Mountains, Rivers, Volcanoes: Ecuador!

Mountains, Rivers, Volcanoes: Ecuador!

Ecuador!! Our excitement was high as we crossed into the famed little-big country. Sarah had traveled here years ago with her friend Nancy and was thrilled to return to experience more of Ecuador.Our first quick stop was an impressive cemetery in Tulcan right across the border where intricate hedging designs evoke thoughts of an ancient cultures intermingling with modern Christian burial practices. It felt quite inviting and comfortable strolling around. We were thrilled to see the amazing roads Ecuador had to offer along with diesel prices clocking in at $1.03 per gallon!  It felt as if the over-landing powers at be wanted us here, so we set to exploring, hard.A few hours from the Colombian border began our first adventure to Lake Cuicocha. The first camp spot had us viewing the mighty Cayambe Volcano standing proud over lush pasture lands where we slept at a cool 10,000ft. 
The next morning we woke up and enjoyed a beautiful 4 hour hike around the crater lake with stunning views and a very well maintained trail. The lake is translated as Guinea Pig lake in reference to the islands’ appearance as two snuggling guinea piggies.After a fantastic start to the day, we decided to head to the famous city of Otavalo, known for its textile market of hand woven wool, leather, and alpaca goods. Ironically, we arrived on the one day of the year that they perform maintenance and cleaning with no market. Fortunately, we would be back with Matt’s parents in a few weeks and were happy to wait and see it for the first time with them.After grabbing a bite to eat, we headed back into the high country, this time to Lake Mojanda where Fuya-Fuya Volcano lives. Arriving midday at the lake, we were astounded that there were no people and such beautiful views.
We woke up early and set out to hike Fuya-Fuya seen here lit up from the morning alpenglow. The trail was short and steep and we quickly ascended the mountain.Stepping up to the summit, the views and altitude literally took our breath away. The skies were clear and we could see four giant snow capped volcanoes in the distance. We didn’t know it then, but this day would turn out to be one of the clearest during our time in Ecuador. Giddily heading back down, we decided to participate in our own polar plunge and rinse off in the ice cold waters of Lake Mojanda. It did the trick for us stinky van-dwellers.We were all smiles to find remote locations to hike and free camping with very few people that we struggled to find in Colombia. With plans to meet up with Matt’s parents in the capitol of Quito in a couple weeks, we filled our itinerary the best we could and set off to explore south of Quito before returning to the city for their visit. Our furthest point south took us to the famous adventure and hot springs town of Banos.Lower in elevation with very steep and lush mountains, the Banos area had a much different feel than the upper highlands. Our first stop was the Casa de Arbol, where you can ride a famous swing overlooking the impressive Tungurahua Volcano. Sarah displays the proper no-hands spin technique whereas Matt shows the adrenaline seekers technique. 3 days were filled here enjoying nature at its finest. We found an amazing climbing area near a river with a zip line over head. As people whooshed by, we challenged ourselves on the slippery basalt below.Just outside of Banos is an area well known for it’s waterfalls and nice hiking trails. The views were spectacular and waterfalls seemed to appear around every corner. At the end of our mini tour was a small restaurant with ‘pesca deportiva.’ Not knowing exactly what to expect, we asked a few questions and ended up fishing out a trout from a mini concrete pool followed by the lovely cook cleaning and frying it up for us. Delicious!To get back to the van, it was necessary to cross the massive canyon we’d been hiking through for the last 3 hours via an old style cable car. The car whisked across the canyon much faster than we anticipated causing a great deal of laughter in reaction to the unexpected adrenaline rush. Feeling exhausted yet happy from all of the hiking and driving, we soaked for a night in the hot springs with just a ‘few’ other folks.Leaving Banos, we made our way back towards the upper Andes once again, this time heading towards the famous Cotopaxi National Park. Along the way we found a small town to camp in for a night with a pretty river that tempted Matt to fish.  The lack of fish caught was made up for by a beautiful waterfall and nice morning walk.Heading north on a back “road” apparently designed for go-carts was nothing short of adventurous. Luckily, not many people drive it due to a new 4 lane highway nearby, but the surrounding countryside was a pleasure to drive through even though it felt like we were in a video game.Along the way we happened across a small community partaking in a dancing ceremony that ended with a Guinea Pig race. Cuy, or guinea pig in English, is a delicacy in Ecuador and they not only eat them, but hedge bets on their racing prowess in the small rural villages. Joining in the excitement, we laughed alongside the locals as the guinea pigs tried to figure out why us silly humans were surrounding them.As we arrived to the Cotopaxi National park at over 12,000ft, we were shocked to learn that all Ecuadorian national parks had recently been designated free to visit and camp. Because it was late in the day, we undertook a short steep hike on Mt. Ruminahui with hopes of the clouds lifting so we could see the famed Cotopaxi Volcano. The clouds kept the giant hidden from view that afternoon but we enjoyed the beautiful valley views and summit at over 15000ft!The following morning we planned to continue our way back north due to more cloud cover and limited views until mere moments before our departure when the skies opened up revealing our intended target in all of its glory. Behold the magnificent, the mighty, the massive and majestic Cotopaxi Volcano!Our plans immediately changed and we stayed in the park for the rest of the day. A refugio sits part way up the mountain for tourists and climbers to visit before ascending the mountain or to experience the majesty up close. Letting Koru usher us up to the highest point of his life at over 15,000ft, we parked in awe of the fact that we just drove up the side of an active volcano.From there, we hiked to the newly renovated refugio and even further up to over 16,000ft near the large glacier which we witnessed actively eroding the earth below it. Simply Stunning!In the refugio we drank coca tea which helped with the altitude and gave us grateful boosts of energy.Feeling enthused about our luck with the weather, we slowly made our way back down from the mountain. Slowly descending to lower elevations through the north entrance of the park and not seeing anyone but courteous cows on our way out, we were feeling great about this incredible country. Our last stop before our visitors was the quaint small town of Cuyuja where one of the best climbing walls in Ecuador is located. It was beautiful and quiet with a nice park and river with free bathrooms near the climbing area, basically an over-lander’s jackpot. Because it was during the week, we had the place to ourselves and enjoyed a couple of peaceful nights and fun days climbing.It was finally time to head back to Quito for Matt’s parents’ visit. We still can’t believe how much fun we packed into our first days in Ecuador! This little, yet big country was quickly turning into one of our favorites and we couldn’t wait to keep exploring.

6 thoughts on “Mountains, Rivers, Volcanoes: Ecuador!

  1. We’ve had you two on our minds as we plan our January trip to Costa Rica. Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula, Savergre, Selva Verde & Arenal. Your abilities at finding the best views and hikes is impressive and we’re excited to give it a whirl. Happy Thanksgiving! Are guinea pigs served stuffed on the table?
    sending love, Esther

    1. So excited to hear you’re going to Costa Rica. Definitely one of our favorite countries so far. We’ll have to suggest a stuffed cuy at our next restaurant experience 🙂 Have a great Thanksgiving in Pinedale and a great trip to Costa Rica!

  2. Love the photos…in a way I’m now missing Ecuador in more ways than one. It seems I missed SO much in my travels there due to traveling ‘tourist style’. I can’t wait until I get to explore it via van. It also warms my heart to see my ‘old’ van reaching such heights and allowing you to explore such amazing sights.

    1. We feel very lucky to have such a nice van to carry us around all of these mountains thanks to you! We loved Ecuador so much we vowed to go back and we were very happy to meet Paulina. We look forward to hearing about your van adventures down here in the future.

  3. Another great blog. Our experience in Ecuador with you guys was magical. Got a great sense of the cultural richness of the country which is matched by its beauty. We continue to be in awe of the magnitude of your journey.

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