It’s been a fruitful lockdown for me. I’ve published the latest revised edition in my Footsteps on the Mountain Diaries series, released my first audiobook and am in the processed of recording another. I’ve also had the chance to edit video footage from my trips going back more than two years, which has been sitting on my hard drive gathering virtual dust. These have included the Kangchenjunga region of Nepal and Puna de Atacama in northern Chile.
It’s time for my latest set of videos: Unexplored Ecuador. Last autumn Edita and I made our fourth trip to Ecuador, and decided to get a little off the beaten track by visiting some of the country’s lesser known volcanoes and mountain areas.
‘Lesser known’ at least from a western perspective. It turned out that the first of these peaks Fuya Fuya is hardly unexplored, being extremely popular with Ecuadorian hikers who complete organised day trips from Quito. The ascent wasn’t one of my finest – I bottled an exposed section on the ascent, and my blushes weren’t spared when Edita captured it clearly on video, though I did eventually get up it after a pause to reflect.
Two of the peaks, Imbabura and Tungurahua, are well known but surprisingly quiet. Tungurahua has been highly active till quite recently but has now been reopened. We had both peaks more or less to ourselves and Tungurahua was actually one of my favourite of all Ecuador’s volcanoes.
In between these two peaks, we visited a genuinely remote area, the Llanganates Mountains, though this visit also ended up being something of an embarrassment for me when a mystery illness meant that Edita had to carry half my kit.
We finished off with an ascent of Cotopaxi; not exactly unexplored either – it’s been one of Ecuador’s most popular peaks for years. I climbed it once before in 2010, but Edita hadn’t. It’s been much quieter since it erupted in 2015 and there were only a handful of us climbing it this time.
Without further ado, here are the videos, but before you start watching, a quick plug for my book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo, an absolute must-read for those of you who are into entertaining travel writing about the peaks of the Andes!
1 Ascent of Fuya Fuya
Fuya Fuya is an extinct volcano with two summits that are part of a larger massif called Mojanda. The Mojanda massif is a range of peaks formed from the collapse and extinction of two adjacent volcanoes. It forms the third of a triangle of peaks rising above the northern part of Ecuador, the other two being Cotacachi and Imbabura.
Fuya Fuya rises above the town of Otavalo, a few hours’ drive from Ecuador’s capital Quito. From Mojanda’s crater lake, it’s a 4-hour round trip to climb both summits, so it can also be done as a day hike from Quito. The higher summit (4,258m) has a tricky scrambling section that is short but very exposed, as this video shows. The second summit is an easy walk up.
2 Ascent of Imbabura
Beyond the town of Otavalo in northern Ecuador is the peak of Imbabura (4,640m), and across a broad plain to the north is Cotacachi (4,944m). While Cotacachi is higher, from Otavalo it is less prominent. From the Pan-American Highway, Imbabura is by far the more striking and dominant, less sprawling, more forbidding and more clearly a single isolated peak.
This ascent was from the east side of the mountain, from a road above the town of Ibarra. The trail starts with a steep walk up grasslands, followed by an easy if long scramble up rocks to reach the collapsed crater rim. The main summit lies a couple of kilometres along the rim, involving some more scrambling as well as easy traversing along the ridge.
3 Llanganates Mountains
The Llanganates Mountains are an area of high-altitude grassland rising to the north of the town of Baños in Ecuador’s central highlands. They are famous for being the place where the Inca warrior Rumiñahui hid a cache of Inca treasure from the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
The Llanganates Mountains are unusual for Ecuador in that they are not volcanic. Navigation is difficult because trails are faint, often hidden by tall grass and swirling clouds. This trip ended up being a reconnaissance for us. We had intended to climb its highest peak, Cerro Hermoso, but I was sick and unable to continue after the first day. We turned around, but learned much about a rarely explored part of the Andes and will be better prepared next time.
4 Ascent of Tungurahua
The resort town of Baños lies at 1,800m in a deep gorge cutting through the Andes from Ecuador’s central highlands in the west to the Amazon jungle in the east. Rising 3,200m above Baños is Tungurahua, a 5,023m volcano that emerged from its slumber in 1995 and was one of the most active volcanoes in South America for the next twenty years. In the local Quechua language, its name, appropriately, means ‘Throat of Fire’.
The mountain went back to sleep again in 2016, and was re-opened for climbing in 2017. It was therefore an obvious objective when we returned to Ecuador in 2019, especially since it just squeaks into the list of 10 peaks in Ecuador over 5,000m. This video shows our two-day ascent, which included a night in the hut at 3,800m on its northern slopes.
5 Summit of Cotopaxi
Night-time ascents roped together don’t really lend themselves to capturing video. Most of our ascent was in the dark, and in fact this silly little windy segment of us on the summit is the only footage I remembered to take.