By Lance Brashear
In 1802 German explorer Alexander von Humbolt, in a visit to Ecuador´s Sierra, coined a phrase that is now part of the tourism vocabulary for mainland Ecuador: Avenue of the Volcanoes.
The term is self-explanatory if you simply look at a map or take a drive south of Quito along the Pan-American Highway.
Between the eastern and western cordilleras of the Andes Mountains, Ecuador’s highest mountain peaks (nine of which are above 5,000 meters) sit along a 300 kilometer stretch and are all part of the country’s protected areas – either a national park or an ecological reserve.
The mountain peaks are actually volcanoes, both active and inactive, which offer the opportunity to experience their beauty in many ways, with a lot activity taking place around one volcano in particular: Cotopaxi.
One of the most popular daytime excursions out of Quito is a trip to Cotopaxi National Park. Located just an hour south of Quito, the park is 34,000 hectares of pristine Andean countryside smack in the middle of the “avenue.”
Cotopaxi Volcano is a symmetrical, cone-shaped volcano, 5,897 meters in elevation and offers spectacular views. Dormant since 1904, the volcano reactivated in 2015, initiating a national state of emergency and evacuation drills in scores of communities. Since then, activity has subsided and the mountain is once again considered safe for hikers and climbers.
By mountain-climbing standards, Cotopaxi is not technically difficult to climb, but most visitors seem content to simply visit the refuge at 4,800 meters, reachable with a moderate hike from the parking lot. Though the climb to the refuge is only 300 meters, allow an hour, due to the thin air. From the refuge, it is only another 200 meters to reach the lowest point of the glacier, at 5,000 meters. Once you reach the glacier, cell phone reception is excellent, so give your friend or loved one a call to let them know you made it.
If you wish to do this in a group or with a guide, it is not hard to arrange. An informal survey of agencies in the Mariscal District – a hub for travelers visiting Quito – showed that a day trip can be arranged for about $60 including round-trip transportation from Quito, tour guide, and box lunch. Usually a minimum of 2 persons is required.
Gulliver Expeditions (https://gulliver.com.ec) offers a very economical day trip to Cotopaxi. Not only is it less expensive than most, but it can combine hiking and biking. For $50 you will be driven to Cotopaxi Park. A guide will lead you to the refuge and the glaciers and once back at the parking lot you can take a 40-minute bike ride to the Limpiopungo Lake at the base of the volcano (downhill all the way).
Cotopaxi is not the only biking excursion that can be enjoyed along the avenue. Similar experiences can be had at the nearby Illiniza Mountains, two twin peaks located due west of Cotopaxi, across the Pan American Highway.
For biking around the Illinizas try Gulliver Expeditions, once again. They have a lodge nearby: Hosteria Papagayo (www.hosteria-papagayo.com)
Near Riobamba, Chimborazo Volcano offers a 32km descent from the Whymper Refuge which begins at 5,000 meters, to San Juan at 3,200 meters. Twenty-four km are paved and the technical level is easy. Allow 5-6 hours. For information call the Sigchos Municipality at 03-271-4242 for suggested guides.
For a more hard-core biking experience, Biking Dutchman, located also in the Mariscal, offers 1-8 day biking trips. Their $50 day trips begin with the downhill cruise from the Cotopaxi refuge and then continue throughout a section of the national park. Their two-day trips combine visits to Cotopaxi and Chimborazo or Cotopaxi and Quilotoa Crater, with overnight stays in local hostels, for only $120.
Extended trips, such as a 5-day and 8-day excursions, combine biking along the Avenue with biking in the Amazon basin to the east. All biking excursions are listed as moderate in difficulty.
Climbing & Camping Expeditions
For those who want a greater challenge then consider a 2-5 day climbing trip to Cotopaxi. For two-day trips, Cotopaxi is the most popular destination.
The first day is spent reaching the refuge, where you turn in early, to awaken at midnight and begin a 5-7 hour ascent to the top. Though challenging, it is not considered technically difficult.
Happy Gringo Travel (www.happygringo.com), also located in the Mariscal, arranges this excursion for about $250 per person (minimum two persons required), which includes all equipment, climbing guide, and food and lodging. Gulliver offers a similar package at $175 each, and for single climbers (one person with guide) the cost is $260.
For new arrivals to Ecuador, a brief period of acclimatization is recommended. For that reason, agencies will offer 3-5 day tours which begins with climbs to smaller volcanoes before attempting Cotopaxi, such as Pasochoa (4,200 meters), Corazon (4,788), or Rumiñahui (4,712).
And for the experienced climber, the technically difficult expeditions are directed to three primary peaks: Antisana (5,755), Illiniza South (5,245) and Chimborazo (6,310).
For more detailed information about climbing Cotopaxi check out www.summitpost.org.
For extended climbing tours and camping also consider Cotopaxi Climbing (www.cotopaxiclimbing.com) and Surtrek (www.surtrek.com).
Just as tour operators offer hiking and biking in one-day excursions or one-week adventures, the same is to be found with horseback riding.
For an easy one-day experience, Papagayo Hosteria in Machachi offers two-hour, four-hour, and six-hour rides with views of Corazon and the Illiniza Volcanoes. Overnight tours are also available.
Hacienda Porvenir also offers nice day-trips with horse-riding excursions for even the least experienced rider.
For those with experience, desire, and calloused chaps, extended riding tours and cattle drives are offered by Tierra del Volcan, Hacienda La Alegria, and Hacienda La Yanahurco, all in or near Cotopaxi Park.
From A Distance
Other activities are possible too, including camping, fishing, and zip-lining. But for those who would prefer to sip wine near the fireplace and just admire the view, the options are even greater, though one hacienda in particular is a must-visit.
Hacienda San Agustin de Callo (www.incahacienda), a former Incan palace converted to a luxury lodge, offers an experience like no other. Though they have many other day activities and some of the region’s best cuisine, simply doing nothing at San Agustin is always a pleasure.
So no matter which hacienda you decide to visit, you really cannot go wrong because where you go is not as important as simply going.
Ecuador’s Tallest Peaks Along the Avenue of the Volcanoes
El Altar 5,320m
Illiniza Sur 5,263m
Where to Stay Near Cotopaxi National Park