Cloud forest, a crater lake and an active volcano - Ecuador on one tank of diesel

"Wind-battered fences leaned to and fro, olive-hued scrub land stretched for miles and the jagged peak of Rumiñahui revealed itself between thick layers of fluffy clouds."

It had been another long day. My body was still on Amazon time, so I was up at 5:30am again and before breakfast had already completed the hour long round hike to a nearby waterfall. Even that was a mere warm up for the rain-soaked 8.5km hike that I had just done to come face-to-face with another waterfall. At 80 metres high it dwarfed the one I got up early for.

So now I was very much looking forward to the promise of a warm fire, dry clothes and a well earned glass of red. My destination was Hacienda El Porvenir, located on the slopes of Rumiñahui Volcano, just outside the Cotopaxi National Park. The light from the day was just beginning to fade and the road was turning increasingly bumpy. I heard a faint squeaking noise coming from underneath my Volkswagen Amarok pick-up truck, which sounded to my untrained ear like something trying to work itself loose.

I decided not to worry about that, nor the fact that the fuel warning light had just come on and the nearest petrol station was a painfully slow 15km away. Worries for another day. Nothing could distract me from the fire, from the wine, from the... Then it happened. I bumped around a bumpy corner and drew a sharp intake of breath. I let out an emphatic “wow, look at that” to my non-existent passengers. In front of me, poking out from behind a layer of thick white cloud, was the jagged peak of Rumiñahui.

Rickety wind-battered fences leaned to and fro in the foreground, lining the slick puddle-strewn dirt track which promised to deliver me to my lodgings. Olive-hued scrub land stretched for miles, dotted with the odd lonely horse and herds of cattle. From this vantage point, it looked like the huge puffs of white cloud rose directly out from the ground, obscuring the horizon. It was only as I got closer that the perspectives shifted and I saw clearly the patchwork of fields which slide down the slopes and folds of this extinct stratovolcano. Above them, the rocky peak looked dark and foreboding.

To my right, the road unveiled another summit. The distinctive outline of Volcan Corazón stood proud in the distance, its shadowy profile brought to life by the warming orange and yellows of the setting sun. It’s another wonderful view and further reward for coming in to El Porvenir via the back door. Between here and Corazón is the Pan-American highway and the more traditional route for getting from A to B in the Ecuadorian highlands. It is faster, smoother and more direct after all. But you can keep your convenience, your speed and your tarmac, for here I have no choice but to go slow and soak in the views – with barely another soul in sight. It seems I’m not in such a rush to get to kick off my walking boots and put my feet up after all.

Sunset view of Volcan Corazon en route to El Porvenir, Cotopaxi

"Traversing diverse habitats and eco-systems from behind the wheel has been a winning formula in Costa Rica - so why not Ecuador? Tag on the Galapagos and the experience is irreplicable"

This was one of what promises to be an enduring collection of memories from behind the wheel in Ecuador. It came on day five of a week-long self-drive journey around the country’s Andean region, itself proceeded by a three-night immersion into the pristine heart of the Amazon’s Yasuní Biosphere Reserve - the most biologically diverse place on earth. From lowland rainforest to cool cloud forest and from deep blue crater lakes to glacier-topped volcanoes, I had the privilege of traversing a wealth of habitats and eco-systems within this compact country. It has proven to be a winning formula for Costa Rica – indeed you yourself might be able to testify to that fact – so why not Ecuador? Tag the Galapagos onto the end of it and you have yourself something irreplicable.

The journey started in less auspicious surrounds at the hire car desk in Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport. Formalities over though, I was soon heading north-west, picking my way tentatively through the highways until I settled onto Highway 28. The drive led me and my four wheels out of the Interandean scrub through high montane cloud forest and then into the tropical lower reaches of the Andes. Thickly-forested slopes rose dramatically all around, interrupted only by the silky-smooth highway which carved its path through the landscape. Rounding every corner, my gaze was tempted away from the road and up into the mysterious verdure of the canopy. I could almost hear the muted flap of a hummingbird’s wings and see the yellow flash of a toucan.

Driving through high montane cloud forest to Mindo

"En route to Otavalo I drove around the Mitad del Mundo monument. It should more accurately be described as the almost middle of the world - they got it wrong by some 300 metres."

Taking your eyes off the road though is not the best idea. My early conclusions about getting behind the wheel in Ecuador were that the biggest dangers presented to someone accustomed to driving on the left do not come in the form of other drivers. Sure indicators are used sparingly and the road markings on roundabouts serve no purpose whatsoever, but what really keeps you on your toes are the pedestrians – both of the two and four legged variety. Before coming to a halt at our favourite lodge in Mindo, I was met with the unnerving prospect of a mother and her young daughter walking towards me on the same side of the road, obscured by a sharp bend. They seemed utterly oblivious to the dangers. Later on, I had my first encounter with a group of domesticated dogs, whose sole purpose in life seems to be to run after passing vehicles to see how close they can get to the front wheels, without getting caught underneath them.

Five minutes after shaking the hand of Tom, co-owner of the sustainable lodge which we so adore, a yellow-throated toucan came into view from the comfort of the sofa and the roaring fire. The next day there was to be a festival of hummingbirds, a close encounter with a Choco toucan and even a meeting with a possum, all without leaving the lodge. It’s that sort of place. The Amarok had a full day to rest up after its initial venture, which increased the lifetime count on its odometer by nearly 50%.

It was the only day off I permitted it.

Choco toucan at El Monte Lodge in the Mindo Cloud Forest

From Mindo I headed back towards the capital, circling the iconic Mitad del Mundo monument before heading north. I was an hour too early to be allowed entrance to the grounds, something I didn’t dwell on for long given that it’s actually located 300 metres off of what is now generally accepted to be the correct Equator line. It was an expensive build and a source of pride for their tourism industry, so such a trivial fact is generally kept hushed around here. Still, they should at least consider changing the name to Casi el Mitad del Mundo – almost the middle of the world.

"Quilotoa wins hearts and minds of travellers, but during my 10km walk around the rim of the lesser-known Laguna de Cuicocha, I crossed paths with just five couples. And the views were spectacular from all perspectives."

I swung the Amarok north towards the bustling market town of Otavalo, following the Pan-American Highway past the capital and alongside the shores of Laguna de San Pablo, over which the Imbabura Volcano rises and where my progress was interrupted by a herd of cattle crossing the road. I was to return to Otavalo later, but first I had a crater lake rim to walk around.

Cows crossing the road at Laguna de San Pablo

Whilst Quilotoa captures the hearts and minds of guide books and tour operators the world over, I contented myself with a view of it from above on my epically spectacular internal flight from Guayaquil to Quito. Instead, I opted for a 10km hike around its far lesser-known sibling – Laguna de Coicucha. Having registered with the cheery park attendant and with a few power-producing snacks purchased from what passes as a cafeteria, I began the hike, opting for the anti-clockwise route. To say Cuicocha is lesser-visited than Quilotoa is an understatement. On my entire walk I crossed paths with five couples, meaning I did 99% of the walk in complete isolation.

Stunning views of the crater lake can be had from all perspectives, interwoven with incursions into the surrounding páramo tundra landscape (long since invaded with pine and eucalyptus plantations) and the fleeting sight of hummingbirds. At 3,600 metres above sea level the going can be tough – but boy is it worth it. By the time I roll into the lodge, 10 minutes up a cobbled hill from Otavalo, I’m ready for dinner by the fire in the engaging company of co-owner Betty and my fellow guests.

Both I and the Amarok slept well that night.

Laguna de Cuicocha crater lake in Imbabura

"It was a short drive to the family home of Miguel Andrago. For the next two hours I had the privilege of his company and a private insight into the traditional weaving process which spans four generations."

It was another early start as I forewent horsepower to walk down through beautiful countryside, decorated in the early morning mist, into the famous Otavalo market. Here is neither the time nor the place to dive into detail the detail of this experience – suffice to say it’s a morning I won’t forget in a hurry. I jumped into a taxi, laden down with gifts from the crafts market, and returned to my lodgings and the envious glances of my adopted pick-up truck.

After lunch it was into this which I hopped once again to drive the short distance into Agato and to the family home of Miguel Andrago, perhaps the most disarmingly endearing man in all of Ecuador. For the next couple of hours I was given a private insight into to the lives and craft of one of the last traditional weaving families in the region, spanning four generations. They collect the wool, clean it in a river, card it by hand and spin it using a machine invented by Miguel’s grandfather. Then it is dyed using half a dozen natural ingredients from the surrounding countryside and woven by hand using the timeless backstrap loom. It is an extraordinary labour of love and a privilege to be in their company. I leave thoroughly impressed and thoroughly charmed by them all.

Miguel Andrago's family weaving workshop near Otavalo

I’m off into the open roads again the next morning, heading off bright and early. By the time I do eventually reach El Porvenir, via the Mojanda Lakes, the Condor Machay waterfall and those spellbinding volcanic views, I am indeed welcomed to the hacienda with a glowing fire and a warming cup of cinnamon tea. I meet Rafael and concoct plans to explore the Cotopaxi National Park the next day and go to bed contented, save for the nagging feeling that I really should have brought some diesel en route.

"I tiptoed my way up through the clouds, not daring to get out of second gear. Then the thick white glacier came into view and I felt compelled to get out and capture the magical moment for prosperity."

And so I saved the best ‘til last. It’s a simple right turn and a 4km drive down a bumpy dirt track and past lama-filled fields to get in to the north entrance of the national park from El Porvenir. From here I bounced through the open tundra to the shores of Laguna Limpiopungo, where a low-impact one hour walk was enlivened by the presence of Andean gulls, coots and ducks and a grinning couple on their wedding photoshoot. It’s another 30 minutes or so to my next destination and one of the most intrepid and satisfying experiences of my whole trip.

I knew I had to climb at some point, around 1 kilometre in altitude in total. But I wasn't quite prepared for how dramatic the drive would be - that I needed to drive through the clouds, as opposed to underneath them, for example. The going was slow to say the least, as I tiptoed my way up the rudimentary road which wound its way up Cotopaxi – the world’s second highest active volcano. I didn't dare go above second gear. Then the going ground to a halt completely when I stole my first sighting of the thick white glacier which crowns its peak – I found a safe and picturesque spot to pull over and captured the moment for prosperity. It was the first time I’d seen the summit of Cotopaxi since landing in Quito nearly two weeks prior.

As the air got thinner the clouds got thicker. I tried diligently to ignore the effects of the climb on my fuel consumption and sought the smoothest route possible through the dirt and the dust – more for the Amarok’s benefit than mine. I couldn’t help but giggle as my head leapt up and down, left to right, like a puppet whose strings didn’t reach the rest of its body. If I had one of those nodding dogs in the back, it would have been cross-eyed by now.

Then I got to the car park – surely one of the world’s highest. I was heartened to find I wasn’t alone and began the oxygen-starved climb up the last three hundred metres or so with some company. It must have been a pathetic spectacle to a fully acclimatised Ecuadorian, but the going was slow. Snail’s pace. Children sauntered past me without a care in the world. I tried walking in diagonal lines and breathing deeper, quicker and slower, but the only strategy that worked was constant breaks and a determined resolution to keep going. Then the clouds rolled in and obscured the glacier from view.

And then it started hailing.

Walking up to the Refugio Jose Rivas on Cotopaxi Volcano

"I had gone from cloud forest to a crater lake, to Latin America's largest indigenous market, a huge waterfall-strewn natural river canyon and half-way up the world's second highest volcano - all for $21."

I reached the Jose Rivas Refuge just in time. At 4,864 metres above sea level, where the air is so thin and the conditions so changeable, the presence of a refuge could not be more welcomed. I brought a hot chocolate, a corn on the cob and some coca leaves and swapped travelling stories with an American couple en route to Patagonia from Seattle. It seems my little self-drive adventure around Central Ecuador was not quite so epic after all.

With the clouds having taken hold, I prudently forewent the final 200 metre climb to the base of the glacier and slid my way back down the volcano, handing out coca leaves to the locals on the way. When I was reunited with my trusty steed and had set a course back down to civilisation, visibility was at only a handful of metres. I edged down the road in a convoy of vehicles, exchanging glances and smiles with a family of Ecuadorians holed up in the back of a Chevrolet pick-up truck, sheltered from the hail by only a thin tarpaulin. When the sun penetrated the gloom and the clouds lifted, a race broke out. I was too tired and contented to care. Besides, I needed every last bit of diesel now.

Driving through the clouds on Cotopaxi Volcano

It was a nerve-shredding crawl to the nearest petrol station the next day, but I made it. Better yet, having worked out first that the attendant did not want my cellular number but rather my cedular number and then secondly exactly what a cedular number is (driving licence number) I was relieved to see my friend getting a well-earned and much-needed drink. Relief turned to astonishment when I was presented with the bill - $21. “¿Pero está lleno?” Apparently yes it was full...

So in summary, I had driven from the capital Quito to the Mindo cloud forest, then back via the (almost) middle of the world and up to Imbabura and Latin America’s largest indigenous market and a huge crater lake, before heading down to the world’s second highest active volcano (via a river canyon replete with half a dozen waterfalls) - all on one tank of diesel (750kms) and all for $21.

Driving in Ecuador won't be for everyone. It will either excite you or make you nervous, both of which are fine. If you want to just sit back and enjoy the views, then our direct relationships with drivers and guides will ensure you are in good hands. If you love an adventure or want try what could turn out to be an even more intimate and personal way to traverse the country's glorious landscapes, you might just love it. The memories are priceless. And if you enjoy a good bargain - you’ll get a kick or two out of it too.

If you want to follow in my tracks or just want a better idea of whether a self-drive in Ecuador is right for you, it would be an absolute pleasure to talk things through with you.

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The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

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