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.
But on we march. And on and on, until out of the darkness, a cluster of handsome little wooden houses appears right next to us. El Refugio.
It's a surprisingly well-built camp. Even though our cabin lacks electricity and sheets—thankfully, we didn't ditch our sleeping bags—it has a kitchen, two fireplaces, and even hot water. We take showers, build a fire, and prepare a big spaghetti dinner. The beds are so much more comfortable than that rock would have been.
Outside the front door in the morning, we finally can see where we are. The boggy dreamscape of the Collanes Valley is at our feet, and waterfalls tumble down mountain ridges on either side of us, forming dozens of creeks. Cows meander, chewing grass. The air smells as if it's been scrubbed clean. There aren't any other people up here today, and if it weren't for these cabins, I'd wonder if we were the first to ever make it this far.
After a breakfast of bananas, yogurt, and instant coffee, we set off, plenty early this time, hopping over streams and spooking the cows. The crater looks close, but the walk across the meadow feels endless—it's an enchanted carpet that keeps extending before us. We stick to the left, as advised, and after about an hour reach the trailhead for the steep scramble up to the lake. In no time, we've climbed about 1,000 feet in elevation, stopping every few minutes to breathe and admire the amazing views. From this vantage point, El Refugio looks miniscule and the valley shoots out behind it like a green slide, twisting for miles all the way back to the Hacienda Releche at the bottom.
Finally, huffing and puffing, we arrive at the crater rim, 14,000 feet above sea level, and look down into Laguna Amarilla, or Yellow Lake, which is actually more of a gray-green giant. We try to count El Altar's snow-covered peaks and identify the Great Nun, Tabernacle, and Bishop, but we can't see all of them in the swirling fog. Wind blows out of the crater with the roar of a jet engine. Joseph isn't given to spontaneous displays of excitement, but he reaches over and gives me an enthusiastic high five. "We made it!" he cries. He then carefully clambers down the slope to feel the ice-cold water with his fingers, and I sit on a boulder in a field of wildflowers to take in the craggy mountains encircling the lake. Every mud-filled step has definitely been worth it.
Not only does my brother seem to agree, he's speaking to me again.
GETTING THERE A round-trip flight between Miami and Quito in March costs about $450 on LAN (lan.com). The four-hour bus trip from Quito to Riobamba is $3.75 one way.
WHEN TO GO Ecuador's dry season runs from about May to September. Although the skies are usually clear, be prepared for any kind of weather in the mountains.
WHAT TO PACK A sleeping bag, hiking boots, waterproof pants, and a parka are musts. Rubber boots are definitely a good idea and are sold in Riobamba for $8.
TOUR OPERATORS Julio Verne, a Riobamba-based company, leads three-day trips up El Altar with horses, equipment, meals, and English-speaking guides (Calle El Espectador 22-25 at Ave. Daniel Léon Borja, 011-593/3-296-3436, julioverne-travel.com, $240 per person).
SOUVENIR A llama figurine carved from a tagua nut, the seed of a palm prolific in Ecuador.
WHERE TO SPLURGE Celebrate completing the trek with a salt and volcanic ash exfoliation at the spa resort Luna Runtun in Baños de Agua Santa, a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Riobamba (Caserio Runtun Km. 6, 011-593/3-274-0882, lunaruntun.com, rooms from $207, exfoliation $55).
Unidad Nacional 29-15 at Carabobo Rd., Riobamba, 011-593/3-295-5226, $15, includes breakfast
Hacienda Releche and El Refugio
Candelaria, 011-593/3-294-9761 or 3-296-0848, $12 per person. Meals are included at Hacienda Releche, but not at El Refugio—you must bring your own provisions. Reservations recommended
Café Concert El Delirio
Primera Constituyente 28-16 at Rocafuerte, Riobamba, 011-593/3-296-6441
Sangay National Park
El Pobre Diablo
Isabel La Católica E12-03 at Galavis, Quito, 011-593/2-223-5194, elpobrediablo.com, cover from $5