There is something very primal about volcanoes. They are massive, dangerous, unpredictable, beautiful and very exotic (to this California girl at least). We saw many volcanoes throughout Central America, but the ones in Ecuador took the whole volcano thing to an entire new level. The volcanoes here are at high altitudes, the cones are covered in snow, they are spouting magma out of them while people live in houses just below. I will never forget the feeling of driving down roads seeing huge clouds of smoke burst out of active volcanos. I would look at Sam and say things like:
“Is this safe?”
“Wait! Is that smoke from a VOLCANO???”
“Are you supposed to be driving next to a volcano blowing ashes into the air?”
“Are we going to die?” Ok that is a little dramatic, but seriously, I am not used to active volcanoes just rumbling away and blowing smoke and lava into the air as I am camped a few miles away.
So here is a summary of our time exploring the volcanoes (and a few waterfalls) in the beautiful highlands of Ecuador.
Cotopoxi National Park
This is probably one of the best places to camp in Ecuador if you like wide open spaces, want to camp for free with stunning views of a snow covered volcano, are prepared to freeze your ass off and can handle the high altitude. Make sure you acclimate before coming here, the altitude was no joke, our camp spots were over 13,700 feet (4175 meters). This is the first time we have used our Webasto heater since Alaska (and yes it worked great at the high altitude!!!!). It was very cold here.
We camped for a few days at Cotopoxi in a few different camp spots. The first night we hid from the wind at a lower camp area, camping with Simone and Michael (who we ran into unexpectantly) in a crazy thick fog. Thank goodness with their good Swiss planning they bought a bunch of fire wood. It was a fun and cold night. The next day we went up to the lake with an epic view of the volcano. It is not an official camp spot, but nobody told us to leave. this is where we sat and watched the clouds reveal and them hide the stunning volcano.
The Quilotoa Loop
From Cotopoxi there is a stunning drive through valleys and traditional mountain villages called the Quilotoa loop. There are also many hiking trails in this area. We did not do any hikes because there was a punishing ice cold wind that made it very unpleasant to be outside. We are traveling in Ecuador in their winter and rainy season, so the weather has not been great many days and some days the mountains are covered in thick clouds, making it almost impossible to see the majestic Andes. But all we have to do is hang out with our friends in tents for a few days and you will not hear either of us complain about bad weather. We have a cosy, heated portable apartment on our truck. We can deal with a little icy rain and clouds.
Driving into Banos we got our first glimpse of volcano Tungurahua. It was rumbling and spitting out giant plumes of grey smoke and rocks. It was the most active volcano I have ever been near. It was both scary and exhilarating. We arrived to a campground we had read about to find that Toby, Chloe, Josh and Shannon were all there. None of us planned to meet up, but we were all happily surprised to hang out together for a few days. Near Banos, Sam and I spent a day visiting the waterfall Pailón del Diablo.
The group of us spent an evening in town at a really good micro brewery and decided the following night, if the rain stopped, we would bundle up and take a cab up the opposite mountain from Tungurahua to watch the active volcano blow. We got lucky, the following day the skies cleared and the volcano had a very active night. We drank box wine and hot chocolate and watched red lava spew from the top of the volcano. It was a night I will never forget.
After Banos we drove to Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, and according to our guide book, because of the equatorial bulge, the summit is the farthest point on the earths surface from the earths center. The drive here was stunning, but since Banos is only at about 5,500 feet, we both began to worry as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. Altitude taught me to respect it in Colombia in El Cocuy, so as we were passing 14,000 feet, I got worried (and felt the altitude headache creeping in).
We usually try to spend a few nights at around 9000 feet before going over 12,000, but driving in South America, this is not always easy. We got inside the National Park, driving past herds of wild vicunas, and staring in awe at the massive volcano in the harsh desert landscape. We were going to camp for the night, but at 14,600 feet, the campground was just too high without acclimatizing, and I was feeling a nice headache starting, so we had to leave. Chimborazo was covered in clouds, but the scale of it (almost impossible to capture in a picture) was truly impressive and it was a great way to finish our volcano adventure, with the biggest volcano in Ecuador.