Trekking the Avenue of the Volcanoes in Ecuador's Highlands
New York has Fifth Avenue, Paris the Champs ElyseesEcuador has its own famous avenue, with a bit of a twist: the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Thus named by the legendary explorer Alexander von Humboldt, the central highlands of Ecuador take the form of a highland valley flanked by two parallel cordillera of the Andes. Eleven major peaks, many of which are still active volcanoes, emerge on either side and make a superb area for trekking and mountain climbing.
Although trekking opportunities abound throughout Ecuador, perhaps the best regions are around the volcanoes of Chimborazo (at 6310m, the highest peak in Ecuador) and Cotopaxi (5897m), the world's highest active volcano. The beautiful national park surrounding the area adds wildlife and lush landscape to the mix. Indeed, it's a prime place to spot the amazing condor in all its ten-foot-wingspan glory.
While each mountain has its unique ecosystem and landscape, the grassy paramo surrounding these volcanoes generally makes for easy trekkingand these treeless plateaus are set against stunning snow-capped peaks to boot. In addition to ample trekking routes, Cotopaxi offers great climbing opportunities for in-shape novices who don't have technical expertise. Chimborazo offers equally superb mountaineering, but requires a much greater technical proficiency.
But the draw of the central Highlands is more than just trekkingthe Ecuadorian people offer a brand of cultural interaction not found in many destinations. Many of the Native Americans here are descendants of the Inca (and many still speak Quechua, their original language); other mestizos are of mixed Native American and European ancestry. Visit local markets, not simply for indigenous foods and crafts, but to walk and talk among the locals. (Otovalo is the most famous in the region, but there are many others.) These colorful spots are not just tourist traps, but the real native gathering places. The fact that this area is less visited than some parts of Peru means that these Indians are much less jaded. The result: many fewer in-your-face hawkers of trinkets.
If you tire of trekking, there is mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and birdwatching that soars even beyond the condor. The leisurely way to explore the highlands means staying in a hacienda. Many of these are beautiful old ranches that have been converted to inns, excellent base camps for hiking, biking, or horseback riding. Or those more challenging treks.
The volcanoes are very accessible only several hours outside of Quito, so you could visit the city and venture here as well. Many U.S. operators run trips here: high end U.S. companies will run trips in the range of $175-200 day (after airfare); many will combine them with trips to the Amazon or the Galapagos; they'll do full support often packing with horses or mules, or in some cases llamas. Fully supported trips with Ecuadorian companies will run about $100/day. Several guidebooks on offer excellent advice on how to do it yourself. The entire range of itineraries is possible. Many popular treks range from five days to more than a week. Climbs to the top of Cotopaxi require an overnight stay at the volcano's base camp, and will cost you $150. Most Ecuadorian operators also operate multi-day climbing expeditions.
The weather in Ecuador is quirky. In the highlands June to September are generally the driest times; as is December and January. You don't have tremendous temperature swings, but the amount of rain can vary widely. Be prepared for some rain at any time of year in almost all places. There is no summer and winter per se; you get the same amount of sunlight year round (it's a funny thing about being on the equator.)
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication