Situated in the northwestern corner of South America, one of the continent’s smallest countries is also one of its most diverse: Ecuador.
Ranked as the 73rd largest country in the world by land area, Ecuador boasts a wide array of diverse landscapes, including white-sand beaches, rolling hills on the high pampas, glaciated mountain peaks of the Andes and thick tropical rain forests.
Along with an abundance of wildlife as well as a rich culture and history, it is little wonder that tourism is one of the driving forces behind the country's economy. While its beaches and the Galapagos Islands are some of the most popular attractions, the country’s famed ‘Avenida de los Volcanes’ is also a mountaineering hotspot.
Running for 230 kilometres (140 miles) from north to south through the centre of the country, this proverbial avenue of volcanic peaks is home to the country’s most iconic climbing destinations, including the big three: Chimborazo, Cayambe, Cotopaxi.
Oftentimes climbers heading to this unique part of South America opt to spend about a month in the mountains, climbing all three of the aforementioned volcanos or substituting one of them for another of the six main peaks found along the way.
While the climbing and trekking season is quickly coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere, December and January (along with June, July and August) are the best months to head out and climb an Ecuadorian volcano!
Situated on the southwestern edge of La Avenida de los Volcanes, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador and the only one that exceeds 6,000 metres (19,700 feet) in elevation.
The inactive stratovolcano, which sits just 150 kilometres (93 miles) southwest of Quito, is easily the most popular climbing destination in the country and is usually the highlight of any climbing trip to Ecuador.
Most guides opt to meet clients in the Quito before providing transport along the scenic Pan-American highway, which runs through the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes, providing panoramic vistas along the way.
The vast majority of climbers heading to Chimbarazo tend to take the normal route, which is known as El Castillo. There are six other routes that climb up the mountain, but El Castillo requires the lowest level of technical ability and is, overall, the easiest.
El Castillo starts from the Whymper Hut on the western flanks of the volcano. From here, climbers ascend up to a saddle on the side of the peak before arriving at the glaciated ridge.
The ridge can be followed all the way up to the Veintimilla summit, which is the main stopping point for most climbers, in spite of being a few metres lower than the Whymper summit, which is the true top of the volcano.
While the climb is rated as a Class II ascent, some previous glacier travel and ice climbing experience is necessary, along with a high level of physical fitness and previous acclimatisation. Being full acclimatised is the best indicator of whether a trip to the top of Chimborazo is successful or not.
- Elevation: 6,263 m (20,549 ft)
- Duration: 2 days
- Difficulty: Intermediate
Sitting a bit less than 100 kilometres (miles) north of Chimborazo is Ecuador's second highest peak: Cotopaxi.
Unlike Chimborazo, Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano and last erupted in 2016. In spite of this, it remains an immensely popular climbing destination in the country, with as many as 100 people attempting to reach the top on high-season weekends.
The volcanic peak is quite symmetric, with steep slopes leading up to the irregularly shaped summit crater, which consists of two concentric rims. The highest point on the volcano sits at the edge of the northern rim and is the point to which most expeditions lead.
Two main routes lead up to the summit of Cotopaxi: Rompe Corazones, on the north face, and the southwest route.
Rompe Corazones is the easier of the two routes and is not very technically challenging, but does require some previous experience with glacier and ice climbing as well as traveling in a rope team. Combined with the fact that it is the only route that has a mountain hut, it is easy to see why it is the most popular.
The ascent begins from the northern flank of the mountain and follows the now-closed normal route up a series of switchbacks. After traversing these, climbers arrive at the glacier and make a final ascent up to the top of the northern rim.
The southwest route is the only other route up the peak and is reserved for far more experienced climbers. Boasting steep ice walls and a challenging traverse through the 250-metre (820-foot) deep crater, the route is perfect for adrenaline-seeking ice climbers.
- Elevation: 5,897 m (19,347 ft)
- Duration: 2 days
- Difficulty: Intermediate
At the very northern end of La Avenida de los Volcanes sits Cayambe. Ecuador’s third highest mountain is located just 60 kilometres (37 miles) northeast of Quito.
Situated exactly on the equator, the semi-dormant compound volcano is capped by a massive glacier that occupies the upper fifth of the mountain. The southern slope of the volcano is the highest point on Earth passed by the equator and the only point on the line covered in snow.
As with the other volcanoes in the Ecuadorian Andes, most guides opt to meet with climbers in Quito before transferring to the trailhead, just west of the peak.
From the trailhead, the Ruales Oleas Berge Refuge’s, Cayambe’s only mountain hut, can be easily reached with just a few hours of hiking.
Due to the relative ease of the ascent up Cayambe, it is considered by many to be an excellent mountain for first-time mountaineers. Many more experienced climbers heading to the country’s other volcanic peaks opt to start with a warm up climb of Cayambe, in order to work on some glacier climbing skills and acclimatise.
Keep reading: The Basics of Glacier Travel: Top Tips and Tricks
From the refuge the summit can be reached in one long day of climbing. Starting at about midnight, climbers will make a hiking approach up to the start of the glacier through rugged and rough terrain.
Once on the ice sheet, climbers rope up and begin a slow and steady glacier hiking ascent up the side of the volcano, which reaches a maximum grade of 45 degrees. The toughest part of the climb comes right at the end with one final bergschrund.
Once climbers have traversed this, they are at the summit and enjoy the spectacular views out over the surrounding mountains and back toward Quito.
- Elevation: 5,790 m (19,000 ft)
- Duration: 2 days
- Difficulty: Advanced beginner
Ecuador’s fourth highest volcano and mountain is also its least climbed. Situated at the heart of La Avenida de los Volcanes, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of Quito, Antisana is considered by many to be one of the most technical climbs in the Andes.
The semi-dormant volcano, which last erupted in 1802, has a number of different minor summits rising from its heavily glaciated rim. Coincidently, the tallest of these summits also happens to be the easiest to climb and, as a result, is the most frequently visited.
Unlike many of Ecuador’s other iconic volcanos, Artisana is located on private land, and permission must be obtained in Quito before entering the property. (This, however, is usually a formality, and a guide can take care of it.)
Another feature that makes Artisana quite unique among Ecuadorian volcanoes is its active glacier. Due to the movement of the glacier along the top of the mountain, there is no normal route, and route finding, in general, can be quite challenging.
The most common way to climb the volcano is via the southwest glacier. After arriving at the trailhead, climbers will make a steep ascent toward a well-defined ridgeline. Once on the ridge, climbers can follow it up over the glacier and to the summit, being careful to avoid the crevasses and traverse the various seracs along the way.
The route requires some quite technical and steep ice climbing and glacier travel, which makes the mountain best reserved for experienced mountaineers looking for a challenge.
In spite of the adversity in getting to its summit, the views out over Cotopaxi, Sincholagua, and Cayambe are spectacular and serene.
- Elevation: 5,704 m (18,714 ft)
- Duration: 2 days
- Difficulty: Advanced
Situated at the very southern edge of La Avenida de los Volcanes is Sangay. Ecuador’s most active volcano also makes for one of the country’s most unique climbs.
Unlike many of the country’s other volcanoes, which rise high above the pampas, Sangay sits in the outskirts of the Amazon Rainforest and requires a two-day trek through the lush forest to arrive at the base of the peak.
Sangay is also unique among Ecuador’s other volcanoes as it is the most active and is in the process of an eruption that began in 1934. While this presents some hazards specific to this volcano, the Ecuadorian government continues to issue permits to climb the peak and falling debris has caused few injuries over the years.
Climbers opting to head to Sangay generally begin the adventure by making the five-hour drive to the trailhead from Quito. However, it is also possible to take a domestic flight into Riobamba (SERB), which is much closer.
As was previously mentioned, the climb begins with a two-day trek through the jungle and on to the western flank of the mountain. From here, it is possible to mostly hike up to the summit, with some scrambling. Depending on the season, there may be some snow toward the top, but the peak is not glaciated.
While none of the climbing is very technical, the large amounts of ash make the going underfoot quite precarious, especially after it has rained. As a result, it is best to wait for a dry day to climb and build a couple extra days into the itinerary in case of bad weather.
From the summit, Sangay provides incredible views north toward the rest of La Avenida de los Volcanes and east, out over the Amazon Rainforest. However, the summit is frequently covered in clouds during the morning, so it is best to time the climb for a mid-afternoon arrival at the top.
- Elevation: 5,300 m (17,400 ft)
- Duration: 1 week
- Difficulty: Beginner
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Despite its small size, you could spend a lifetime exploring Ecuador! The people, landscapes and biodiversity of the mountainous, forested and coastal South American country are diverse and outstanding.
Heading to the country’s Avenida de los Volcanes is among the best ways to experience some of what makes Ecuador so unique. And there has never been a better time than now to go. No coronavirus-related restrictions are in place on entering the country and transmission is quite low in the non-urban mountainous areas of the country.
So, don’t hesitate a moment more and begin comparing trips with certified guides on ExpedReview!