The Ecuadorian Andes are packed with snow-capped mountains and steaming volcanoes. While some of these peaks, such as Sangay and Tungurahua, are currently erupting and remain off-limits, there are dozens of climbs and treks to suit all abilities. The famous 'Avenue of Volcanoes' is a highlight of any trip to Ecuador, whether you prefer to hike around foothills or are fit and prepared to tackle the summits.
The following list is in descending order of height and difficulty, from a climb to the top of Ecuador's highest mountain to a gentle hike around an extinct volcanic crater. Options 1-5 should only be attempted with a guide from a reputable climbing tour operator, while the remaining five options are easier hikes that can be done independently or used as practice with an operator. Note that climbing requires a good level of fitness and appropriate acclimatization, so preparation is essential, and it is best to travel with an accredited guide.
Chimborazo (20,702 ft) is Ecuador's highest mountain (and further from the center of the Earth than Everest due to the Equatorial Ridge). At these heights, taking time to acclimatize is the biggest challenge. An hour from Riobamba by road, begin from the Whimper Refuge at 16,400 ft, named after Brit Edward Whimper who first summited in 1880. It is a difficult 6-9 hour climb, usually along the southwestern route. It is best attempted from December-January or June-July, and avoided February-May. If you don't plan to attempt the summit, it's still worth taking a day trip to the national park to experience its other-worldly landscapes.
Cotopaxi (19,347 ft) is the world's highest active volcano, and its picture-perfect cone dominates the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Translating as "the neck of the moon" in the indigenous language Kichwa, it is still worshipped as the god of the valley. It has destroyed nearby towns several times and became increasingly active in 2015, so always get the latest geological information before tackling the climb. The national park is 1.5 hours south of Quito by road and offers good trekking in Andean grasslands. The climb involves a midnight start from the refuge at 15,090 ft and takes 5-6 hours. If you don't aim to reach the summit but prefer to trek around Cotopaxi and other volcanoes, consider the Ecuador Volcano Trek or Cotopaxi Volcano by Horseback instead.
Snow-capped Cayambe (18,996 ft) is the country's third highest peak and arguably one of the most beautiful. Sitting right on the Equatorial Line over an hour northeast of Quito by road, it is the only place in the world where temperature and latitude reach zero simultaneously. Note that Cayambe is a very challenging climb with many obstacles and occasionally dangerous, and therefore only suitable for advanced climbers. It is a seven-hour climb from the refuge at 15,090 ft.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
An hour east of Quito by road, towering Antisana (18,891 ft) is set in an ecological reserve that stretches from the mountains down towards jungle scenery. The volcano itself is actually four peaks set around an ice-filled crater. Due to its remote location, notoriously poor visibility, and unpredictable weather, you'll need glacier climbing skills and a guide—but the above-cloud views from the top are worth the effort. There is also no permanent refuge, so you'll be setting up a base camp. Antisana is best climbed December to February, making for an excellent winter retreat.
#5 Illiniza North and South
Illiniza has two peaks which make for vastly different climbing experiences. Two hours southwest of Quito, the northern peak (Illiniza Norte, 16,785 ft) makes for an easier climb and is mainly trekking and scrambling. It is often used as a training climb before scaling Cotopaxi or Chimborazo. The more glacial Illiniza Sur (17,267 ft) is a harder climb and even outsmarted the famous British climber Edward Whimper, who failed in two attempts. The refuge at 15,090 ft can be used to scale either peak.
#6 Rucu Pichincha
The flanks of this volcano on the outskirts of Quito are famous as the site of Ecuador's final victory in the war for independence against the Spanish. There are two peaks: Rucu (15,413 ft), meaning elder and Guagua (15,696 ft), the badly behaved 'baby' that has erupted regularly in recent years (and is not currently recommended to climb). It is more a hike than a climb up Rucu and can be attempted independently after taking the 'Teleferiqo' cable car up from the city.
#7 Lake Quilotoa
Lake Quilotoa is one of Ecuador's most impressive lakes with shimmering turquoise waters that fill an extinct crater. The lake was formed over 600 years ago when a huge eruption led to the collapse of the volcano. It can easily be visited on a day trip from Latacunga (1.5 hours by bus) and you can hike around the rim perimeter in 4-5 hours before walking down to the lake. Extend your stay overnight or hike parts of the Quilotoa Loop, staying in remote indigenous villages. Check out this 15-day Ecuador Hiking Adventure, which includes Quilotoa.
#8 Lagunas Mojanda and Fua Fua
Half an hour by road south of indigenous market town Otavalo, this set of three lakes offers stunning scenery. Over 12,000 feet up, hiking here is good preparation for climbing elsewhere, and the peak of Fua Fua is a particularly useful training climb, taking 4 hours. There is not much public transport, so best to hire a taxi or take a tour from Otavalo.
#9 Lake Cuicocha
Half an hour northwest of Otavalo, Cuicocha competes with Quilotoa as Ecuador's most beautiful lake and is one of the most visited in the country. Set at the foot of Cotacachi volcano at an altitude of over 10,000 feet, the waters of this 200-meter-deep lake are considered sacred by many locals who take purification baths here. Hiking around the entire perimeter takes a little over 4 hours, and on weekends there are boat trips offered.
This extinct crater half an hour north of Quito sits in a 3,200-hectare reserve with its own microclimate, where the fertile soil is home to many farmers. There is a good restaurant, El Crater, overlooking Pululahua, and It takes only a couple of hours to hike down to the bottom or take a horseback ride around the perimeter.