Scaling the Ecuadorean Andes
Mt Cayambe, the third highest in the country at 5,700 metres, with its summit in the background. (Irene Caselli)
On a clear day in Quito, looking out from a high-rise, you might catch one of Ecuador's more stunning views: the country's four highest mountains, with their snow-capped tops, lined up at the horizon.
Dozens of volcanoes, several of which are still active, emerge throughout a 450km stretch along the Ecuadorean Andes. The strip south of Quito, where some of the highest mountains are concentrated, is known as Avenue of the Volcanoes - a name coined by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1802.
Ever since Humboldt's visit, Ecuador has become a popular destination for high-altitude mountaineering. Although glaciers are receding, leaving loose rocks and making the terrain more difficult and dangerous, the country's highest peaks remain relatively easy to reach. After a couple of weeks of acclimatisation, a fit person with little technical knowledge can feasibly summit Mt Chimborazo, the highest in the country.
The trick to adapting to altitude is to do it gradually. At about 2,800 metres above sea level, Quito is a great starting point to acclimatise. And going for a light jog in one of the city's parks is a good test. You know you have failed if, after five minutes, you are panting as if you had been running a marathon and it seems that your heart is about to pop out.
The next step is to hop on a TeleferiQo cable car and ride up the slopes of Mt Pichincha, the active volcano that overlooks Quito. From the arrival platform at roughly 4,000 metres it takes a couple of hours to hike up to the Pichincha's summit, Rucu ("old person" in the local Quechua language) just below 4,700 metres. The mountain's highest peak is the Guagua ("child" in Quechua), a two-hour hike from the town of Lloa, a one-hour drive south-west of Quito.
Another good base for several hikes is Otavalo, a town two hours north of Quito, best known among foreigners for its colourful indigenous market on Saturdays. Otavalo has a reputation as a party town , but it is surrounded by stunning mountains that are considered sacred by indigenous traditions. By staying outside town, you can arrange day hikes and make sure you get enough rest at night. Try out a historical hacienda (www.haciendapinsaqui.com), a private villa (www.4volcanoes.com) or, for a more budget option, a rustic room in the sleepy town of Peguche (www.ayahuma.com). Otavalo's Runa Tupari (www.runatupari.com), an indigenous-run agency involved in community tourism provides daily treks with local guides who explain the area's legends.
The most famous local story involves personified mountains. Taita (or father) Imbabura and Mama (or mother) Cotacachi, were believed to be gods who could move around freely. The legend has it that when they were a couple, Mama Cotacachi would wake up covered in snow whenever Taita Imbabura visited her overnight. Rucu Pichincha, who was Mama Cotacachi's former lover, found out about the liaison and decided to punish her by taking away their child, Guagua Pichincha. The Cuicocha lagoon was born from a river of tears coming down the slopes of Mt Cotacachi.
While Mt Cotacachi requires a technical and risky climb, the steep and tough ascent to Mt Imbabura is a great exercise for other peaks (though a guide is recommended). The Mojanda lagoons are another good destination for a day hike. Mountains Fuya Fuya and Yanahurco de Mojanda offer steep but relatively easy, well-signalled hikes above 4,000 metres.
If you are still unsure about your resistance to the altitude, but are committed to trying out the country's highest peaks, try out the north peak of the Illinizas. With a long ascent to about 5,100 metres, this mountain is a great last test before heading to the glaciers.