DREAM TRIPS 2009

Scale a Volcano in Ecuador

For big-time adventure, not to mention magical green landscapes, grab a pair of rubber boots and start climbing. No experience required.

By Scott Hutchins, Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009, 12:00 AM

Making the final ascent to the crater lake on a ridge near El Refugio
Making the final ascent to the crater lake on a ridge near El Refugio (Ryan Heffernan)

(Map by Nicholas Felton)

My little brother and I are in Ecuador to celebrate a historic date: This year, he's exactly half my age. Joseph, my father's son from a second marriage, was born when I was a senior in high school, and now he's a senior in high school. He's 17, a star chemistry student and punk rock drummer in Arkansas. I'm a novelist in San Francisco and the old man at 34.

I'm excited to introduce Joseph to the thing I love most in the world—travel—with no dad along playing the mother hen. But here we are in the capital city of Quito, and I'm turning into a mother hen myself: My inclination is to make sure Ecuador is tinted, filtered, and cooled down before it hits him. This clearly can't last.

Our plan is to hike El Altar, one of three volcanoes in Sangay National Park, a nearly 1,000-square-mile preserve in the Andes. The other two, Tungurahua and Sangay, are constantly erupting. (We like a challenging hike, but we don't dodge lava.) El Altar is extinct, and amateurs can scale it to a certain height without the use of hard-core gear like cables or crampons. Plus, it's June, so the weather should be dry. Known as Capac Urcu, or Almighty Mountain, in the local Quechua language, our volcano has nine jagged peaks rising between 16,500 and 17,500 feet that are arrayed like guard towers around a mile-wide crater lake. The Spanish, who ruled the country for almost 300 years, thought the mountain resembled a cathedral—hence its name. Among its peaks are Bishop, Great Nun, Devout Friar, and Tabernacle.

There won't be any summiting for us—only pro climbers get that far. We're shooting for the lake, which (at about 14,000 feet) is no stroll around the block. It's almost as high as Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.

The main trick to any high climb is acclimatization, the $5 word for getting used to not having enough oxygen. Luckily, the cities of the Andes are so elevated that just sitting in them does the job. Joseph and I poke around Quito for a couple of days, happily exploring the jacaranda-shaded plazas and 16th-century churches of the colonial Old Town. In the evenings, we tap our feet to live jazz bands and sip caipirinhas at El Pobre Diablo. (Dad, if you're reading this, Joseph had only one drink, I swear.) We definitely feel the effects of the altitude: Even on small hills, we get winded and have to stop to catch our breath. Each time, I wonder how we're ever going to make it up the volcano.

On our third day, Joseph and I take a bus south to the town of Riobamba, our launchpad for the hike. At Café Concert El Delirio, a restaurant in a stucco house where the revolutionary Simón Bolívar wrote a famous poem, we share a wonderful traditional Ecuadoran dish called arroz con camarónes (shrimp and rice cooked in a flavorful sofrito and served with avocado slices). Then it's back to our hotel, La Estación—clean and quiet, if not terribly memorable—for a 10-hour pre-trek rest.

I wake up without feeling I need a shot of oxygen from an inhaler. Taking this as a positive sign, we hire Napoleon, the hotel owner, to drive us to Hacienda Releche, a guest ranch 15 miles away, where the trail to El Altar begins. Napoleon is short and thickly built like his namesake, and he's all smiles in his Levi's and blue baseball cap.

He thinks it's just great that two American brothers are exploring Ecuador together. And he's so excited to be our impromptu guide that before we know it, we've taken at least 10 interesting detours. We see where lava from the 2006 eruption of Tungurahua mangled a bridge. We stand under a century-old avocado tree and meet a group of octogenarian potato farmers. Napoleon notices that my brother is feeling sick (although he doesn't realize it's due to his driving) and whisks us off to his weekend home, where he yanks a weed and boils it into a soothing tea. He quizzes us about our family, complains about corruption in Ecuadoran politics, gives us two pounds of raw cane sugar, and finally delivers us to Hacienda Releche, in the town of Candelaria, at about 1 p.m.

The hike up is supposed to take two days: one to get to El Refugio, a set of five cabins owned by the hacienda that sit just below the crater, the second to reach the lake. According to Napoleon and our guidebooks, we should be able to make it to the cabins in four to five hours, meaning we'd arrive by 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. if we left right away. Or we could stay the night at the ranch and set out in the morning. I could read War and Peace on the veranda. My brother could go for a walk. We could play cards by the fire and get some sweet country sleep.

We gaze up at the mist pouring off the surreally green mountains and the impossibly steep farms, which look like Nebraska would if a giant balled it up like a bedsheet. Now that we're finally here, I want to start climbing immediately.

"What do you think?" I ask Joseph.

"Let's do it," he says.

The woman at the hacienda doesn't think it's a great idea but hands me a ring of keys for El Refugio anyway. I ask her which cabin to sleep in, and she says it doesn't matter because the setup is unstaffed and there are no other guests tonight. Any tricks to getting there? "Todo a la izquierda," she says. Stay to the left.

"Do you want mules?" she asks. My brother and I laugh. This is a hike—why would we want mules?

Starting out, we notice right away that the trail is actually a cow and mule path, and it's sopping wet. So much for this being the dry season. Footing is unpredictable. Sometimes the thick mud withstands my weight; other times, I get sucked shin-deep into the muck, and the freezing water brims over the tops of my hiking boots. To top it off, our backpacks are weighed down with nonessentials: cameras, extra clothing, War and Peace. After 20 minutes of tough slogging, we reach a marker that says El Refugio is...another seven and a half miles away.

Joseph remains in good spirits. He bounds up the foggy hill and laughs when he falls. But several hours later, his pants and boots are soaked and his humor is fraying. I start to think about the things we should have done, like buy rubber boots in Riobamba and leave our big packs at the hacienda. And we should have stayed put for the night, maybe gotten to know the mules a little better.

We break for a lunch of sweet rolls, apples, and a fresh, salty cheese called Andino that tastes a bit like feta. Resting on giant rocks, we try a Zen approach: El Refugio is where it is, and we'll get there when we get there. With new pep, we set off, marveling at the gorgeous canyon far below us and—in the occasional clearing of fog—the solitary cows on the hillsides. We pass a cowherd bouncing down the trail bareback on a mule. And every so often we hear the rumble of Tungurahua clearing its throat.

If only I'd bought those rubber boots.... The refrain keeps going through my head. Hours later, my legs are caked with mud, and we haven't caught a single glimpse of El Altar. I know we didn't take a wrong turn, because there are no turns—just the same trail, zigzagging through the hills like a saw blade. Even though it's only 5 p.m., the light seems to be waning; I expected us to have at least a couple more hours of daylight. Feeling nervous, I take the lead and set an unforgiving pace. Joseph lags behind. And then he takes off his backpack and heaves it onto the trail.

"You don't want your bag to get all wet," I scold him.

"It's too heavy," he replies.

We sit down to nibble on some of Napoleon's sugar. Suddenly, as if a switch is thrown, the fog lifts and the blue sky and bright sun glisten. We look out on the vast riverbed below us and then up through the steaming valley at an austere snowcapped ridge.

"Capac Urcu," I say, awestruck.

My brother snaps photos like crazy. "Would we call this volcano almighty?" he asks.

"I think that qualifies," I say.

He puts down the camera. "But it doesn't look very close."

Ecuador, of course, is on the equator, where the days and nights are roughly equal in length. That means sun­down is not at 8 p.m. or even 7 p.m.—it's at 6:30 p.m. I can add another item to the list of stupid mistakes I've made today.

"I've got an idea," I say, trying to sound cheery. In truth, my heart is racing. "Let's drop our big packs here and go find the cabins. We can come back and get them."

I calmly put a few cookies and bananas into my day pack and tuck some bread and yogurt in my cargo pants. There's no way we're coming back for these bags tonight. We may never see them again.

Soon it's pitch-black, and I wonder if this is what disaster is like: anxiety (are we doomed?) accompanied by mundanity (the sound of our boots plopping through the mud). I can see the headlines: "Older Brother to Blame in Puma Attack!" or "Mummies Really Dead Americans!" We keep seeing what we think are cabins on the hills in front of us, but when we get closer, we realize they're boulders. A light rain begins, and we stop to rest in the shelter of a tall, flat rock.

"This wouldn't be the worst place to sleep," I say.

Joseph is no longer speaking.

But on we march. And on and on, until out of the darkness, a cluster of handsome little wooden houses appears right next to us. El Refugio.

It's a surprisingly well-built camp. Even though our cabin lacks electricity and sheets—thankfully, we didn't ditch our sleeping bags—it has a kitchen, two fireplaces, and even hot water. We take showers, build a fire, and prepare a big spaghetti dinner. The beds are so much more comfortable than that rock would have been.

Outside the front door in the morning, we finally can see where we are. The boggy dreamscape of the Collanes Valley is at our feet, and waterfalls tumble down mountain ridges on either side of us, forming dozens of creeks. Cows meander, chewing grass. The air smells as if it's been scrubbed clean. There aren't any other people up here today, and if it weren't for these cabins, I'd wonder if we were the first to ever make it this far.

After a breakfast of bananas, yogurt, and instant coffee, we set off, plenty early this time, hopping over streams and spooking the cows. The crater looks close, but the walk across the meadow feels endless—it's an enchanted carpet that keeps extending before us. We stick to the left, as advised, and after about an hour reach the trailhead for the steep scramble up to the lake. In no time, we've climbed about 1,000 feet in elevation, stopping every few minutes to breathe and admire the amazing views. From this vantage point, El Refugio looks miniscule and the valley shoots out behind it like a green slide, twisting for miles all the way back to the Hacienda Releche at the bottom.

Finally, huffing and puffing, we arrive at the crater rim, 14,000 feet above sea level, and look down into Laguna Amarilla, or Yellow Lake, which is actually more of a gray-green giant. We try to count El Altar's snow-covered peaks and identify the Great Nun, Tabernacle, and Bishop, but we can't see all of them in the swirling fog. Wind blows out of the crater with the roar of a jet engine. Joseph isn't given to spontaneous displays of excitement, but he reaches over and gives me an enthusiastic high five. "We made it!" he cries. He then carefully clambers down the slope to feel the ice-cold water with his fingers, and I sit on a boulder in a field of wildflowers to take in the craggy mountains encircling the lake. Every mud-filled step has definitely been worth it.

Not only does my brother seem to agree, he's speaking to me again.

GETTING THERE A round-trip flight between Miami and Quito in March costs about $450 on LAN (lan.com). The four-hour bus trip from Quito to Riobamba is $3.75 one way.

WHEN TO GO Ecuador's dry season runs from about May to September. Although the skies are usually clear, be prepared for any kind of weather in the mountains.

WHAT TO PACK A sleeping bag, hiking boots, waterproof pants, and a parka are musts. Rubber boots are definitely a good idea and are sold in Riobamba for $8.

TOUR OPERATORS Julio Verne, a Riobamba-based company, leads three-day trips up El Altar with horses, equipment, meals, and English-speaking guides (Calle El Espectador 22-25 at Ave. Daniel Léon Borja, 011-593/3-296-3436, julioverne-travel.com, $240 per person).

SOUVENIR A llama figurine carved from a tagua nut, the seed of a palm prolific in Ecuador.

WHERE TO SPLURGE Celebrate completing the trek with a salt and volcanic ash exfoliation at the spa resort Luna Runtun in Baños de Agua Santa, a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Riobamba (Caserio Runtun Km. 6, 011-593/3-274-0882, lunaruntun.com, rooms from $207, exfoliation $55).

LODGING
La Estación
Unidad Nacional 29-15 at Carabobo Rd., Riobamba, 011-593/3-295-5226, $15, includes breakfast

Hacienda Releche and El Refugio
Candelaria, 011-593/3-294-9761 or 3-296-0848, $12 per person. Meals are included at Hacienda Releche, but not at El Refugio—you must bring your own provisions. Reservations recommended

FOOD
Café Concert El Delirio
Primera Constituyente 28-16 at Rocafuerte, Riobamba, 011-593/3-296-6441

ACTIVITIES
Sangay National Park
parquesangay.org.ec, $10

NIGHTLIFE
El Pobre Diablo
Isabel La Católica E12-03 at Galavis, Quito, 011-593/2-223-5194, elpobrediablo.com, cover from $5

BIG-TIME ADVENTURE