Having so much untamed wilderness within easy striking distance of major population centres, Ecuador is a superb destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Traditionally it’s been a target for climbers, boasting ten volcanoes over 5000m, including the beautifully symmetrical Cotopaxi, and the point furthest from the centre of the Earth, the summit of Chimborazo. Ecuador has been making a name for itself in international rafting and kayaking circles and has a broad range of exciting runs packed into a small area. Hiking, mountain biking, surfing, diving, fishing and horseriding are all also widely available. Birdwatching is one of the biggest draws, with Ecuador’s extraordinary biodiversity supporting more than 1600 bird species, almost a fifth of the world’s total.
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Ecuador’s “avenue of the volcanoes”, formed by the twin range of the Andes running the length of the country, offers numerous climbing opportunities, from relatively easy day-trips for strong hill-walkers to challenging technical peaks for experienced climbers. The most popular snow peaks, requiring full mountaineering equipment, include Cotopaxi (5897m), Chimborazo (6268m), Cayambe (5790m) and Iliniza Sur (5263m). Lower, less demanding climbs, not requiring special equipment and suitable for acclimatizing or simply enjoying them in their own right, include Guagua Pichincha (4794m), Sincholagua (4893m), Corazón (4788m), Rumiñahui (4712m), Imbabura (4609m) and Pasochoa (4200m).
Not all of the higher peaks require previous mountaineering experience; many beginners make it up Cotopaxi, for instance, which demands physical fitness, stamina and sheer determination rather than technical expertise. Others, such as El Altar (5319m), are technically difficult and should only be attempted by climbers with experience behind them. It’s essential an experienced and utterly dependable guide, whose first concern is safety, accompanies climbers with limited mountaineering experience. Ecuador’s best-trained mountain guides are those certified by an organization called ASEGUIM (Asociación Ecuatoriana de Guías de Montaña, Pinto E4-385 and J.L. Mera in Quito, t 02/2234109, www.aseguim.org), whose members have to pass exams and take courses spread over a three-year period before receiving the Diploma de Guía. It’s always worth paying the extra for an ASEGUIM guide (usually in the region of $120–250 in total per person, per climb depending on length) – even relatively straightforward, non-technical climbs carry an inherent risk, and your life may depend on your guide. More experienced climbers should also seriously consider ascending with a guide, whose intimate knowledge of the route options, weather patterns, avalanche risks, glaciers and crevasses can make all the difference to the safety and success of an expedition, especially when the rapid melting of the glaciers is changing routes and climbing conditions at a pace. For a list of recommended guides, For more information, see Climbing and trekking operators and Guided tours and climbs around Riobamba.
December and January are generally regarded as the best months to climb, followed by the dry summer months of June to August. March, April and May are considered the worst months, but because of the topography and microclimates of the land, several mountains, such as Cotopaxi, are more or less climbable throughout the year. The weather is highly changeable, as are snow and glacier conditions. Unlike their alpine counterparts, Ecuadorian glaciers do not follow normal patterns of ablation and accumulation in summer and winter months respectively. Instead, glacier conditions can change from day to day, meaning the technical difficulty is also constantly changing; all the more reason to employ a properly trained guide who knows the mountain and its variable conditions well.
All your equipment will be provided by the guiding company if you’re going with one, or can be rented from the listed companies or from specialist mountaineering outlets in Quito if you’re not. If you have your own plastic mountaineering boots, it’s recommended you bring them with you; they will invariably be in better condition than most of the boots otherwise available. Check the equipment over very carefully before deciding which company to sign up with. Guides also provide all food on the climb, but you should take your own chocolate and nibbles to keep your energy levels up, as well as your own water bottle. Accommodation is usually in mountain refuges, which serve as the starting point of the climbs. You will typically only get three or four hours’ sleep before a big climb, as it’s common to set off around midnight or 1am to arrive at the summit around dawn, and descend before the sun starts to melt the snow.
One point that cannot be stressed forcefully enough is the importance of acclimatizing before attempting the higher peaks. This should involve spending a few days at the altitude of Quito (2800m), taking in a combination of rest and moderate exercise, followed by at least four or five days around 3500–3800m, interspersed with day-walks up some lower peaks. If you ignore this warning and try to shoot up Cotopaxi after a couple of days’ hill-climbing around Quito, you may well find yourself vomiting every half-hour or so as you try to ascend, or simply too dizzy and nauseous to leave the refuge. for more on the risks of altitude sickness. A couple of good bases for acclimatizing include the walker’s refuge at La Urbina (3620m) near Riobamba, hotels in and around Cotopaxi National Park, and the tiny village of Salinas (3500m), near Guaranda.
Several popular, though potentially hazardous, climbs are on active volcanoes – particularly Guagua Pichincha, Reventador, Sangay, Cotopaxi and Tungurahua – and you should be fully aware of the current situation before you ascend. You can check the latest volcanic activity news on the Instituto Geofísico website w www.igepn.edu.ec, or contact the SAE for up-to-date climbing conditions.
Ecuador’s great wilderness areas and striking landscapes offer fantastic opportunities for hiking, though a general absence of well-marked trails and decent trekking maps does mean a little effort is required to tap into the potential.
The widest choice of hikes is found in the sierra, where numerous trails lead into the mountains and up to the páramo, providing access to stunning views and exhilarating, wide-open spaces. The country’s best-known long-distance hike is in the southern sierra: the Inca Trail to Ingapirca, a three-day hike ending up at Ecuador’s most important Inca ruins. Also down in the south, Parque Nacional Cajas provides some of the best hiking in the country, in a landscape strongly reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, while Parque Nacional Podocarpus offers a fabulous two-day hike across the páramo to the Lagunas del Compadre.
Elsewhere in the sierra, rewarding possibilities include day-hikes in the area around Laguna Quilotoa, and a wonderful two-day hike to El Placer hot springs in Parque Nacional Sangay. There are fewer options for hiking in the Oriente, owing to dense forest cover; one notable exception is the two- to four-day Reventador trail, described, but hikes descending from highlands to lowlands, such as the one from Oyacachi to El Chaco, are good for revealing Ecuador’s various habitats and landscapes. Cotopaxi and Machalilla national parks also present good hiking possibilities, as do many areas of open country throughout the highlands. These suggestions are far from exhaustive, but provide a starting point for ideas should you want to plan your trip around a few hikes.
If you’re thinking of going long-distance hiking without a guide, you should be competent at route finding and map reading, and equip yourself with the necessary IGM topographical maps (1:50,000 is the most useful scale) before you leave Quito. You will also need a compass (GPS is also useful) and – for multi-day hikes – a waterproof tent, a warm sleeping bag (which needs to be good for–5°C in the sierra), a reliable stove, candles and waterproof matches. Other equipment essential for hiking in the sierra – whether you’re on a day-hike or long-distance hike, and with or without a guide – includes: strong, water-resistant hiking boots; thermal underwear; warm layers such as a fleece or down jacket; waterproof jacket, trousers and gaiters; hat and gloves; water purification tablets; sunglasses; sun screen; spare boot laces; and medical kit. You might also consider taking wellington boots – widely available at market stalls in most towns – for wading through the deep mud that commonly blights mountain paths after rainfall. As a general rule, weather conditions in the sierra are driest from June to September and wettest from February to April.
One way of getting around logistical difficulties is by hiring a guide, usually through a local tour operator. This solves the problem of arranging transport to the trailhead, and means there’s far less danger of getting lost. A good guide can also enhance your enjoyment of the hike by sharing his or her knowledge of local flora and fauna with you, or of the history, legends and customs associated with the places you’re hiking through. On the downside, if you’re lumbered with a guide you don’t get on with, or who wants to walk at a different pace from your own, this can really sour the whole experience. When booking a tour, it’s always a good idea to ask to meet the person who will be guiding you before parting with your money, and it’s essential to make clear what level of difficulty you’re willing to tackle, and what pace you want to go at.
Typical rates for guided hikes are $20–40 per person per day, often with a minimum of three to four people per group. A selection of Quito companies offering this service is given, while provincial guides and tour operators are detailed throughout the Guide.
Rafting and kayaking
Whitewater rafting combines the thrill of riding rapids with the chance to reach some spectacular landscapes that otherwise can’t be visited.
A small number of whitewater rafting and kayaking companies, mainly based in Quito, Tena and Baños, organize trips to dozens of rivers. Not far from Quito, on the way to Santo Domingo, the ríos Blanco and Toachi offer a selection of popular runs suitable for beginners and old hands alike. A high density of rivers around Tena has brought the town to the fore as a centre for the sport in Ecuador. Among the most popular is the Upper Napo (Jatunyacu), a typical beginner’s run, while the nearby Río Misahuallí is suitable for more advanced paddlers, weaving through a stunning canyon in a remote section of rainforest, described as the best rafting trip in the country. Other options from Tena include the Río Hollín, Río Anzu, and the Río Quijos and tributaries, all of which offer a range of possibilities. In the southern Oriente, the Río Upano is one of the most talked-about runs, involving a trip of several days with the spectacular Namangosa Gorge on the itinerary.
The rafts are heavy-duty inflatable dinghies that take six to eight people plus a guide. Rapids are categorized according to a grading system: beginners can happily handle waters of Class II and III rating, which usually involve substantial sections of quiet paddling between rougher and more exciting rapids; Class V runs are very difficult, sometimes dangerous, and can be terrifying for the non-expert.
Safety is the prime consideration before you choose to go whitewater rafting or kayaking. Rainfall can have a dramatic effect on a river, and an easy Class II in the dry months can turn into a swollen torrent too dangerous to run in the rainy season. A good rafting company will be on top of the situation and will not attempt to run unsafe water. A few shoddy outfits with untrained guides and inappropriate equipment do exist; only go rafting with a reputable company, those that have fully trained guides who know first aid, can supply good-quality life jackets and helmets and employ a safety kayak to accompany the raft on the run. For rafting companies operating out of Tena; for runs around Quito, try Yacu Amu rafting. Rafting companies in Baños are not as highly regarded as those listed in Tena and Quito. General information on river conditions and paddle sports in Ecuador can be obtained from the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute (ERI), based in Tena (t 06/2887438, w www.kayakecuador.com).
With roughly as many species as North America and Europe combined crammed into a country smaller than Nevada, Ecuador arguably has the best birding in the world. There are hundreds of endemic species, and even some recent discoveries, such as the Jocotoco Antpitta found near Vilcabamba in 1997. The greatest diversity is in the transition zone habitats and montane forests, most famously on the western flank of the Andes, which forms part of the Chocó bioregion. The village of Mindo, west of Quito, is internationally recognized as an Important Bird Area, and there are several fine private reserves in the northwestern forests renowned for their birdlife (see Chapter 6).
On the eastern slopes of the Andes (covered in Chapters 4 and 5) the Cosanga and Baeza areas are recommended, and, in the south, Podocarpus national park and the areas around Loja, Zamora and Vilcabamba. The most convenient way to watch birds in the Oriente is at one of the lodges, where ornithologist guides and bird lists, some recording well over 500 species, are provided. There are four main groupings of jungle lodges, each with slightly different species lists: the Cuyabeno area; around Misahuallí and Tena on the upper Río Napo or in Sumaco-Galeras reserve; on the lower Río Napo; and in Pastaza and the Southern Oriente. The best highland and páramo habitats are usually found in the national parks, for example El Ángel and Cajas, and the highland sections of Cotacachi-Cayapas and Cayambe-Coca reserves. On the coast, Parque Nacional Machalilla and Cerro Blanco hold interesting areas of dry forest, while the saltpans on the Santa Elena peninsula attract hundreds of sea and shore birds.
It’s always worth getting a local guide to go birdwatching with you. They tend to know where to look and have a knack for picking out birds amid the undergrowth and greenery. Most of the better lodges and private reserves will have in-house guides, often trained ornithologists, or be able to get hold of one for you. For recommended field guides.
Mountain biking is more widespread in the sierra than in the lowlands, and rental companies in the main tourist centres can offer fairly cheap rates per day or half day; always check the bike’s in good working order before you leave. Several specialist biking operators, mainly based in Quito, also arrange single- or multi-day mountain-biking tours of diverse parts of the sierra, such as Cotopaxi National Park, the Papallacta area, or the Otavalo region, with both cross-country and downhill routes available. Being at altitude some trips can be hard work, but a reasonable level of fitness is generally all that’s required. The better operators will be able to provide helmets. For general information on cycle touring.
Ecuador’s sierra region offers numerous opportunities for horseriding, particularly at the many haciendas that have been converted into country inns, where riding has been a way of life for centuries. Riding up to the region’s sweeping páramos framed by snowcapped volcanoes is undoubtedly a memorable experience, especially if you get an early start to catch the clear morning light and avoid the characteristic afternoon highland showers. Ecuadorian horses are very tough, capable of climbing steep slopes and trotting and cantering at high altitudes.
Most haciendas and reputable tour companies provide healthy, well-looked-after horses, but it’s not unusual for cheaper outfits to take tourists out on neglected, overworked animals. If you sign up to a riding tour and your horse looks lame or ill, refuse to ride it and ask for another one. Check that the saddle is securely fitted, with the girth pulled tight, and take time to adjust your stirrups to the right length – they should be level with your ankles if you let your legs hang freely. Ecuadorian riding outfits hardly ever provide protective hats.
Two highly recommended dedicated riding operators are: the German-run Green Horse Ranch, north of Quito (t 08/6125433, w www.horseranch.de), which offers one- to nine-day rides throughout the sierra; and the excellent Ride Andes (w www.rideandes.com), run by a British woman who organizes riding holidays throughout Ecuador. Other outfits and guides are detailed throughout the text, including: Hacienda Guachalá; Hacienda Cusín, Hacienda Pinsaquí and Hacienda Zuleta; Hacienda Yanahurco and La Ciénega.
Diving and snorkelling
Ecuador’s top scuba-diving spots are in the Galápagos, where there are good chances to see large sea fish as well as spectacular endemic reef fish. Most people arrange diving tours before arrival, but there are several operators on the islands who can arrange trips for you there and then. The Galápagos is not the easiest place for novices to learn to dive – mainly due to strong currents and cold temperatures – but it is possible. Snorkelling is likely to be an important part of a Galápagos cruise: bring your own gear if you have it; even though most boats can provide it, there may not be enough to go around and what there is may not fit. A wet suit is recommended between July and December. On the mainland, there’s not a lot of scuba or snorkelling, apart from tours arranged in Puerto López for dives around the Isla de la Plata.
There are at least 40 surfing spots on the Ecuadorian coast with the greatest concentration in Manabí and Guayas provinces between Playas and Manta. Laid-back Montañita in Guayas province has the reputation of being the leading surf centre, though quieter Canoa, and Mompiche to the north, also have a loyal, less hippy-ish following. There are some keen surfers on the Galápagos Islands, particularly at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal island. In all these locations, you’ll be able to find places to hire a board and get a lesson. The surf season is at its height from December to March, when the waves are usually at their fiercest and the water at its warmest.
Paragliding, also known as parapenting, is free flight using a fabric “wing”, which resembles a parachute, under which the pilot is suspended by a harness. It is a sport that has had a following in Quito and Crucita on the coast for some time, but which is now spreading to other highland towns, such as Ibarra (namely, FlyEcuador), particularly places where there are good cliffs and ledges nearby to launch off. A few agencies offer tandem flights for beginners and courses for anyone interested in taking it further.
Fishing (pesca deportiva) for trout (trucha) in the lakes of the sierra is quite a widespread local hobby. A couple of the national reserves are well-known fishing spots, namely El Ángel in the north and Cajas in the south (permits may be required). Few tours to the Oriente forgo the chance of fishing for what is reputedly the world’s most ferocious fish, the piranha (piraña), with nothing more sophisticated than a line, hook and bait. Take care when de-hooking Oriente fish: some have poisonous spines discreetly tucked into their fins. Deep-sea fishing, a sport for the coast’s wealthier people, is less widespread, with Salinas and Manta the main centres for hooking fish including marlin, tuna and dorado.