Base Camp Quito: Getting High On Ecuador’s “Avenue of The Volcanoes”

The phone call from Alaska Mountain Guides was unexpected- and  the news was not good.  The voice  informed me that the up-coming  early- February Ecuadorian Andes mountaineering trip was cancelled due to the illness of the guide, who apparently had to return to the US for treatment. They would, of course, reimburse me and offered a $500. discount for a future trip.  Click here to see the sixteen-day package I had signed up for.

All blue text leads to new page with a click; all images expandable with a click.

old town Quito – aka El Centro – and La Virgen de Quito, on top of the hill called Panecillo – shot taken from the roof of the Basilica del Voto Nacional  to the NE

So- what to do?  I already had the plane tickets and, more importantly, I was totally psyched, having been working out at the gym, brushing up on my basic Spanish, and informing myself about the various climbing peaks as well as on Quito and Ecuador in general.  My decision to go ahead with the trip on my own turned out to be the right one- I would have a fantastic two and a half weeks climbing peaks in the Ecuadorian Andes, essentially using Quito as my base camp. In the end I was able to check off most of the items on the AMG itinerary and add a few new ones- all for 60% of the cost of their trip. Along the way I would also find out that the trip had been cancelled because there had only been one client booked.  When I  said-“I know; I was that one client!” the guide had to laugh. It’s a small world!

acclimatization climb on Iliniza Norte- the blizzard was a bonus challenge!

Scouring the various guide books and the internet for Quito-based climb organizers, I came up with one which had a number of good reviews. Moggely Climbing  is located on Avenida Amazonas in La Mariscal district and had a few trips which would hit all the high spots.  When I found out that another climbing group was looking for a fourth, that was even better. Now instead of paying the single-client rate (steep!) I was looking at relatively “cheap”!  The five-day package included climbs of Cayambe and Chimborazo and an acclimatization day spent on the slopes of Cotopaxi as high as the 4800m José Ribas hut.

I prepared for the major climbs with nine days spent in and above Quito, giving myself lots of time to acclimatize. This is where Rafael Martinez, the owner of  Climb Bike Hike  in Quito and ASEGUIM-certified mountain guide,  came into the picture. After having done the Rucu Pichincha hike on my own,  I hired his services for acclimatization hikes to Guagua Pichincha (4784m)  and then south of Quito to the Ilinizas before I set off with the other guys on our Moggely adventure. After our return from Chimborazo,  he would also guide me to the top of Cotopaxi. I was fortunate to have stumbled into his agency!  My preparation time also meant that altitude sickness was never an issue.

returning to Cotopaxi hut (4800 m) from an acclimatization hike a bit higher

Do note that climbing in Ecuador is a bit different than climbing elsewhere – e.g. the Cordillera Blanca in Peru or the Himalayas.  For starters, Quito (2800m) becomes a de facto base camp from which most trips start. You leave the city at 8:00 a.m. and get to the mountain hut by 4:00 p.m.- 4600m for Cayambe; 4800m for Cotopaxi; and 5000m for Chimborazo.  A few rules of acclimatization will already have been broken here-

1. a maximum ascent of 500 m a day;

2. walk high, sleep low; and

3. an extra’s day’s rest after every 1000 meters of ascent.

When you get to the hut, you check your gear one more time, have supper, and then you try to get some sleep before the 1 a.m. wake-up call. Finally the ascent to the top – another 1100 meters. You’re now 3000 meters higher than you were 24 hours ago.  You get back down to the hut by ten or so and by four in the aft you’re back at Base Camp Quito!  You’ve been gone for 32 hours.  Your body has every right to rebel!  Time to rest and plan the next ascent…

Ecuador’s “Avenue of the Volcanoes”- the focal point of my adventure- click here for a “live” Google Map you can zoom in or out on. Arrows point to peaks I climbed- or tried to!

My extended acclimatization plan did not include the use of Diamox!  It did  include ascents of the following peaks over the first nine days-

1. Rucu Pichincha- 4680 m – on Day 3 after a ride up on the TeleferiQo to 3945 m

2. Guagua Pichincha- 4794 m

3. Eliniza Norte- 5126 m

4. Rucu Pichincha again- this time with my three partners from Moggely

the trail up to the peak of Rucu Pichinca- my first acclimatization walk

With this acclimatization I was ready for the main feature -

1. Cayambe-  5790 m

Cotopaxi- Ribas hut – 4800 m bonus acclimatization hike

2. Chimborazo- 6310 m

3. Cotopaxi- 5897 m

Read on to see how I spent the first nine days allowing my body to acclimatize for the three highest peaks in Ecuador.  The next post will go into a bit of detail on each of the three major climbs.

Base Camp Quito:

Gringolandia in quito, ecuador  map

“Gringolandia” in Quito, Ecuador map – click  here for the interactive Google map

The 10-km taxi ride from the Aeropuerto Mariscal Sucre to my hostal was a a quick one and soon I was in my barrio- known to the locals as La Mariscal. It is the location of  many hotels, money exchanges and banks, hostals, laundromats,  restaurants, bars, internet cafes, and travel agencies catering to  travellers looking for specialized tours and itineraries.  If fact, there are so many tourists here,  it is also known as affectionately (I hope!) as “Gringolandia”.

Calle Juan Rodriguez in La Mariscal Sucre- a quiet street in a busy district

My room was at the very basic but acceptable  Hostal Arco Del Sol, one of a number of budget places to stay on Calle Juan Rodriguez, a very quiet street close to everything you need to access. At $14. U.S. a night (including an American-style breakfast) my bill came out to about $200. for the 14 nights that I booked the room- the first eight nights and then the odd night here and there as I moved into the heavy-duty climbing part of the trip. The Cayman Hotel across the street looked a bit more upscale, as did the Hostal El Arupo next door to mine.  If I could do it over again, I would take a room in the Old Town for at least a couple of nights to experience a different part of Quito. I was especially charmed by the Hotel Real Audienca, a definite three or four stars up from my budget hovel!

Hostal Arco del Sol- one of the half-dozen budget lodges on the street

my room at Hostal Arco del Sol- a quiet budget retreat in Quito’s Gringolandia

the colourful front of a house on Calle Rodriguez

streetscape around the corner from Hostal Arco del Sol

The tourist ghetto has a bad reputation for muggings of tourists and worse and which the internet does a fine job amplifying!  So it was with some trepidation that I went for my first walk around my barrio.  As is often the case, the reality I found was little like the Gringolandia of the travellers’ forums.  I did see special tourist police patrolling the area; I also made a point of not walking around by myself after ten when the alcohol starts kicking in and young males start doing stupid stuff.  If I could change one thing it is this- I would not bring my brand-new massive two-pound dslr on city walks and point it at people like the bikers in the photo below- who were probably wondering why I was taking their picture! A smaller p & s- a Canon S100 or a Sony RX100- would have been perfect- unobtrusive yet capable cameras that would allow you to photograph the streetscape of a fascinating city when not tucked in a chest pocket.

the corner bar steps away from the John Lennon wall

I spent the first two days just exploring Quito itself. The Old Town (aka El Centro), the historical part of Quito which dates back to the 1500’s, is a walker’s dream. Stunning architecture around every corner- and lots of photo ops.  Here is a bit of what caught my eye-

the view from the plaza San Francisco

San Francisco Plaza with Panecillo and La Virgen behind

the front facade of la Monastaria de San Francisco on the west side of the Plaza

detail from one of the doors of the Monastary of San Francisco

pedestrian-only  street in the oldest part of Quito

old Quito street scene

old town Quito

the Plaza Grande (aka La Plaza de la Independencia)  with the Palacio Gobierno on the top left (with flag)- the steps lead to the cathedral

people enjoying Paza Grande in El Centro (the historical part of Quito)

traffic jam on Calle Garcia Morena going down to the heart of the historical centre- El Centro

loooking up to the Basilica del Voto Nacional from the portico of El Palacio Gobierno  on a rainy day

the cathedral on the SW corner of Plaza Grande

the Plaza Grande from the portico of el Palacio Gobierno

the Plaza Grande from the portico of el Palacio Gobierno

interior of la Basilica del Voto Nacional

major stained glass work at the Basilica del Voto Nacional

looking NE towards the new town from the roof of the Basilica del Voto Nacional

doors of the Basilica del Voto Nacional- up the hill NE of Plaza Grande

standing underneath La Virgen de Quito on Panecillo hill

La Virgen de Quito up close

El Centro- the Old Town- as seen from Panecillo Hill

The panoramic view from the patio of  Cafe Mosaico – a great spot to sit and relax for a bit

The Magic Bean in La Mariscal district- one place I found good vegetarian food options

During my time in Quito I spent a half-day at a major international orchid exhibit; I visited a number of churches in El Centro, including a couple of hours spent at the Basilica del Voto Nacional; I took a taxi up to La Virgen de Quito to check out the view from there; I visited museums and art galleries and all sorts of other things that a 500-year-0ld city of 2.5 million has to offer.  I also spent time sitting in restaurants chosen for their veggie-friendliness and in internet cafes sending the occasional progress report home to my wife or checking up on the fortunes of my Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team.

beauty in randomness- fallen leaves in Quito’s Botanical Gardens (Parque Carolina)

Rucu and Guagua Pichincha:

Yossi Brain’s Ecuador: A Climbing Guide was published in 2000, a year after the eruption of Guagua Pichinica (4794 m) left Quito covered with a couple of centimeters of ash. As a result, he notes the obvious restricted access to the peak at that time. About 5 kilometers to the NE, just past Padre Encantado (4685 m)  is  Rucu Pichincha (4680 m) , the third of the three Pichinca peaks which were all once different points on the rim of the caldera before it collapsed to its present shape.  Here is what Brain has to say about making Rucu your first acclimatization objective-

Warning: On no account try to climb Rucu Pichinca alone or in a group-                           the incidence  of robbery (including armed), assault, and rape is far too high                      to justify the trip.             (Brain, 70)

Well, it is more than a decade since the book was written and the situation has changed for the better.  Guagua has been quiet since that 1999 episode and I was able to include it in my acclimatization program. We were able to drive the SUV up to the parking lot near the refugio at about 4100 m and then walk the rest of the way up to the top. As for Rucu, since Brain’s book was published, the TeleferiQo has been built and has become a major tourist draw in Quito. (It opened in 2005.)   Click here to see the Google satellite view of the area.

The first time I went up it was a Sunday and there were many local families who had obviously made at least the ride to the top a part of their holiday plans. At Cruz Loma, the top of the ride, there are restaurants and souvenir shops.  A number of them were closed when I was up there; it seemed as if there was not quite enough traffic to support the number of food outlets they had.

Some people continued walking the very obvious trail to the summit- it takes about three hours from Cruz Loma –  and I was never alone. The second visit was on a Saturday and I found the TeleferiQo as busy as before; this time I was with my three climbing partners.  Today’s guidebooks reflect the changed conditions and should allay any fears about venturing up to the peaks of  Pichincha, although this does not mean that common sense and a bit of caution should be forgotten.

looking back at the trail from the TeleferiQo with Quito down below

horses available for a ride along the trails going up to Rucu

cloud and haze meet over Quito

Rucu Pichinca summit- a scramble approach from the right

Rucu Pichincha summit- the approach is a scree scramble to the right and behind

hikers walk the trail to cloud-covered peak of Guagua Pichincha

A good day hike would be going up on the Guagua side, visiting the peak, and then walking over to Rucu Pichincha via the trail which passes underneath Padre Encantado. You’d need a ride to the start of the trail and perhaps a guide (for your peace of mind) to get you to the TeleferiQo and back to The Magic Bean for supper!

Iliniza Norte: 5126 meters

first view of the Ilinizas- Sur and Norte- cloud and snow swirling around the peaks

After passing Machachi, 43 kilometers south of La Mariscal on the Panamericana, it is another 10 kilometers to El Chaupi, the gateway village to the Ilinizas. (Click here for the driving directions.) We drove through the village to a hostal where we would spend the night, but not before an afternoon spent walking the trail from la Virgen shrine to the Iliniza refugio.  We would return the next morning and do the walk up to the summit of Iliniza Norte- a non-technical route that does involve scampering over some loose scree. The mini-blizzard that we walked through did put a nice layer of snow on everything and made it a bit more interesting. We did wear our helmets in case of rockfall.

the road up to La Virgen, a 9 kilometer ride from El Chaupi

La Virgen shrine (3950 m) – parking lot nearby by

trailhead map near La Virgen shrine

opening the cattle gate on the illiniza road

snow and blizzard on the way to Iliniza Norte summit

standing on the top of rubble called Iliniza Norte!

mi guia muy simpatico- Rafael Martinez- on top of Iliniza Norte

On our way down from the summit, we passed by three climbers who were headed up to the top. Well, amazingly enough these were the three guys I was do the Moggely package with- but we hadn’t met yet.  Here we were on an exposed ridge on the saddle between the two Ilinizas in a blizzard- gloves off, shaking hands…and pleased to see that everyone was making sure to be acclimatized for the upcoming climbs. I gave them the name of my hostal in La Mariscal and a few hours later, they checked into the last available room.  Two days later we all went up to Rucu Pichinca for yet one more time at higher altitude before we finally moved on to the first of the major peaks on our lists.

no great views from the top of Iliniza Norte this day!

no great views from the top of Iliniza Norte this day!

If You’re Interesting In Doing Some Peaks in Ecuador…

you’ll need to hire the services of a climbing company.  The deluxe way to go is obviously the way that I was originally going- i.e. a company based in the U.S., Canada, or in Europe. By deluxe I mean full service and  price perhaps double what you can arrange if you go directly through a Quito agency.  The non-Ecuadorian lead guide will end up hiring from the same pool of  Ecuadorian guides you can on your own.   Many of them offer Ecuadoran Volcanoes mountaineering packages.  I am not sure why but I ended up with Alaska Mountain Guides and their program. Click here to see the details. Another possibility for the deluxe route is Mountain Madness, the company founded by Scott Fisher; it has an Ecuadoran trip here. Somewhat less ambitious is the itinerary (see here) put together by Exodus, a very reliable U.K. adventure travel company.  The Alpine Ascents web site was another that I looked at when trying to figure out whom to go with.  See their package here. The American Alpine Institute is the last one I’ll mention, given their solid reputation. Click here to see their fifteen-day trip.

As i mentioned at the very beginning pf this post, I ended up going down to Quito with a five-day package already arranged with Moggely, a Quito-based agency run by a Swede and his Ecuadoran (ex-)wife. Like the other agencies it hires available guides from a pool of guides who are accredited by the Ecuadorian Mountain Guides Association (ASEGIUM) and should have a card to prove it. Click here for an up-to-date list (2012) of members. And check out this link to a Lonely Planet thread dealing with hiring a guide once you get down there- it contains some good discussion.

I filled out the itinerary by doing the pre-big- climb acclimatization hikes on my own or with the services of Rafael Martinez, the owner of Climb Bike Hike, located in Quito’s La Mariscal.  Martinez is also a ASEGUIM-certified guide whom other guides I later met told me had been their instructor when they were being certified. Martinez is about 50 years old and speaks excellent English so communication was never an issue. He knows these mountains and everyone seemed to know him. I wouldn’t hesitate to put together another Ecuador adventure with him as the guide.  There is a resume of his mountain background here.

Obviously, there are other guiding agencies in Quito which, I am sure,  also do a fine job for their clients. The one that almost all guide books praise is Compania de Guias de Montana. Other names that come up often are Gulliver and SurTrek. All of them can be found in La Mariscal district.  I can’t really comment since I didn’t use them- although I realize in the end that the particular guide you are assigned can make or break the trip. If you get one who is disinterested and looking for a feeble excuse to call the summit off or to turn back, then it doesn’t matter which company you’re using!  Read this post in the Lonely Planet Forum from a climber – and all the responses from fellow mountaineers- who made use of Gulliver. It is instructive.

Click here for the follow-up post about my climbs of  Cayambe, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo- the three highest peaks on Ecuador’s Avenida de los Volcanes.

Part Two: Base Camp Quito: Climbing The Three Highest Peaks of Ecuador’s “Avenue of the Volcanoes”

(All blue text is clickable and leads to a new page- in this case, a Google map of the various volcanoes on the so-called avenue.  The phrase was coined by the German geographer/naturalist extraordinaire Alexander von Humboldt in the early 1800’s when he visited the area. These days the Pan-American Highway is the avenue!)

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