Top Ecuador Mountaineering Destinations
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 and 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.
Climbers heading to this unique part of South America often spend about a month in the mountains, climbing Ecuador’s three tallest mountains or substituting one for another of the six main peaks found along the way.
While the climbing and trekking season is quickly winding down 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 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 meet clients in 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.
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The vast majority of climbers heading to Chimbarazo take the normal route, known as El Castillo. Six other trails climb up the mountain, but El Castillo requires the lowest level of technical ability and is the easiest.
El Castillo starts from the Whymper Hut on the western flanks of the volcano. From here, climbers ascend to a saddle on the side of the peak before arriving at the glaciated ridge.
Climbers then follow the ridge up to the Veintimilla summit, which is the main stopping point, despite being a few metres lower than the Whymper summit, which is the actual top of the volcano.
Some previous glacier travel and ice climbing experience are necessary, along with a high level of physical fitness and prior acclimatisation. Being fully acclimatised is the best indicator of whether a trip to the top of Chimborazo is successful.
- Elevation: 6,263 m (20,549 ft)
- Duration: 2 days
- Average price: $2,900/person
Sitting less than 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Chimborazo is Ecuador's second highest peak: Cotopaxi.
Unlike Chimborazo, Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano that last erupted in 2016. Despite this, it remains an immensely popular climbing destination, with as many as 100 people attempting to reach the top on high-season weekends.
The volcanic peak is 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 where most expeditions head.
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 technical, but requires some previous experience with glacier travel 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 mountain's northern flank and follows the now-closed normal route up a series of switchbacks. Climbers then 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 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
- Average price: $2,900/person
At the very northern end of Avenida de Los Volcanes sits Cayambe. Ecuador’s third highest mountain sits just 60 kilometres (37 miles) northeast of Quito.
Located precisely on the equator, the semi-dormant compound volcano is situated precisely on the equator and capped by a massive glacier that occupies the upper fifth of the mountain.
The volcano's southern slope 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 Ecuador, most guides meet with climbers in Quito before driving to the trailhead, just west of the peak.
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Due to the relative ease of the ascent, Cayambe is considered an excellent first-time mountaineer destination.
More experienced mountaineers heading to Chimborazo or Cotopaxi climb Cayambe to acclimatise, brush up on their glacier and ice climbing skills and enjoy the incredible views.
From the trailhead, the ascent begins with a few hours of hiking to the Ruales Oleas Berge Refuge, Cayambe’s only mountain hut.
From the refuge, a long day of climbing is required to reach the summit. At midnight, climbers hike to the start of the glacier through rugged and rough terrain.
Once on the glacier, climbers rope up and begin a slow and steady ascent up the volcano's side, reaching a maximum grade of 45 degrees. The most challenging part of the climb comes at the end with one final bergschrund to traverse.
After the bergschrund, climbers have reached the summit and may enjoy the spectacular views of the Andes and back toward Quito.
- Elevation: 5,790 m (19,000 ft)
- Duration: 2 days
- Average price: $4,000/person
Ecuador’s fourth highest peak is also its least climbed. Situated at the heart of 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 many minor summits rising from its heavily glaciated rim. Coincidently, the tallest of these summits is also the easiest to climb and most frequently visited.
Unlike many of Ecuador’s other iconic volcanos, Artisana is located on private land, and the guide must obtain permission in Quito before entering the property. However, this is usually a formality.
Another feature that makes Artisana unique among Ecuadorian volcanoes is its active glacier. Due to the glacier's movement along the top of the mountain, there is no normal route, and route finding 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, carefully avoiding the crevasses and seracs along the way.
The route requires some technical and steep ice climbing and glacier travel. As a result, the mountain is best reserved for experienced mountaineers looking for a challenge.
However, the challenge of arriving at the top is well-rewarded with excellent views of Cotopaxi, Sincholagua and Cayambe.
- Elevation: 5,704 m (18,714 ft)
- Duration: 2 days
Comprising two volcanic summits sitting about 55 kilometres (35 miles) south of Quito, Illiniza juts into the middle of Avenida de Los Volcanes and towers over the valley.
Due to its location, ease of access and views, Iliniza’s twin peaks are two of the country's most popular mountaineering destinations.
Comprising the slightly taller Illiniza Sur connected by a saddle to Illiniza Norte, climbing either of the mountains is considered excellent mountains for acclimatisation to altitude.
Rising to 5,245 metres (17,208 feet) in elevation, Illiniza Sur is the sixth highest mountain in Ecuador. It is slightly taller than Illiniza Norte, the eighth highest, and more difficult to climb because of its glacier.
Ascents of both begin by hiking from the trailhead to the main mountain refuge. From here, the route continues up to the saddle before splitting into two.
Illiniza Sur features steep snow and ice ramps, requiring technical gear. Depending on the amount of snow on its glacier, the difficulty of climbing the peak varies from year to year. Years with more snowfall are easier and less dangerous than dry years.
On the other hand, Illiniza Norte is considered a trekking peak, requiring no mountaineering experience to reach the summit. However, taking a guide is highly recommended due to the difficulty of navigating the volcano.
While both summits of Illiniza are not always climbed at the same time, their ascents are frequently followed by expeditions to Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Cayambe and Artisana.
The summits also yield panoramic views toward Quito to the north and sweeping views of the southern section of Avenida de Los Volcanes.
- Sur Elevation: 5,263 m (17,267 ft)
- Norte Elevation: 5,126 m (16,818 ft)
- Duration: 3 days
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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.
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