Avenue of the Volcanoes
Volcanoes to the left of me, volcanoes to the right...
When the Nazca and South America tectonic plates collided 100 million years ago, it gave rise to the backbone of South America – the Andes. This geological collision also produced a secondary mountain chain within Ecuador’s Andes, the Cordilleras. The result of which was dozens of lofty volcanoes, several of which remain active. When explorer Alexander Van Humboldt visited the valley between the two ranges at the beginning of the 19th century, he coined it “The Avenue of Volcanoes”. The moniker has stuck ever since.
The landscapes and national parks along this central stretch of Ecuador are some of the most spectacular in South America. Ten of the peaks are above the snowline of 4,900 metres, resulting in the breath-taking scenery of snow-capped volcanoes. Below are some of the highlights of the area.
A couple of hours north of Quito, along the Pan-American highway, is the town of Otavalo, famous for its vast markets. Craft-workers have been trading here for hundreds of years and it is considered to be the largest indigenous market on the continent. The Imbabaru volcano provides an impressive backdrop to the town, although nowhere near as imposing as Volcan Cayambe, that is passed on the way up from Quito. After ambling the labyrinthine markets of Otavalo, head west for a gorgeous hike around the Laguna de Cuicocha. If you’re feeling fit, take on the 14km trail around the 3-mile wide crater lake, with Volcan Cotacachi looming large in the distance.
A short distance south of Quito, heading into the Central Sierra, the Pan-America highway is flanked by two stunning National Parks. To the west, is Ilinizas Ecological Reserve, based around the twin peaks of Volcan Ilinizas, both over 5,000m. Far more popular is Cotopaxi National park, to the east.
Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador (5,897m) and also its most active volcano; with ten eruptions in the past 300 years. Cotopaxi is a picture of beautiful symmetry, with its gargantuan, snow-capped cone atop vivid green slopes. Its isolated location against a blue sky and flat Påramo (alpine grassland) surroundings makes Cotopaxi a visual marvel…and as such one of the most photographed attractions in the country! Stay in one of the homely haciendas near the park and take the time to explore not only the volcano but also the Påramo, lakes, waterfalls and wildlife.
A little further south are two more of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes. To the west is Volcan Chimborazo. At 6,310m (20,560ft), Chimborazo is the highest point in Ecuador. Moreover, from the summit you will as close to the sun as it is possible to get with one foot still on Earth! Despite Mt. Everest being 2,538 metres higher, Chimborazo’s location on the equator’s ‘bulge’ means that the summit is the furthest point from the centre of the Earth. It can be climbed, but with technical challenges such as black ice, it requires specialist equipment and experience. Happily, Chimborazo is a dormant volcano!
Conversely, its neighbor to the east – Volcan Tungurahua – is very much active; which is probably why the name translates as ‘Throat of fire”. The geothermal activity produced by Tunguruhua has turned nearby Baños from a 500-year old settlement to a booming resort town that now focuses on adventure tourism. However, a soak in the natural hot baths of Baños is an incredibly soothing, addictive experience that is enjoyed by Ecuadorian and foreign visitors alike. Baños’ proximity to the Amazon also makes it a great destination to partake in a spot of canyoning, kayaking, rafting or just hiking to the countless waterfalls.
At the southern end of the Avenue of the Volcanoes is one of Ecuador’s most infamous feats of engineering: The Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo). This section of railway that links Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil was an inspired piece of engineering, allowing rail to be laid on near vertical terrain. A series of switchback hairpins zigzag across the rock-face, permitting the train to back-and-forth its way up and down the tracks. There is so much more to Ecuador’s train journeys (see our Tren Crucero section), but this 12km section between Alausi and Sibambe is a must for adrenaline-seekers and rail enthusiasts.