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.
Mt Cayambe (approximately 5,700 metres), Mt Cotopaxi (5,900 metres) and Mt Chimborazo (6,300 metres) are the three highest peaks in the country, and reaching their summits requires a good mix of fitness, stubbornness and luck. The ascents start from rustic mountain huts and are steep and long, but there is little technical knowledge required. The biggest challenges are tiredness, altitude sickness and bad weather; guides are necessary because routes change constantly. Interestingly, the hikes take place at night to avoid possible avalanches caused by the sun melting the snow on the glaciers. If it is windy, it feels as if you were standing in a walk-in freezer with a fan blowing on you. There is no warm or cold seasons because of Ecuador's location at the equator, so make sure to be well-equipped for the cold.
Mt Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in Ecuador and one of the highest in the world. The view from its summit on a clear day is spectacular. You can see the shadow of its perfect conic shape projected on the valley below at the break of dawn. And then there is the volcano's inner crater, which can only be seen from above - the most rewarding prize after all the effort.
When to go
Ecuador's location at the equator means that there are only two seasons: dry and wet. The best periods to summit the highest mountains were once April to June and October to December, but the weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Nowadays you are as likely to be caught in a hail storm in January as in June. Experienced guides will be able to tell you what the weather has been like, and they will always turn around if the conditions get too rough.
What to bring (or not bring)
You will need glacier equipment such as crampons and an ice axe. Buying gear in Ecuador is generally more expensive than abroad because most products are imported. High-altitude sunglasses are arguably the most important accessory, and they are not cheap here. Two shops in Quito that sell products with their own local brands are Equipos Cotopaxi (www.equiposcotopaxi.com.ec) and Tatoo Adventure Gear (http://ec.tatoo.ws).
You can rent everything - including sleeping bags, though you need good sleeping gear to get some rest in the refugios (mountain huts) as there is no heating and temperatures often drop below zero inside. If you are looking into renting, do it in Quito, as it is harder to find good equipment in the rest of the country. Two suggestions in the Mariscal area are Condor Trek (Reina Victoria N24-295 y Cordero, 54-2-226-004) and Extreme Sportswear (Calama E-756 y Reina Victoria, 54-2-229-943)
Who to go with
Keep in mind you have to rope up the glaciers, and the groups are up to four people (including the guide). So try to go with fit friends you trust, because if one of you does not feel good during the trek, everyone has to go back.
There is no need to worry, but accidents do happen and it is best to sort out some insurance before starting out on a mission like this. The premiums are high for hiking or climbing above 4,000 metres, and some insurance companies do not offer the option. It is however worth arranging cover because specialist doctors can be expensive here.
Guides are necessary for all nevados (snow-capped peaks), as routes change constantly, the weather is unpredictable and it can be incredibly dangerous to adventure overnight on a glacier. Good guides will advice you on what equipment is necessary and where to get hold of it. You do not necessarily need a guide for some of the lower peaks such as the Fuya Fuya or Yanahurco de Mojanda, but beware that there is hardly any signalling on most other parks, and you can get easily lost. The best guides are those who are in good physical state and know these mountains well, so make sure to ask who is going to guide you before booking a hike with a travel agency.
Edgar Vaca (http://edgarguide63.webs.com) is an experienced certified guide who has reached the summit of Mt Cotopaxi more than 100 times. You can contract him for a full package to guide you to all the above peaks. Ruta Cero (www.rutaceroadventuretravel.com) is a tour operator that specialises in adventure sports. It organises weekly outings, packages that include several hikes and can also provide private guides. Fabian Zurita (www.airelibre.net.ec), Ecuador's oldest mountaineer at age 76, organises weekly outings. He is still incredibly fit and knows the country's mountains extremely well, as does Marco Cruz (www.expediciones-andinas.com), another veteran at age 65, who offers tours and packages to all destinations.
Irene Caselli covers Ecuador for the BBC and is based in Quito.