Ecuador has far more than its fair share of geothermal unrest.
But it is the wealth of volcanoes – on both the mainland and out in the offshore Galápagos Islands – that make the country what it is: dramatic, fiery and full of explosive adventures.
1. Get close to Quito’s local rumbler
The only capital city threatened by an active volcano, Quito goes about its business despite Volcán Pichincha grumbling on its doorstep. Board the telefériqo, a slick sky tram that glides up the volcano’s haunches to 4,100m, for spectacular views. The fit and acclimatised can add on the three-hour hike to 4,680m Rucu Pichincha, one of the volcano’s lofty pinnacles.
2. Climb Cotopaxi
The perfect volcano, ice-cream-cone Cotopaxi is also a challenging (though not technical) ascent. It is breathtakingly high (5,897m), very chilly and steep to the point of inducing vertigo, but a successful conquest – on a clear day, at least – reveals the wealth of Ecuador’s volcanic bounty in one sweeping panorama. Stay at the refuge at 4,800m and set off at midnight to make your bid for the summit. Prior acclimatisation is vital.
3. Visit San Salvador Island’s lava fields
The landing site of Puerto Egas, on San Salvador in the Galápagos, looks black and hostile, age-old lava crusted into shallow pools, caves and geological swirls. But it is full of life: mounds of marine iguanas bask and snort, their black skin camouflaging with the landscape, while fur seals play in the pools and vivid Sally Lightfoot crabs add a splash of colour.
4. Dip in the hot springs at Baños
Volcán Tungurahua is a bit of pest, regularly spewing and causing trouble for the locals below. But it is also a boon, providing jungle-frontier-town Baños with steaming thermal pools, choc-full of allegedly health-giving minerals, as well as local Bañenos taking their regular dips. Visit one of the cheap public bathhouses for a muscle soothe and a cultural insight.
5. Peer into Quilotoa crater lake
According to locals, this pea-green pool, tucked away in the deeper reaches of Cotopaxi province, has no bottom – which is easy to believe when you peer down from the lookout. Walk the crater rim trail (six hours) or descend to the lake itself to hire a canoe for a few hours paddling across the mouth of a volcano.
6. Summit active Isabela Island
The largest of the volcanic Galápagos Islands, Isabela is not short of thermal rumblings. Take the 8km trail from Santo Tomás up the steep sides of gurgling Volcán Sierra Negra to see steaming fumaroles and a few of Darwin’s famed finches.
7. Shop in the shadow of Imbabura
The shopping mall of the Andes, Otavalo’s traditional Saturday market is the place for retail therapy, all under the watchful eye of looming Volcán Imbabura. Good buys here include ponchos, alpaca-wool rugs and tagua-nut jewellery.
8. Roam the highlands of Santa Cruz
Head up into the leafy interior of Santa Cruz, the main island of the Galápagos, to explore a land of extinct craters dotted with lumbering giant tortoises and vermillion flycatchers, and inch into the eerie darkness of kilometre-long lava tubes.
9. Bike down Chimborazo
At 6310m, Volcán Chimborazo is the highest peak in Ecuador. So do not just climb up it – mountain-bike down it! Drive up to the refuge on its flanks and then freewheel down, looking out for grazing vicuña as you go.
10. Chug through the Avenue of the Volcanoes – maybe…
The appeal of the train ride from Riobamba to Sibambe is two-fold: first, you get to trundle past the many mighty peaks of the Avenue of the Volcanoes; second, you can thrill at the twisty descent down the Devil’s Nose, a 765m sheer cliff somehow conquered by a masterstroke of engineering – though this masterstroke closed for repairs in early 2010, hopefully to reopen (for the brave) very soon.