Ecuador is one of the most fascinating places in the western hemisphere. The incredible diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of the equator a definite stand out destination in South America. You may consider me biased because I have chosen to live in Ecuador, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 30 years, and this is the only country in the world that ever inspired me to buy land, build a house on it and stay for a while. That in itself is a testimony to Ecuador’s amazing attractions. Before writing this series, I asked my friends about Ecuador’s highlights, and they all mentioned volcanoes.
The proximity of the Andean volcano belt from everywhere in Ecuador makes it possible to see snow-capped volcanoes from your lodge in the rainforest, from your hotel on the coast and, in the wonderful case of Papallacta, even from your outdoor hot-tub where Antisana (5753m) is easily visible. It takes no more than five hours from anywhere in Ecuador to find yourself near a volcano or two. Snow-capped or smoking, there are 44 volcanoes in Ecuador, some long extinct, some just resting for a while, and some recently active and still spitting plumes of wispy grey into the azure sky.
Nowhere else in the world can you drive up a mountain range to an altitude of 5000m and then climb to even more dizzying heights to reach the peak without first trekking for days. Ecuador’s Cotopaxi Volcano (5,897m) is around the same height as Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m). There are many travelers from all over the world who have climbed both. A summit-climbing trek to Cotopaxi takes one weekend. Most tours drive up from Quito on Saturday morning, stay in the First Refuge and hike to the summit late on Saturday night to descend on Sunday morning, and then head back to Quito, arriving in time for a nap before dinner, whereas climbing Kilimanjaro can take 4 to 6 days depending on the route you choose.
While Cotopaxi is a live stratovolcano and monitored for activity, Ecuador’s highest volcano, Chimborazo (6,267 m) is an inactive stratovolcano; its last known eruption is believed to have occurred around 550 AD. Cotopaxi and Chimborazo attract thousands of climbers each year, and are also visited by more sedate tour groups who just want to swing by for a look and a quick photo op.
Just a few hours from Quito, which boasts its own impressive Pichincha Volcano (4784m) that last erupted in 2004, the famous mountain town of Baños, visited most for its spectacular waterfalls and extreme sports activities, frequently finds itself cleaning up after an ashy wind blows over from nearby Tungurahua (5023m) which most recently had the townspeople evacuated in 2012 during its last impressive eruption, the lava flow destroying a number of houses as it ran down into the Pastaza Valley.
On the island of Isabela in the Galapagos archipelago, a trek of just a few hours up the lava rock sides of the shield volcano Sierra Negra (1124m) is a must, with its crater measuring 11km in diameter, as well as its cinder cones, spatter cones, and tuff cones. This is one of the most active of the Galapagos volcanoes with its most recent historic eruption in 2005. A note about tours to Sierra Negra: Footprints Ecuador does not recommend horseback tours to the crater because of the maltreatment of the horses. From the crater of Sierra Negra views of Cerro Azul (1,689m), another shield volcano on the south western part of Isabela Island which erupted in 2008, are possible on a clear day.
Wherever you go to find volcanoes in Ecuador, there will always be another one, or two or three nearby. Some of them have wonderful legends and stories attached to them, but I will leave those tales for you to discover on your own when you arrive in Ecuador.
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