Don’t get me wrong. Climbing Cotopaxi (19,347′), the active, glaciated volcano near Quito, Ecuador, is worthwhile and a huge life achievement. However, Cotopaxi’s refugio and standard route can get very crowded during the peak climbing season.
Also, Cotopaxi has erupted 50 times since the 1700s. During its last eruption in 2015–2017, it was closed to climbers for two years.
Given all that, when we planned our mountaineering trip to Ecuador in November 2018, we decided to skip Cotopaxi in order to climb some less crowded summits: Rucu Pichincha, Iliniza Norte, Corazon, Cayambe, and Chimborazo.
(That being said, two of our teammates actually decided to tag Cotopaxi at the end of the trip and loved it.)
But if you’re looking for mountaineering solitude in this popular climbing region (or you just need more stuff to climb in Ecuador), this post is for you.
Let’s look at 5 awesome mountain climbs in Ecuador that are not Cotopaxi.
Ecuador mountaineering tips
My number one safety tip: Remember, this is the EQUATOR, y’all. The weather is intense. We learned this on Day 1 of our trip, when we were caught in a massive hail storm. (Fortunately, it was during our city tour of Quito, so it was easy to escape.)
According to our guides, the best times to climb in Ecuador are December through March (warm and somewhat less wet than usual), and June through August (dry, cold, windy). Remember that no matter when you climb, rain and thunderstorms are possible on any day.
By law, you must hire an accredited guide to climb glaciated peaks in Ecuador. Since we’d had a good experience with Andean Ascents in Bolivia, we also asked them to arrange our tour to Ecuador. Alex (the owner) joined us and hired two excellent UIAGM-certified Ecuadorian guides to round out our three rope teams.
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1. Rucu Pichincha (15,413′)
Looking for a taste of high altitude hiking that you can experience in just half a day? Quito’s neighborhood volcano is so convenient, it can be reached by an Uber from your hotel and a cable car ride. In fact, it’s so close to the center, we climbed it and still had time to check out the awesome Guayasamin Museum and grab a nice dinner.
Unlike several other peaks on this list, the Rucu Pichincha climb isn’t glaciated or technical and doesn’t require special mountaineering equipment. However, you will need to do some light scrambling and route finding near the top.
I’m so crazy about this climb that I’ve actually written a detailed trip report that walks you step by step through the entire Rucu Pichincha hike. Definitely check it out for details on how to get there, what to take, and what to expect on the trail.
2. Corazon (15,718′)
This high-altitude scrambling peak is located in Ilinizas Ecological Reserve about 35 miles south of Quito. Corazon got its name from two gullies on its side that form a heart shape (according to some imaginative souls).
Corazon makes a great acclimatization climb to prepare for Ecuador’s higher peaks and is a shorter alternative to Iliniza Norte (see below). Our group actually opted to attempt it in place of Iliniza due to storms in the afternoon forecast.
The climb starts off following a road from the ranger station. It’s possible to hire a 4WD vehicle to take you part way up. (See this SummitPost’s Corazon article for more details.)
After roughly 60–90 minutes of hiking above the station, leave the road at a signed junction and follow a faint trail through tall grass. Some hikers tie knots in the grass to serve as cairns.
Eventually you’ll leave the grass (yay!) and emerge onto the volcano’s lower slopes. The tundra here is off the hook! I call it “jungle tundra.” The plants are like Colorado tundra, but 10 times the size.
As you approach the cone, the trail steepens and gets rocky. Some sections can be quite slick when wet. Poles may be helpful here.
The final section of the Corazon climb requires a Class 3 scramble up a steep, rocky ridge. Be sure to bring a helmet and be comfortable with exposure.
Also, evaluate the weather carefully before heading onto the scrambling portion. Rocky ridges get slippery when wet and can expose you to lightning hazards during storms.
We were ultimately chased off the ridge by lightning about an hour from the summit, but up to that point it was a blast. I really hope to hit this one again.
More info: SummitPost, Corazon
3. Iliniza Norte (16,818′, #8 in Ecuador)
This is the only peak on the list I haven’t climbed or attempted. (We had it in our schedule, but opted for a shorter climb of Corazon when the forecast deteriorated.) But I’ll include it here, because it looks amazing, and I’m desperate to get back and give it a go.
The Illinizas (Norte and Sur) are twin volcanic summits located near Corazon in the Las Ilinizas Ecological Refuge. They were once part of a single volcanic cone that was cleaved by an ancient eruption.
Interestingly, these neighboring peaks have very different climates. Iliniza Sur is higher, glaciated, and requires technical equipment for ascent. By contrast, Iliniza Norte is much more accessible to hikers. The most difficult sections of its standard route require class 3 scrambling.
The Iliniza Norte climb starts with a few hours of road walking to reach the Nuevos Horizontes Refuge at 15,416, located near the saddle between the peaks. This privately run rifugio serves meals and also offers beds. Staying overnight at this elevation is a great way to acclimate for high-altitude climbs like Chimborazo, Cayambe, and Cotopaxi.
From the hut, continue up the southeast ridge of Iliniza Norte. The normal route is Class 3 but can turn technical when snow is present. Along the way, you’ll traverse the loose rocky gully, Paso de la Muerte (shudder).
The summit area of Iliniza Norte is covered with loose rock. Be sure to wear a helmet and be cautious of knocking rocks on climbers below. Rangers note that it’s dangerous to leave the trail; avoid shortcutting and stick to the main route.
As you can see from the pictures, the views of Cotopaxi from Iliniza Norte summit are amazing!
It’s possible to make a scree descent down much of the mountain, or you can retrace your steps to return via the rifugio and road.
More info: SummitPost, Iliniza Norte
4. Cayambe (18,996′, #3 in Ecuador)
Climbing Cayambe was definitely a highlight of our Ecuador trip. Despite dire predictions by Mountain Forecast, the snow conditions were ideal, skies were clear, and views from the summit were truly sublime.
Apparently, Cayambe had a resurgence in popularity when Cotopaxi closed to climbers during the 2015–2017 eruption. However, those days appear to have passed. We had it all to ourselves from start to finish!
Cayambe is an extinct volcano located 65 km northeast of Quito. While it’s not quite as tall as its famous cousins Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, it has the distinction of being the highest point on the earth’s equator (and the only snowcapped peak on the equator).
Most Cayambe attempts begin at Rifugio Ruales-Oleas-Berge at an elevation of 15,092 ft. This was probably one of the poshest rifugios I’ve ever slept in! The wood smelled fresh, the mattresses still had plastic covers on, and there were even gear lockers, which greatly tamed the yard sale in the dorm. What’s even better, we had it to ourselves! (Possibly because of the dismal forecast.)
To reach the rifugio, travel first to the town of Cayambe. Before proceeding on, I recommend stopping at La Vaca Loca for lunch. The cow jokes in Spanish on the walls were cracking us up.
Then proceed above town to the entrance to Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve. From the ranger station, you’ll need to take a 4WD truck up to the refuge. Our guide service arranged this for us. Check out this blog post by Culture Trip to see some additional attractions on the Cayambe side of the park.
The Cayambe climb itself has a few sections of steep snow, but should be manageable for most intrepid (and guided) beginners when conditions are good. That said, it’s worth noting that Cayambe has a reputation for large, dangerous crevasses and nasty weather.
The most difficult crevasse to negotiate is the large bergschrund just below the summit. We actually had to change course because a crevasse had opened across the standard route around the ‘schrund.
As you can see, the views from the summit were stunning. We had great panorama of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, including Cotopaxi. One thing I loved about Ecuador mountaineering was looking down from the snowy summit and seeing green jungle below. We even saw a small volcano erupting in the distance.
5. Chimborazo (20,564′, #1 in Ecuador)
Chimborazo is the tallest mountain in Ecuador — and also the furthest point from the center of the earth. (Yes, further than Mt. Everest, due to the fact that Earth’s shape isn’t a perfect sphere.)
This mighty mountain has 5 summits. It’s disputed which of these is the actual high point, but for the moment, Cumbre Whymper holds the distinction.
Unlike many of the peaks on this list, I wouldn’t recommend climbing Chimborazo — even guided — unless you already have some high altitude experience under your belt. The snow climbing is steep and unrelenting. And as you can see from the pics, the weather can be brutal.
We headed for Chimborazo full of excitement — and then learned from another party during lunch that no one had summited for 5 days due to deep snow. Apparently the dire predictions we’d been reading on Mountain Forecast had finally come true!
But since we’d come that far, we decided to give it a go. Who knows? Maybe the route had improved.
We arrived at Rifugio Hermanos Carrel (15,700 ft.) in the afternoon, packed up our gear, and took a 5-hour nap. Well, some people did. Every time I finally fell asleep, I woke up feeling oxygen starved. (This is pretty common at high altitude, by the way. The low carbon dioxide levels in your blood mean your breathing reflex takes a long time to trigger during sleep. It’s annoying, but perfectly normal.)
Because Chimborazo has significant rock fall hazards that are worst in the afternoon, we actually departed the hut at 10 p.m. (early for a summit day). The route followed a gravel road for the first 45 minutes, passing a second refugio (the Whymper Hut) at 15,928 ft.
Soon after, we started switchbacking up the snowy mountain. There was a lot of snow on the lower slopes, but also a good boot pack. However, I didn’t even realize we’d reached the glacier until we spotted a small crevasse.
After about an hour of steep climbing on the glacier, our rope team was in powder up to our waists and pretty much swimming in snow. (Well, not our guide Alex. He was loving it. His thoughts: “Conditions are so much better than I expected!”)
However, all three of our rope teams ended up turning around, as did everyone else on the mountain. It was the sixth day in a row without a Chimborazo summit.
It wasn’t all bad. While we did most of our climb in the dark, we were treated to a beautiful, nearly full moon. And as we reached the Whymper Hut, an amazing sunrise bloomed over us.
I’d definitely give Chimborazo another go. Check out the embedded Instagram posts to get a taste of life at the summit.
Even if you’re not climbing, the Chimborazo region is a beautiful place to visit. The views of the mountain from a distance are stunning. You’ll also see herds of vicunas — an introduced species similar to alpacas — grazing everywhere.
More info: SummitPost, Chimborazo
There you have ’em. Five awesome mountains to climb in Ecuador that aren’t Cotopaxi.
Have you been mountaineering in Ecuador? Comment to share your tips and suggestions.
Originally published March 1, 2019.