Cotopaxi volcano river

Smoke is billowing from Chimborazo volcano. We pull over to let our jaws hang low as we stare cautiously at this irritable mountain. An indigenous woman with a baby swaddled on her back waits on the side of the road, looking so poised with her velvet skirt, matching red tights, and felted bowler cap. She is clearly not phased by the possibility of an impending eruption. There are 55 volcanoes in Ecuador with its most dramatic peaks packed into a 200km stretch…The Avenue of the Volcanoes. Of course we knew we wanted to explore this area of the country but how turned out to be the best surprise. Back at an Ecuadorian Travel trade show in Seattle (as if that’s not random enough), Mike put his business card in a fish bowl and won a three-day private tour by Geo Reisen, one of Ecuador’s best guiding companies. Fast forward two months and we are being picked up by our stellar guide Bryon in a 4×4 truck (this vehicle choice would become clear later) and venturing into the Andes for some of the most incredible mountain scenery, hiking, people-watching, and historic sites in between.

Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi Volcano Pics

We drove down the Pan-American Highway, the storied road from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, towards the highest active volcano in the world…Cotopaxi. It towered over us at 19,347-feet high, growing taller with a steady stream of smoke and ash. We walked around the base, strewn with rocks from recent explosions, and Byron pointed out the wild horses, birds, lichen, wildflowers, shrubs that can survive in this extremely harsh environment. (Byron happens to be a certified bird specialist and can identify over 1,100 bird species in Ecuador.)

Cotopaxi is beyond majestic and we needed some extra time with it and the surrounding mountains. We stopped at the charming Hacienda El Porvenir for a horseback ride and they outfitted us in chaps and ponchos for a proper highland adventure. Watch this video of our dreamy Andean afternoon and unreal volcanic panoramas.
For a full review of our stay at Hacienda El Porvenir, read this article.

Hacienda La Cienega

Cotopaxi luxury hotel

Since Mike had won this tour, we weren’t necessarily expecting much for the accommodations—but Geo Reisen doesn’t roll like that. We stayed at the finest boutique hotels, historic homes, and haciendas, like La Cienega. This 300+ year-old mansion with six-foot thick volcanic-rock walls has hosted presidents, world-class scientists, and the now little ole HoneyTrek…what an honor!

Fruit Market of Latacunga

Andean market stall

We left the hacienda bright and early to check out a regional Andean market. Each day of the week a different town hosts a market and people from 20+ indigenous communities descend to sell their wares. (You can tell the different groups by their signature hat and style of poncho.) Tuesday is Latacunga’s turn so we stopped for a few snacks and a healthy dose of local color. I asked this lovely fruit vendor if I could take her picture. With a big smile, she said in Spanish, “Only if you send it to me.” I didn’t have a printer and she didn’t have an email address, so she made the savvy suggestion, “My daughter has Facebook; you can post it there.” Never would have seen that coming.

Andean Highlands

People of the Ecuadorian Andes

Driving west towards Quilatoa Crater Lake, we got a real context for the Andean way of life—and gained a massive respect for these indigenous groups. People were tending farms on 25-degree slopes, living in chozas (adobe and straw houses) and manually tilling fields in freezing conditions—in skirts and tights, no less!

Quilatoa Crater Lake

Quilatoa Crater Lake

We followed a short path up a hill then…boom! The pristine Quilatoa Crater Lake emerged in full view. We looked down into this extinct volcano with its blue glacial waters and yellow sulfur shores and felt like we should have hiked for days to earn this.

Toachi River Valley

Toachi River Valley

Quilatoa isn’t on the way to anywhere, but with landscapes like the Toachi River Valley (we sooo wanted an extra day to hike this), we didn’t mind doubling back and seeing these vistas twice.

Guinea Pig is on the Menu

What does guinea pig taste like

We kept seeing signs for the Andean delicacy cuy (aka. guinea pig) and finally pulled over for a taste. We saw the little buck-toothed faces and clawed feet spinning on the spit and almost backed out. Deep breath. We’d dodged this culinary bullet back in Peru but our time had come. One rodent coming up with potatoes, hominy, avocado, plantains, and aji salsa to mask the task at hand. Chewy and comedic is about the nicest review we can give.

Chimborazo Volcano

Chimborazo, Ecuador's largest volcano

With all our activities, the day had flown and we arrived to Chimborazo, Ecuador’s largest volcano, only minutes before the park closed. The gates were shut but Byron sweet-talked the rangers to let us in. At first, the volume of fog covering the volcano was so thick it didn’t seem worth it but just as we started our decent from the 16,000-foot base camp, the clouds magically started to lift. Bit by bit, the red-iron face, craggy glaciers, and finally the peak of this 20,564-foot beauty were revealed! Add a pack of adorable vicuñas and a crimson sunset and we thought we were in heaven.

Train Down the Devil’s Nose

Tren Nariz del Diablo

We woke up bright and early in Riobamba, the crossroads to all major points in Ecuador, and booked it to the town of Alausí for our 8:30AM train down The Devil’s Nose. The rail system in Ecuador shut down in the 1940s but this treacherous leg zig-zagging down a cliff face has been reopened to celebrate the incredible feat of engineering. We boarded the beautifully restored wooden cars with panoramic windows and descended 1,500 feet to the valley floor to beautiful views, a museum, dance performance, gift shops, and llama photo opp. While the tourists were posing with camelids and Panama hats, we watched the train conductors switch the tracks and cars around to prepare for the awesome climb. TIP: Get a seat in the first or last car. The train reverses so you’ll get the best of both perspectives during the round-trip.


Ingapirca Ecuador

Leaving the Avenue of the Volcanoes, we passed Ingapirca—the best-preserved Incan ruins in Ecuador. The Spanish destroyed all the Incan complexes around the country, but this one was miraculously spared. Five-hundred years has taken its toll on the construction (mostly because the original buildings were made of straw and adobe) but with good guiding, we got a sense for the Incan way of living and how their civilizations connected to make one the most powerful kingdoms.

Our Awesome Guide

Geo Reisen Guide Volcano Avenue

If we hadn’t won this trip, we weren’t sure how we’d explored the vast and rugged Avenue of the Volcanoes…maybe rent a car? Join a backpacker bus? Having had the freedom of a private car and incredible knowledge of a certified guide, we can say this an incredible way to go.

Volcano Avenue Collage

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  1. Rashaad Jorden says:

    Who is the sun god you were saying hello to? 🙂

    1. The Incans’ sun god at the ruins of Ingapirca, plus general appreciation of great weather in the Andes:)

  2. Wow! This looks like an amazing time! The volcanoes, the ruins, the crater lake the hotel!!! Making us itchy to see Ecuador!

  3. What a great adventure!! And you guys are super lucky to win this trip! 😀

    The landscape is stunning, I only have heard good stories from Ecuador…

    Safe travels,


    1. Nat, we only have great things to say about Ecuador and the Avenue of the Volcanoes is such a special region of the country…as for the win, it’s always worth throwing your hat in the ring 🙂

  4. Kimberly Erin says:

    I love Ecuador, en expats haven! Recently I had a chance to spend some extra time with Cotopaxi, summiting at 7:00 in the morning after one of the best nights of my life (guilty, I love to summit). I had one of the best views imaginable, including a view of the top of chimborazo from above the clouds. My family also came to visit and I took my parents on the Devil’s nose train in Alausi….it was a TOTAL hit… a realy nice, well priced, cute little family friendly tour…to bad they closed the roof though. Glad you enjoyed.

    1. Kimberly, that’s awesome you summited Cotopaxi and fantastic you had the weather to experience it in all its glory! Thanks for your comment and love your enthusiasm for Ecuador. What a country!

  5. Natalie Tanner says:

    What an amazing experience. This was not on my short list but seeing how gorgeous it is that has changed. Love this post.
    Natalie, The Educational Tourist

    1. Natalie, not sure Ecuador fell off our radar during our first leg in South America…considering now it may be our favorite SA countries! So glad we could entice you to Ecuador–you’ll love it!

  6. Chris Nash says:

    Cotopaxi was lost to the clouds when we were there, then when we planned to walk the Quilatoa loop, I was unwell (the best we managed was a climb down to Laguna Quilatoa).

    Thanks for treating me to something we missed!

    1. Cotopaxi was a bit clouded when we got there too but we waited it out and bam! Stinks you weren’t feeling well, you’ll just have to go back 🙂

  7. Aw man, hearing so much about Ecuador. Gutted we missed it out during the South Am leg of our career break. Your photo of the Lake is such a seller.

    1. First of all awesome you took a career break. And secondly, it’s never too early to start planning another one 😉 Quilatoa lake was stunning and if you loved that, you’ll love the hike we did around possibly an even prettier lake near Otovalo!

  8. What a spectacular region with some truly incredible views! So envious of your trip! How did I miss this random Ecuadorian travel trade show?!

    1. Such a stunning area, right? It’s such an affordable place too so it’s totally doable with a little planning! It was crazy luck we found the “All You Need is Ecuador” trade show–the day before it came to our town at the time. Should be happening next summer too and travels all around the States. Catch it!

  9. Been following you guys for two years and I’m now moving this Educadorian Volcano adventure into the Top Three position for spectacular scenery and just great adventure. You’ve also had great good fortune with your guides. These Geo Reisen guys more than keep that string going.

    1. Thanks so much for following along all these years! That’s a high ranking coming from you–but Volcano Avenue definitely is up there. And your right, Geo Reisen made it even more incredible!

    1. Volcanoes everywhere, plus jungle, beaches, and oh the food…lots to miss about Ecuador. Did you try the guinea pig?

      1. Naw we didn’t get to because we thought we would have the opportunity to do so in Peru but our plans change so abruptly and we had to go to the states and the Philippines

      2. we thought wed get to in peru but then had to change our plans and head home to get our visa for work in austria 🙁 🙂

  10. I’ve yet to make it to South America. But it’s on my list! This looks stunning.

    1. South America has so much to offer. We spent five months there so if you have any questions or need help planning a future journey–let us know!

  11. Wow – your photos are absolutely beautiful – what an incredible experience. The power and reach of Facebook is terrifying though isn’t it! Impossible to escape. Did you manage to get the photo to her? 🙂 Great post. Ecuador has zoomed up my list of ‘must-visits’.


  12. Pardon me if this comment appears twice. My 1st one disappeared! Congrats on winning the trip. Love your photos. I just wish they were bigger. (Really tiny on an IPad mini.) I love Ecuador. Didn’t make it to the Crater Lake. Next time …

    1. Doreen, you inspired us to rebuild our entire site. Took us a few months but we finally did it. Can you take a look at the photos now, and see if they are showing up bigger. I really hope they are!

      1. Hi Mike. Just visited your site and everything looks great. Congrats on a job well done. I know how much work it is to do a site redesign as we redid last fall. I love the results, but it took a lot of effort and expense.

        1. Oh loving the new site Doreen (my only tip/suggestion would be to change your link color from the traditional blue, maybe something more in the colors of your site, just one thought). Thanks for the love on our site as well….just followed you on all social media 🙂

          1. Hi Mike: I look forward to staying connected with you. Thx for making contact, and let’s keep in touch.

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