Running for 200 miles south of Quito between two parallel cordilleras, Ecuador’s “Avenue of the Volcanoes” contains seven peaks more than 17,000 feet high.
The tallest, 20,565-foot Chimborazo, was long thought to be the highest mountain in the world. (In fact, it is, when measured from the center of the earth, owing to the planet’s equatorial bulge.) The term Avenue of the Volcanoes was coined by the German explorer Alex-ander von Humboldt — “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived,” according to Charles Darwin — who journeyed through Ecuador in 1802, climbing to 19,286 feet on Chimborazo, a world record at the time. Two of the other volcanoes, 17,160-foot Sangay and 16,480-foot Tungurahua, are generally cited as being among the 10 most active in the world. Indeed, Sangay erupts virtually all the time, and in one trekking guidebook, I found instructions on how to construct a handy shield from a garbage can lid, in order to protect your head from falling red-hot pumice! Have no fear, this is not an experience I am about to recommend to Andrew Harper members.
However, I do heartily recommend a trip to Cotopaxi National Park — if only for the day — which is located just a 90-minute drive south of Quito down the Pan-American Highway. A perfectly symmetrical 19,348-foot snow cone, Cotopaxi could well be the world’s most beautiful volcano. It stands in majestic and solitary splendor, surrounded by the tawny and wind-swept páramo (highlands). It is possible just to admire the celebrated view — the subject of an 1862 painting by Frederic Edwin Church, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts — or to walk for an hour or so, on undemanding terrain, along the margin of a small lake. Apparently, cougars can sometimes be spotted, but we saw merely an assortment of ducks, two rabbits and a weasel.
Intrepid travelers can engage the services of a guide, and trek for several days. For example, the trip around Cotopaxi takes five to six days. The fit and determined can also climb to the summit, which, coincidentally, is at almost exactly the same height as Kilimanjaro.
As for its African equivalent, no climbing expertise is required, just a period of prior acclimatization and a ferocious determination to succeed. The José F. Ribas Refuge stands at 15,750 feet, from where trekkers depart around 1 a.m. in order to reach the top by dawn. (For both practical and aesthetic reasons, nights with a full moon are especially recommended for the ascent.) They then descend before the sun begins to melt the glacial ice and to open dangerous crevasses. The climbing season on Cotopaxi extends from December to April; during the rest of the year, the winds are too strong. The Hacienda San Agustín de Callo arranges for guests to be driven to the refuge in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, from where they take a (presumably) thrilling horseback ride back down to the entrance of the national park. The hotel also specializes in arranging treks accompanied by professional guides.