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.
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.)
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.