa is the perfect place to unplug, unwind, and detach from the hustle of modern life. Bring your energy for the strenuous hikes, and your appetite for a decadent brownie to finish!
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!
There is something in the water in Baños, a small town in the middle of Ecuador. Some people will tell you it is holy. Others say that it has minerals that lead to better health. Others don’t care about the water because they are too busy throwing themselves off bridges, swinging over cliff edges, and ziplining across river gorges, and quite frankly the water wouldn’t help them even if it did have magic properties!
Nestled in a peaceful river valley and guarded by the 5,000 metre high, and rather active, Tungurahua Volcano, Baños is a destination with a little bit of everything. It is a common stopping point on the backpackers circuit, but it also attracts lots of local Ecuadorians for the spa baths and laid-back attitude. It is a place that can tempt someone to visit for three days and then never leave – as evidenced by many of the hostel and restaurant owners!
With our 14 month old Piper in tow, thereby limiting the amount of white water rafting and mountain biking we could do, we opted to go for a lovely hike along the fields and hillsides overlooking Rio Pastaza. We were hoping that Tungurahua would show itself, but it remained mysterious and shrouded in the clouds.
We wandered along a winding path up into the small fields and rampant plant life of the area. The moisture that comes up out of the Amazon region and the lower altitudes makes the whole region from Ambato to Baños a prime fruit and vegetable growing territory. We saw lots of tomate de arbol trees, also known as tomarillo (a fruit commonly made into juice here), maracuyas, or passionfruit in English, (another fruit that makes an even better juice), and normal tomatoes as well.
In fact, we had a lovely little exchange with a family harvesting their tomatoes as they stood on the other side of the small river valley from their greenhouses. They were using a tarabita – a small metal cart that hangs off of a metal cable operated by a pulley system. Using this simple mechanised transportation system saved this family hours of hauling wooden crates of tomatoes down and then back up the steep slopes of the river gorge. Cora helped to unload a few crates, gaining bemused looks from the family which was clearly not used to gringas moving their tomato harvest! We exchanged a couple of cereal bars for fresh tomatoes – so good we enjoyed them right there as we hiked!
Back in Baños we wandered into churches and past cafes. We saw a small local festival, admired the local graffiti and watched people at the ubiquitous candy shops pulling the equivalent of taffy in the doorways. It was odd to see so many of these shops all offering their version of the same thing and literally standing mere feet from each other as they pulled long strings of the light brown sticky substances off of pegs. Wrap and pull, wrap and pull, and at some point determine it is ready!
An unexpected find was a classic Italian trattoria, owned by a native Italian! Carpe Diem had fantastic handmade pastas and a casual setting away from the main area of town that made it perfect for us. We are not huge connoisseurs of Italian cuisine, but this was truly wonderful home style cooking.
A common outing from town is to hire bikes and ride the road down the river valley heading towards the jungle. Along this road are a series of waterfalls, the most famous of which is El Pailon del Diablo or Devil’s Cauldron. This thunderous waterfall carves its way through a narrow gorge to dramatic effect. To truly experience it, you can walk down into the river gorge on a fairly well built path and then slink your way under and around rocks to stand virtually under the flow (bring a change of clothes). It is loud, wet, and intense but well worth the effort to get so close to a true spectacle of nature.
A trip to Baños wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the baños, the thermal baths. The main baths were in the centre of town at the base of a waterfall. We opted to go as night fell to experience these magical waters under the stars. Every afternoon they empty the pools and refill them from the source so we were treated to a lovely clean and hot thermal bath. Though we arrived early, soon the baths were full of people enjoying their warmth and healing. It was a great experience seeing people of all walks of life relaxing and enjoying the waters.
Our home away from home for the couple of nights was La Casa Verde. Set a couple of kilometres outside the city centre and right along the river, it is a quiet oasis with a very eco-friendly approach. The hospitality from Sharon and Steven, the temporary managers, was phenomenal. These two took a hiatus from teaching in international schools to slow down a bit and try their hand at running an eco hostel. They did a fantastic job and had great insights on the area. Strangely the actual owners intended to hold a lottery to ‘auction’ off the place. For one dollar you could enter and they would pull out a winner, who would soon become the new owners. Tempting as it was to pack it all in and move to Baños – we decided to skip the opportunity. The world is just too big to settle down in one place quite yet, but Baños was a lovely place to experience!
Mere minutes from the middle of the world sits a deep volcanic crater that is still technically active. I say active because it isn’t extinct, but it also hasn’t erupted in hundreds of thousands of years. So active might be a bit of a misnomer.
Pululahua Volcano and crater are now protected as the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve. Pululahua, which means ‘cloud of water’ in Quichua, is aptly named as most days the crater is filled with thick clouds that roll in late morning. It’s quite a magical thing to experience, but for those trying to see the crater for a brief moment from the upper viewpoint it can often be impossible.
At the base of the crater are a few small farmsteads and a campsite, complete with fire pits, running water, and for some of our friends the key selling point – flushing toilets. Along with three other families, we took advantage of the still dry weather and spent two nights away from the city in the quite heart of a volcano.
There are two ways into, or out of, the crater. You can either drive a rather fun dirt track with too many switchbacks to count or you can hike down from the rim. With all our camping kit and little Piper we decided to drive. Once all four carloads of people arrived we were quite the group of eight adults and 11 kids.
We had a great time sitting around the campfire, going on a hike, and playing bocce with glow in the dark balls!
We were lucky and had amazingly clear weather almost all weekend depsite the usual clouds that roll in. Through it all Piper was a true outdoor loving camping guru – even though it was her first time. She loved trying to follow the other kids around, slept great in amongst the sleeping bags, and generally just had a fantastic time.
All in all it was a terrific weekend with great weather, laughter and friends! Looking forward to future camping adventures in Ecuador soon!