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.

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.

BIG-TIME ADVENTURE

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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