Ecuador is a feast for hikers and climbers. So much so, it can be a little overwhelming on first arrival. Remembering the difficulty I had picking what to tackle first, I thought I’d put together a shortlist of a few of my favourite hikes, listed from easiest to most challenging. All but the most challenging of these hikes can be done without a guide, and plenty of trailheads are accessible by public transport.
This is far from a comprehensive list of the best Ecuador has to offer. Indeed, some of the country’s most exciting climbs like El Altar and Cayambe, and the best treks like Cajas are absent. However, these are the places I’ve personally visited, and feel comfortable recommending. Most are within a stone throw of Quito.
Enjoy sinking your teeth into the delicious meal that is the Ecuadorian Andes. For starters…
The Amuse Bouche: Accessible For Most people, And A Pleasant Taster Of Ecuador’s Outdoors
This well-forested park in the north east of Quito is an easy spot to stretch your legs, in a seemingly endless network of comfortable walking/biking trails. On weekends it’s packed with families having barbecues, and there’s often a few herds of llamas and alpacas around. The park it easiest to reach by catching the ecovia to somewhere around Carolina park and walking 20 minutes or so east. Refer to the city maps handed out by the tourist office near Plaza Grande and in most hostels.
A crater full of cows isn’t something you see everyday. Pululahua is one of the largest craters in South America, and also happens to be inhabited by a small farming community. There are a few good walks around the rim and through the farms inside the crater, making Pululahua a decent half-day option. It could be combined with a visit to Mitad del Mundo. Read more here.
The tiny village of Papallacta (accessible from the Rio Coca bus terminal in Quito), is mostly known for its thermal springs, but there are also a few good walks in the area, including around the nearby Laguna Papallacta.
Entree: Flavoursome, And Will Whet Your Appetite For Greater Things To Come.
Known as the “Guinea Pig Lake”, Cuicocha is about 30 minutes from Otavalo or the nearby leather-working village of Cotacachi, and is another chilled half-day affair. Circumnavigating this curious lake is an easy five hour stroll, with great views of the surrounding countryside. Read more here.
Another trailhead reachable within an hour from Quito, Ilalo is a good warm up for getting acclimatized in preparation for tougher hikes. Read more here.
Perhaps the most succulent amuse bouche on offer, Quilotoa is a lovely volcanic lake very similar to Cuicocha, though it’s little further afield. The lake can be reached from Latacunga (a few hours south of Quito), and can be done as a single extremely long day from Quito, or as a weekend trip. There’s a few decent places to stay in the extremely touristy village near the lake. Camping on the shore is possible, but probably not that peaceful.
Laguna Mojanda/Fuya Fuya
Fuya Fuya is the name given to a low peak near Laguna Mojanda, a pretty lake that can be reached from Otavalo by cab (45 minutes, US$10 each way). The climb itself is pretty short, but there are a few other trails in the area to keep more intrepid spirits occupied. The nearby Cerro Negro (opposite side of the lake to Fuya Fuya, you’ll know it when you see it) looks particularly appealing, though I haven’t climbed it yet. Camping at the lake is possible, but not an experience I’ve had time for yet.
Somewhat more obscure than most of the other hikes so far, Coturco isn’t as well trodden my other entree options. Nonetheless, this half day walk is well marked, and it’d be impossible to get lost. The track begins just outside the village of Pifo (around 45 minutes by bus from the Rio Coca terminal), and winds through verdant farmlands to a stubby hill with some decent views. There’s a pretty straight forward description of the route here, but if you get lost just ask one of the many chilled out country bumpkins you’ll probably run into on the trail.
A notch above the other entrees, Pasochoa is a great hike just on the edge of Quito. It makes for a solid day hike, but there are also options for camping. Read more here.
The final entree is also the first hike with some serious altitude. At just under 4800, Rucu towers over Quito, tempting recent arrivals with its jagged volcanic peak. Great views and a finger-licking good ascent make Rucu an excellent day out from the city. Read more here.
The Main Course
A long approach and a somewhat precarious final ascent put Corazon in a league above Rucu and its ilk. This oft-overlooked peak is best done as an overnight trip from Quito, staying at a hostel just a few hundred meters from the trailhead. Full details here.
Imbabura sets itself apart from Ecuador’s other volcanoes with its low, blown out crater, complete with evocative, primordial-style rock formations. Well worth your time. Check it out here.
Easily the meatiest hike so far, and definitely the first on this list that most hikers should consider hiring a guide for. The peak can probably be physically done without a guide (assuming you don’t cop trouble from park rangers), but having someone who knows the area is worth the cash for this 12 hour marathon. Weather can be unpredictable, and the trail isn’t always blatantly obvious. See more here.
Physically speaking, Sincholagua isn’t as demanding as Illiniza Norte. But, reaching the final peak requires a spot of rappelling, making this the first technical climb on the list (well, just). Moreover, Sincholagua isn’t easy to reach, and the approach is a fickle meander through foothills. Hence, while you might not break as much of a sweat on Sincholagua as you would on Illiniza Norte, Sincho makes up for it by demanding more brainpower. Read more here.
Aaaaah Cotopaxi, the stunning snow-capped beat that tempts you from day one in Ecuador. Cotopaxi’s glistening slopes are almost always visible from Quito, and just scream to be climbed. Although you’ll require gear (crampons, pick, etc) and a guide, Coto isn’t technically strenuous. However, it’s certainly not an easy hike, and not for the faint hearted.
I’ve heard this is a more technical climb than Coto, though I haven’t been all the way to the top. This mountain is a good place to practice climbing (which is why I went there), as the glacier begins fairly low. Antisana and its surroundings are apparently also good for condor spotting, though getting near the peak is a bureaucratic nightmare if you don’t have a guide.
The mother of the Ecuadorian Andes, Chimborazo is a hell of a beast to look at, but technically not much more challenging than Coto. It is, however, significantly higher, at 6,268 meters. If you’re a scrooge but want to still see the mountain, it’s possible to get to the ice without forking out for a guide (a “close enough” option I guess). Read more here.
Dessert: Multi-Day Treks
The famous Quilotoa Loop isn’t as out of the way as it once was, but is still a popular multi-day trek combining bus trips and hikes. My partner and I just did a few days of it a while back, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The full loop takes a week or so, and is worth investing in a guidebook for.
Laguna Puruhanta/ Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve
Cayambe Coca offers endless opportunities for multi-day treks in isolated wilderness. The only one I’ve done so far is the trek from the village of Pesillo (near the town of Cayambe, 1.5 hours north-east of Quito) to Laguna Puruhanta. It’s a challenging hike through muddy sierra terrain, and is a wonderful way to get totally off the grid. You’ll need topographic maps from the Instituto Geográfico Militar in Quito, and a guidebook with trails listed. I’d recommend Viva Travel Guides’ Ecuador: Hiking and Climbing Guide, which provides details of a number of great treks in the area, including the Pesillo-Puruhanta trek.
A Few Useful Tips
Ecuador is one of the easiest countries to travel I’ve ever visited. Public transport is generally frequent and on schedule. Outside major cities, the countryside is pretty safe, and the people are polite and helpful. However, I have run into a few issues. Firstly, if you’re bringing a camping stove from home, be warned: it’s impossible to get hold of any kind of white fuel: shellite/ naphtha, kerosene etc. I use an MSR Whisperlite Universal. MSR butane canisters can be purchased from Tatoo, and in worst case scenarios, the Universal can run on unleaded petrol. If you don’t want to fork out for the MSR, you can always DIY an alcohol stove on the fly.
Another useful travel companion is the afore-mentioned Viva Travel Guides‘ Ecuador: Hiking and Climbing Guide. This is the first time I’ve actually recommended a travel guide, and I’m doing so because the Viva guide is easily the best resource I’ve found for hiking around here. The book details hikes that range from the well-trodden to obscure – some of which I don’t think I’d have discovered without it. However, a lot of the information is pretty outdated, so be sure to do your own research before hitting the trail. I’d strongly suggest accompanying the book with topographic maps from the Instituto Geographico Militar, which you can buy for a few dollars each.
Next, don’t forget to always be prepared for rain! As with any high altitude environment, the weather can change quickly, making even some of those entrees dangerous if you run into serious wind and rain. If things look like they’re turning too sketchy, turn back and save the climb for another day.
Lastly and most importantly, enjoy the feast!