Ecuador is a country of volcanoes. The sierra consists of two parallel chains that include a dozen volcanoes over 5,000 m. The highest is Chimborazo (6,310 m) and the most majestic is Cotopaxi (5,897 m). The two chains are separated by “Volcano Alley”, a valley situated between 2,500 m and 3,000 m that stretches for 600 km from the Colombian border as far as the Loja region in the south of the country.
The heart of the country is lodged here between this double range of volcanoes, in a dry and temperate valley where the plots of cultivated land create a beautifully colored checkerboard. Depending on the slope of the cordillera, the altitude and latitude, there is great diversity of weather and landscape to be found. The broad expanses of paramo, “the Andean Alps”, are covered by characteristic tropical vegetation (Espeletia) and scattered with multicolored lagoons.
The ascent of Chimborazo (6,310 m) has become complicated due to the retreat of its glacier; it is preferable to attempt two technically less difficult volcanoes, Cayambe (5,790 m) and the mythical Cotopaxi (5,897 m).
You do not have to be a mountaineer in order to scale these peaks! Encounters with the Ecuadorian people are also an integral part of this journey; in the Otavalo market, on the cultivated slopes of the Cerro Cusín and in Quito.
Cayambe (5,790 m)
The first to scale this volcano, in 1880, was the Englishman Edward Whymper accompanied by the brothers Jean-Antoine and Louis Carrel. Not far from the summit, at 4,600 m, is the highest point in the world crossed by the Equator. The Cayambe volcano is about 1 million years old and has not seen activity for several thousand years. It is located in the Cayambe-Coca reserve.
Pichincha (4,794 m)
The two peaks that this mountain is comprised of, Rucu and Guagua, together form a 30 kilometer long eruptive chain. The Pichincha crater extends for 1 km in diameter and a little over 500 m in depth. The last eruption took place in 1999 covering the capital of Quito with a thin layer of ash. On several occasions its eruptions were more significant even producing five kilometer high mushroom clouds that alarmed the capital by blocking out the light of day.
North Illiniza (5,116 m)
The Illiniza complex comprises 2 main cones: the first on the south side is a snow-covered peak of an altitude of 5,306 m and the second is less high (5,116 m) and not as snowy. It is thought that these were originally one and the same volcano that split after a strong eruption. From the summit of Illiniza there is a spectacular view of Cotopaxi as well as the entire Valley of the Volcanoes and its snow-capped peaks.
Cotopaxi (5,897 m)
Cotopaxi is perhaps the highest, or maybe only the third highest active volcano in the world. The Cotopaxi National Park contains several forests but is mainly covered by paramo. It is also home to condors, wolves, pumas and wild horses. The climb to the summit is progressive and does not present great difficulty apart for the final, steeper incline.