Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America, but for climbers and trekkers it offers an incredible diversity of mountains, ecosystems and cultures to explore. Within a day’s drive of the modern capital city of Quito are 20,000 foot glaciated peaks, Amazon rainforest, warm coastal beaches, and dense cloudforest with hidden Incan treasures. Whether you decide to ramble out on your own or hook up with a local guide service, the logistics of planning excursions in Ecuador are simpler and the approach time shorter than in other, more remote, areas of the world.
The high Andean peaks of Ecuador are located primarily along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a fertile central valley, which is buttressed by two ranges, the Eastern and Western Cordilleras. Most of the highland populace, including the indigenous Quichua, ekes out an agrarian living in this region.
Some of the summits are young, cone-shaped volcanoes like Cotopaxi with technically straight-forward climbs offering the novice a chance to get near or above 20,000 feet. Others are deeply eroded, older volcanoes with challenging rock and ice routes (e.g., the glorious ring of peaks on El Altar).
For your first few days in Ecuador, you should acclimatize by ascending some of the smaller mountains (15,000 feet or less), such as Iliniza Norte, Imbabura or Pichincha to avoid developing AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) or the more severe Pulmonary Adenoma or Cerebral Adenoma. These lower peaks are non-glaciated, easily accessible within a day’s travel from Quito, and offer either hut facilities or nearby hostels that can be used as a climbing base.
Once your body has adjusted to the altitude, you are ready to try one of Ecuador’s four classic glaciated peaks: Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Cayambe or Tungurahua. Although the standard routes are technically straightforward, people do die every year – primarily from avoidable mistakes. Novices should hire a local guide. Experienced mountaineers can attempt the more remote and/or more difficult peaks of Antisana, El Altar and Iliniza Sur or the more challenging routes on the other mountains. As a relatively recent playground for climbers, Ecuador still provides many opportunities for first ascents on new routes.
There are three anomalous volcanoes (Reventador, Sumaco and Sangay) that don’t belong to either of the Cordilleras, but rather thrust up from dense jungle east of the Andes. These climbs have the added attraction of giving you a chance to test out your machete skills, as you must blaze trails through dense cloudforest or rainforest just to get to the base of these giants. Sangay is also noteworthy for its healthy population of woolly mountain tapirs.
Hiking & Trekking
If you prefer hiking and trekking, there are a number of excellent trips through the Andean paramo (a sub-alpine zone) which features spectacular views of Ecuador’s volcanic peaks. The most popular treks are the Trek de Condor, which passes the often cloud-shrouded Antisana, Sincholagua and Cotopaxi volcanoes; and the Ingapirca trek which takes you along an old Incan trail to Ecuador’s most important Incan ruins, Ingapirca.
For the intrepid trekker there are several Andes-to-Amazon hikes that take you from the grassy plains of the high altitude paramo, through cloudforest, and finally to lowland rainforest. During your descent, as you pass from one ecosystem to another, you’ll see dramatic changes in the flora and fauna while you are peeling off layer after layer of clothing. At the beginning of your journey, you may be huddled on a paramo cushion plant as a condor soars overhead; and a few days later, you could be wiping the sweat off your brow as you try to get a glimpse of a blue and green macaw squawking in the crown of a palm tree.
There are numerous route options, since the locals keep most trails well-trodden. On the Eastern Slope of the Andes heading down to the Amazon basin, try the routes running from Oyacachi to El Chaco, Atillo to Macas, or Saraguro to 25 de Mayo. Recommended treks on the coastal side of the Andes include the Golondrinas hike, Lloa to Mindo, and Chugchilan to Pucayacu.
Coastal and rainforest hikes are possible, but it’s a good idea to hire a local guide as it is easy to get lost and you’re often traveling though private or community-held land. There are some great hikes from lodges along the Napo River. For the more adventurous, a canoe trip along the Tiputini or Yasuni rivers can be arranged with indigenous guides. Near the coast, an especially interesting area is the Bilsa Reserve near Quinide where a devoted group of biologists from the Jatun Sacha Foundation are working to save a remnant of coastal forest. This area is also home to the Chachi indigenous group.
At any given moment in Ecuador, it is sunny SOMEWHERE and rainy SOMEWHERE. However, it is difficult to predict the weather ANYWHERE – especially during an El Nino year. Nevertheless, there are some basic trends.
Each region of the country has two seasons: wet and dry.
Coast: the northern coast is humid between January and June and dryish for the rest of the year. The southern coast is humid from January to April and is generally dryer than the north throughout the year.
Oriente (Amazon Basin): it rains most of the time in the Oriente, though the period from December to February is usually slightly drier.
Sierra (Andes): the eastern mountains (including Antisana, El Altar and Sangay and, to a lesser extent, Cayambe and Tungurahua) are influenced by the weather patterns of the Amazonian lowlands. The wettest months are June through August. December and January have seen the most successful ascents of the difficult El Altar. Ecuadorian climbers favor February for attempting Antisana, and October through January for Cayambe.
The western mountains’ dry season is late June through early September, with an additional short dry spell in December and early January. The wettest months are February to May, with April being the wettest of all. During the dry season, temperatures tend to dip at night and high winds can be a problem, particularly in August. The weather in October and November tends to be variable. Snow buildup during these months sometimes provides quite good conditions for the short December to January climbing season.You may notice on many of the IGM maps that glaciers are shown at lower elevations than exist today. A drier climate and perhaps global warming have caused this retreat.
Transportation to the mountains can be arranged by renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle in Quito. A more economical option is to take a local bus leaving from the Terminal Terrestre bus station in Quito, followed by a ride in a pickup truck from the closest community to the beginning of your hike or climb. If you take an organized tour transportation is always provided.
Mainland park entrance fees generally run from USD 5 to 10 , but Cotopaxi National Park is the only one that strictly enforces its entrance fee; all others are hit or miss.
Climbing Huts (Refugios)
There are huts at Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Cayambe, Ilinizas, and Tungurahua. Almost all huts have bunks, stoves, pots/pans and toilets. Some even have electricity via a generator. The cost per night is around USD 10. The hut at Cotopaxi has a cellular phone for weather information and emergencies: 09-9638344. Plans to install cellular phones at the other refuges have been discussed as well.
Guide services in Ecuador are a classic example of you get what you pay for, so we recommend avoiding the cheapest ones. There are many agencies and individuals who will take you up Cotopaxi for nickles, but don’t know the first thing about mountaineering, and they could put you in a dangerous situation.
Climbing and hiking gear can be easily purchased or rented at reasonable prices in Quito, and with a bit more difficulty in Banos, Riobamba and Ambato. All of the above climbing companies offer equipment rental. Helmets are the general exception to this rule. If you have your own, bring it. Because Ecuador’s climate is so varied, it is important to pack well. For detailed regional and sport specific packing lists.
The South American Explorers (Washington 311 y Leonidas Plaza, near the American Embassy, 593-2-2225228) is the best source for maps, guidebooks, and information on current route conditions in the mountains. If you are a club member you can participate in and/or lead biweekly excursions.
IGM (Instituto Geográfico Militar) sells all 1:25,000, 1:50,000, 1:100,000 and 1:250,000 scale topographical maps of Ecuador. The offices and map sales department are on top of a hill behind the Casa de Cultura.
INEFAN (Ecuador’s Park Service) maintains and protects 24 national parks, ecological reserves and recreation areas that correspond to 17% of the total area of Ecuador. Their main office is on the sixth and seventh floors of the MAG building on the corner of Amazonas and Eloy Alfaro, in Quito.
Quito Climbing Clubs
Universidad La Catolica: meets Tuesdays at 7.30 p.m. at the university on 12 de Octubre. Offers climbing films and lectures open to the general public.
Colegio San Gabriel (men only): meets on Wednesdays after 8 p.m. at the school on Rumipamba y Vasco.
Politecnica Climbing Club: meets Wednesdays at 7.00 p.m. on the sixth floor of the Ingeneria Civil de la Politecnica Nacional, across the street from the Universidad La Catolica on Av. Isabel de la Catolica.
The best hospitals in Quito are Metropolitano and Vozandes . In an emergency it is best to get the injured party to one of these hospitals as soon as possible. Most small communities have medical centers equiped to deal with minor problems. ASEGUIM will mount a rescue, but expect to pay a deposit ahead of time for the expenses incurred. Dr. Alvaro Davalos (in Quito) is the physician recommended by the British Embassy.