Ecuador – High Altitude

We crossed into Ecuador in late January, in the beginning of the rainy season. This didn’t bode very well for our plans in the country with some serious mountains. When we arrived, the weather was fairly dreary, clouds overhanging the hills. This wasn’t helped by the naked hills of northern Ecuador, which seem to have been entirely deforested. On the other hand, the roads of Ecuador all seem to be brand new. And then the first fillup at the gas station: We knew that Ecuador had cheap gasoline, but we just couldn’t help but take a picture after our 20 gallon fillup for – $20!

Leika planning Ecuador

Leika planning Ecuador

We drove down to Ibarra, the first major town of Ecuador and stayed at Finca Sommerwind, a very popular overlander spot run by a German couple. We talked to the owner Hans about potential routes through the country, and Ecuador truly has a lot to offer. There are mountains over 6,000m, the Amazon jungle, beaches, colonial cities, not to mention the Galapagos islands. Couple that with cheap gasoline and you have a great travel destination. However, we decided to be selective and focus on our time on the mountains – with the major goals of climbing Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.

In order to help with acclimatizing, we planned a list of hikes, starting with Imbabura. It’s the mountain right outside Ibarra, at 4,600m. We found an Australian living on the slopes of the mountain, who runs a garden center and lets overlanders stay at his property. Graham is among the most generous and genuinely kind people we have met. When we arrived at his property, which is a plant nursery overlooking Ibarra, he made us feel completely welcome. His one year old daughter took Nikki and Leika for a walk to look at the ducks in the pond, followed by his 3 dogs that certainly were intimidating Leika. As his daughter is telling Nikki all about the ducks’ names, Leika starts screaming in pain and running back towards the car… she walked into an electric fence but was certain that it was Graham’s dogs that were the culprits and hid in the car the rest of our time there. After we had a tour of the property and some tea with him and his family, he drove us to the fruit market in Ibarra and even stopped by a vet to ask about a dark spot we found on Leika’s tooth (too much candy?).

The next morning, Graham dropped us off at the trailhead to Imbabura at 3,300m, and we started a steep hike through paramo up to Imbabura. Unfortunately it was foggy all the way up, so we didn’t get to enjoy any views, but it’s a steep trail and you quickly gain elevation to the rim of the crater, which you circle for a while to get to the true summit. We thought it was a tough hike, but it was likely our lack of fitness as well as the many false summits playing mind tricks. We walked all the way back to Graham’s house, about 2,300m below. Needless to say we felt that descent in our quads the next day. Back down, we ran into Ona and Marc from Spain, who had been travelling South America for the past year. We spent a nice evening together and got some valuable info for the countries to come.

We moved on to the Laguna Mojanda, a beautiful crater lake where you can drive up to 3,700m, where we were reunited with nonurbia again. From there, it’s a short hike up to the two peaks of Fuya Fuya. The summit of the mountain required a little bit of climbing / scrambling. When Leika attempted a leap between two rocks, she slipped, but thankfully Nikki gracefully used her face as a cushion for Leika’s fall – she has the scar to prove it! We spent the night at the peaceful lake before moving on to Quito the next day.

The people of Quito were fascinating to us. We were camping at Parque La Carolina for a few nights, and every morning, beginning at about 5am, seemingly the entire population descended into the park for their morning exercises – running, cycling, aerobics and using all kinds of workout contraptions in the public park. It’s a dog paradise there as well. The weather seemed to be particularly cooperative, and we got our first glimpse of Cotopaxi, right from the city center! Oh yeah, we also crossed the equator on the road to Quito!

After running some errands, eating some Indian food, and getting a great guide recommendation from Andes 6000, we got back to our acclimatization schedule. We headed to Pasochoa, a 4,200m peak close to Quito. The hike had a good amount of elevation gain, but unfortunately Leika wasn’t allowed to join. Nikki spent the entire hike plagued with worries about her. At the peak, there were some more views of nearby Cotopaxi. As we came back to the car and packed up, we realized that the park rangers had left their station – but kept our IDs locked up. We waited for a while, before unsuccessfully trying to pick the lock and trying to call other park offices. Finally another bus came by and the driver promised to look for the rangers in town. When they returned after 2 hours, it just turned out they were grabbing some food – thankfully they didn’t just decide to go home for the weekend.

With our IDs back in hand, we drove further down the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Our next acclimatization peak would be Illiniza Norte, to us the most beautiful peak we’ve seen in Ecuador. The drive up was interesting, it had started raining and the dirt / mud road was getting soft quickly. On the first steeper uphill section 2 vans got stuck with spinning tires. After they managed to back out and turn around, we picked up 2 of their passengers. Despite only having 2-wheel drive, our tires did great in these conditions and we managed to get up to the trailhead without getting stuck. We spent the night at 4,000m and started hiking in the morning. The rains had turned the mountain snowy above 4,500m. We continued on to about 5,000m, but decided to turn around about 100m from the summit, as clouds started moving in and the trail was a bit too dangerous in these conditions. On our way up, we ran into an Ecuadorian guide on his day off… he was pushing a mountain bike and carrying skis, planning to climb, then ski, then bike down Illiniza Sur, the more technical climb of the twin mountains. At lower elevations, the rain had really worsened the road surface overnight. We drove down nervously, in parts as if on ice, with the Sprinter bouncing around the grooves in the road like in a pinball machine.

The last thing we had to figure out was a place to stay for Leika during the 2 major climbs we were preparing. Nikki managed to find a friend of a friend who is a dog lover and offered to watch her for the days we’d be gone. A huge thank you to Matt from Gadventures in Quito. We can’t thank him enough and Leika certainly had a blast with them!

We squeezed in another hike around Quito, to Rucu Pichinca, and then picked up our guide Pablo near Quito, with whom we would spend the next 4 days in even higher altitude.

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    • Hi Sharon! Great to hear from you and thank you for your comments! We may be back in San Francisco in a few months and hope to see you there!

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