Ecuador is an adventure travel paradise filled with towering volcanoes, jungles, waterfalls, wildlife, culture and some of the friendliest people you’ll find anywhere. I absolutely fell in love with Ecuador when we visited in Thanksgiving for a mountaineering trip! This Ecuador travel guide retraces our planned mountaineering and hiking itinerary. It covers the peaks of Iliniza Norte, Cayambe, and Chimborazo and uses Quito and Banos as home bases.
Read on for 9 days of high-altitude mountaineering fun that you can totally steal for your next adventure travel trip.
Ecuador adventure travel tips
Here are some tips to ensure a fun, safe trip to Ecuador:
- To climb glaciated peaks in Ecuador (including Cotopaxi, Cayambe, and Chimborazo), you must hire an accredited mountain guide. We used Bolivia-based Andean Ascents to plan our trip. Owner Alex joined us for the trip and also hired two excellent Ecuadorian guides to round out our teams.
- Choose a nice hotel to serve as your home base in Quito. We really enjoyed staying at the Hotel Reina Isabel in the Mariscal District. At times, it seemed too nice for dirty climbers! But they always made us feel like royalty. Oh, and the breakfast is off the hook.
- Ecuador uses American dollars as currency, but sometimes will give you local coins as change. Bring plenty of small bills. Anything over a $20 may be hard to break due to concerns about counterfeiting.
- The mountain huts you will climb from have dorm accommodation. Bring ear plugs and toilet paper.
- If you’re a regular reader, you’ve heard me bang on about the importance of adventure travel insurance. Many insurance carriers exclude losses (injuries, illnesses, medical evacuation) sustained during “adventure” activities like mountaineering and high-altitude hiking. For this reason, I use World Nomads for all of my adventure travel. Their Explorer plans cover hundreds of outdoor sports, and they’re prices are very reasonable. Fill out the form below to get a free quote.
1. Arrive in Quito for an acclimatization day.
In some ways, this is the most important day of the trip! Spend your day acclimatizing to the altitude at 9,000 ft. In fact, if you’re coming from sea level or nervous about altitude, I might consider stretching your stay in Quito to two or three days.
Try to take it easy during your acclimatization period. Don’t do any exercise beyond leisurely walking. This is a great day to explore old Quito. Founded in the 16th century, it’s the best-preserved historic centre in Latin America and a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. My favorite stop was the (creepy) San Francisco Church and Monastery.
You can also stretch your legs by cycling. Quito is a (relatively) bike-friendly city with many designated lanes. The Hotel Reina Isabel rents bikes to guests.
We also really loved that (creepy) Guayasin Museum and the Chapel of Man that houses some of his most important works.
2. Training climb: Iliniza Norte as a day hike.
- Hiking distance: 8.6 mi.
- Elevation gain: 4,000 ft.
- Max elevation: 16,818 ft.
Today you’ll travel 35 miles south of Quito to the Ilinizas Ecological Reserve for a training climb on one of Ecuador’s best trekking peaks.
Iliniza Norte and Sur are twin summits that used to be part of the same volcano before an explosion blew the cone apart. Interestingly, the higher Iliniza Sur has a wetter climate and therefore sustains some (receding) glaciers near its summit. Iliniza Norte is non-glaciated and provides excellent Class 3 scrambling at high altitude.
This hike can be done as a day hike starting very early from Quito. However, you can also add a stay at the Rifugio Nuevos Horizontes at 15,416 ft. This is also a great way to push your acclimatization for the bigger peaks. The refuge has 25 beds and costs $15 per night for foreigners. You can also purchase meals here.
The hike begins with a few hours on a dirt road. Eventually, you’ll reach the hut near the saddle between the two peaks. From here, you’ll scramble up Iliniza Norte’s southeast ridge. Be sure to wear a helmet, as the rock can be extremely lose, and rockfall is a danger. From the summit, you can descend via the southeast ridge or a scree field on the North Face.
3. Travel to Cayambe base camp.
Feeling acclimatized? Good, because it’s time to head to Cayambe (18,996′), the only snow-covered peak on the earth’s equator.
Cayambe was a beautiful climb and was definitely one of the highlights of our Ecuador trip. It’s large crevasses and ice formations are some of the most spectacular I’ve seen. We were amazed to have this mountain and its rifugio all to ourselves on Thanksgiving 2018!
The ride from Quito to the town of Cayambe takes about 90 minutes by private transportation. On the way, many groups stop at Mitad del Mundo, where you can stand on the equator, visit a giant sundial and learn why toilets don’t really flush backwards in the Southern Hemisphere.
When you get to Cayambe town, I highly recommend making a lunch stop at La Vaca Loca. The food is decent, and the cow jokes on the wall (in Spanish) are hilarious.
From Cayambe, you will follow dirt roads up into the foothills to the entrance of Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. From the entrance, you’ll need a very robust 4WD vehicle to reach the rifugio where the route begins. (Your guide can arrange appropriate transportation.)
Your destination for the afternoon is the Rifugio Ruales Oleas Berge at an elevation 15,200′. The hut is recently restored, comfy (if a little cold), and has excellent views of the mountain and surrounding valley.
Overnight: Rifugio Ruales Oleas Berge
4. Summit Cayambe and return to Quito.
- Hiking distance: 4 mi.
- Elevation gain: 3,700 ft.
- Max elevation: 18,996 ft.
Wake up just after midnight for breakfast, put on your headlamp, and get ready to climb! We completed this climb on Thanksgiving 2018. At this time, temperatures were in the 30s near the hut and in the 20s near the summit. I was able to climb in single boots, though my toes got cold a few times when we stopped.
You can read more about the Cayambe climb in my post about Ecuador’s best mountains.
After a long day on the mountain, return to Quito for a hearty dinner and perhaps a nice massage. You’ve earned it!
5. Travel to Banos.
It’s a long way from Quito to Chimborazo, so the resort town of Banos makes a good stopping point on your journey. Banos lies about 3.5 hours driving distance from Quito.
Some fun things to do in Banos:
- Soak in the famous waters of Las Piscinas de la Virgen, Banos’ original hot springs pools.
- Grab a beer and some delicious comfort food at the Stray Dog Brewpub. We also liked funky Cafe Hood for vegetarian and vegan options. (The pad Thai is to die for.)
- Snap an Instaworthy photo on the swing at the famous Casa de Arbol.
- Rent a bicycle and pedal the Ruta de las Cascadas (waterfalls), with a final stop at the awe-inspiring Pailon del Diablo.
- Treat yourself to just about any spa treatment, from massage to mud treatments, reflexology, facials, and ear cleanings.
We spent the night at the Volcano Hotel, which has charming rooms, beautiful landscaping, a pool, and an amazing porch where you can sit and travel journal your heart out.
6. Travel to Chimborazo rifugio.
It’s the big day! Time to go for Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest point, and the furthest point from the center of the earth. (Yes, even further than Mt. Everest, because the earth isn’t a perfect sphere.)
Most parties use one of Chimborazo’s two rifugios as a base camp.
- Rifugio Hermanos Carrel is located at an elevation of 15,700 ft. You can reach it by driving on a well-maintained dirt road.
- There’s a higher rifugio (the Edward Whymper Hut) about 45 min. hiking up the road. Getting there will require backpacking in with your gear.
Both rifugios offer dorm accommodation and serve meals.
Once you arrive at the hut, try to get a few hours or rest. Sleeping at this elevation can be difficult, so don’t panic if it doesn’t happen for you. Just chill out, put in your headphones, and relax for a few hours until it’s time to go.
Overnight: Rifugio and climbing.
7. Summit Chimborazo and return to Banos.
- Elevation gain: 4,800 ft.
- Max elevation: 20,564 ft.
Most parties start climbing Chimborazo before midnight in order to return early and avoid afternoon rockfall danger. From the huts, it’s a 7–9 hour climb to the summit. So prepare for a big day!
You can read more about the Chimborazo climb in my post on Ecuador’s best mountains.
After your climb, I highly recommend heading back to Banos to recover! Those hot springs and massages never felt so good.
8. Free day in Banos.
There’s so much to do in Banos, it’s worth hanging out another half day to explore. For our final act, my friend K. and I rented bikes and took a ride down Ruta de las Cascadas, ending at Pailon del Diablo and returning by public transportation.
My best advice: be sure to take your rain gear! The sun was shining when we left. Than a huge storm came and drenched us. Than the sun came back. All in about 3 hours.
We also liked the hike down to Manto de la Novia, but because we came early (or possibly because of the rain), the gate to the base of the waterfall was closed. If you have a chance to go inside, bring $2 for the entrance fee.
Cable cars are popular along the route. We didn’t try one, but I bet the views are amazing!
If you have an early departure, return to Quito in the afternoon.
Overnight: Quito or Banos.
9. Return to Quito and depart.
It’s easy to fall in love with Ecuador, and we were sad to leave. If you can steal an extra day in Quito, definitely try climbing Rucu Pichincha, the neighborhood volcano. The amazing Guayasin Museum and the Chapel of Man (Capilla del Hombre) are also worth a visit.
And there you have it. My 9-day Ecuador adventure travel itinerary.
Have you taken an mountaineering trip to Ecuador? Comment below to share your tips.
Originally published March 8, 2019.