How to give your walking boots the time of their lives in Ecuador

As I recently discovered first-hand, walking trails in Ecuador come in all shapes and sizes.

The shorter ones can come in the form of casual strolls around the grounds of our favourite cloud forest eco-lodge or an oxygen-starved 250 metre climb to the snowline of the world's second highest volcano. Longer trails lead you around the rim of a glorious crater lake or alongside waterfalls and a foamy river through a huge river canyon. They can start at the crack of dawn, or even after the sun has gone down. They can be done alone, or alongside a wonderfully clever naturalist guide. They might begin at the door of your cabin or after a scenic drive through the highlands.

Just remember to pack a sturdy pair of walking boots - sadly mine didn't live to walk another day. Still, what a way to go...

Following rainforest trails in the Amazon

After a few days on the streets of Guayaquil and Quito, my walking boots were eager for their first outing in the far reaches of the Yasuni National Park, recently found to be the most bio-diverse place on earth. No sooner had I arrived though, I was asked to hand them over, in exchange for a pair of wellington boots. For the next few days, they'd look on enviously from the sidelines.

Our lodge is located much further down the Napo River from the busy town of Coca than the usual suspects. The trade-off for a little more travelling time is that you are pushing further into this pristine jungle, away from human interference. So when you do come to venture out for the first time, most probably under the cover of darkness on night one, the going will be very slow indeed. An impossibly colourful frog here, a huge tarantula there, an enormous owl butterfly on this leaf, a beautiful millipede under that leaf.

Tiny frog on night walk through Ecuadorian Amazon

It might all sound a bit creepy to some, but trust me - the whole experience is utterly thrilling. I never expected the bit after sunset to be the highlight of my time here. Every step forward takes you into the unknown, into a dynamic environment where a huge treasure trove of creatures is waiting to be explored by your guide's trained eye and flashlight. It's not just on the ground where things get interesting - keep your eyes peeled for night monkeys and even owls. I saw a common blunt-head snake, a praying mantis, some stupendous grasshoppers and so much more. Best of all though was the insight I got into the complex world of leafcutter ants...

The other common time to sally out into the rainforest is mid-morning, with pre-breakfast typically dedicated to birding on the lake. Daytime hikes range from hour long rambles up to the six hour jaguar trail - so called because that's exactly what was spotted on the route not so long ago. The emphasis here is not so much on birds, nor the insects (though both can be observed), but more so on the plants and fantastical trees found in the jungle. Wandering Palm trees, Strangling Fig trees, Dragon's Blood trees and the assassin-like Lemon Ant trees and their Devil's Gardens.

The stories are as vivid as the names.

Walking with my naturalist guide in the Ecuadorian Amazon

That's not to mention the chance to see monkeys - I saw three different types on my two hikes. The howler monkeys are the easiest to track, given the cacophony of noise which they emit. But they also proved the most elusive when trying to get a look at them. Easier to photograph were the rather cute squirrel monkeys. Easier yet were the far less-cute saki monkeys which came to us - we had just returned from our walk ready for the lunch, and there they were waiting for us in the canopy above the lodge. That's Yasuni for you - and we've not even got in the canoe yet.

Squirrel monkey near lodge in Yasuni, Ecuadorian Amazon

Wandering around the cloud forest with our friends

Tom and Mariela are wonderfully warm and welcoming people, a trait which extends to every corner of their sustainable eco-lodge in Mindo. Far from being another face in the crowd of run-of-the-mill accommodation, theirs is a truly immersive experience - you literally stay in the cloud forest, with not a plastic hummingbird feeder in sight. Within five minutes of shaking Tom's hand and taking my seat next to the fledgling late-afternoon fire, a yellow-throated toucan came into view up on a branch overhead.

The next morning was meant to be a getting-to-know-you stroll around their lodge. We didn't get far. No seriously, we hadn't even burned off the black coffee I'd not long finished. Before we'd properly extracted ourselves from the seating area, I was already furiously snapping away at the festival of hummingbirds hungrily gorging themselves on the fig and kapok trees which grow right next to it.

Enjoying a respite from the fierce competition for nectar

When I finally tore myself away from their spectacular mid-air battles, my gaze (and lens) were taken by the choco toucan which had just planted itself on a tree in their garden area. It was mere meters away from me. The one bird I wanted to see more than any other. And we'd still not gone anywhere. Eventually we did, though not much more than a meander along the fast-running river which encloses their property. Even then, we still managed to come face-to-face with a possum.

Choco toucan at our favourite eco-lodge in the Mindo Cloud Forest

Away from the lodge there is a slightly more substantial walk to be had by taking the panoramic chairlift and sky tram over the forest canopy, into the upper montane cloud forest. Walking trails link together the Nambilla Waterfalls, offering further opportunities to spot poison dart frogs, wild mushrooms and more of the bird life - I could have sworn I saw the flash of a quetzal up here. The vegetation is moist and abundant - moss, ferns and lichens cloak the trees, turning a beautiful gold in the late afternoon sun. Oh, and the waterfalls aren't bad either.

Neither are the views...

View over cloud forest canopy from chairlift in Mindo

Hiking around a crater lake at Laguna de Cuicocha

Heading north from the cloud forest brings us to Imbabura Province and one of the country's most spectacular crater lakes. You may, or may not, have heard of its more famous sibling Quilotoa. Certainly if you open any guide book to Ecuador, you won't have to flick through many pages before you stumble upon its dusky blue surface and foreboding walls. It's picture-perfect. If the weather is right. Sometimes, as a fellow traveller himself experienced a week or so later, you can't see from the top of the walls to the water. It's busier, more commercialised, harder to walk around and further away from a good place to stay than Laguna de Cuicocha. It's not the only one of its kind here.

During my five hour 10km walk around the crater rim, I met five other pairs of walkers. And an Ecuadorian mum and daughter walking their pet dog. Going anti-clockwise gave me the best views of the lake early on and, even better, meant that I did almost all of it in splendid isolation. I had time to think, stop, stare and go at my own pace. Which is to say, rather slow - the altitude ranges from around 3,100 to 3,500 metres above sea level. So oxygen is at a premium. This is not somewhere to forget your water, nor your hat.

Walkers following the trail around the rim of Laguna de Cuicocha

The perspective shifts subtly as you complete the first stretch. If you're anything like me, you'll be tempted into committing it to your SD card as it does so. The views are spellbindingly good, if you'll forgive a hint of hyperbole. The trail then winds away from the water, taking it out of sight as you walk past little stone walls with panoramic views of the paramo scenery to your right. Then the lake returns with another view that will stop you in your tracks and make you take off your walking boots, rest them on a well-positioned ledge and get the shot you wanted for your story. No? Just me then.

It's also a pretty good spot to do this...

Your's truly contemplating the vista of Laguna de Cuicocha

From here you are soon led away from the lake and into more substantial wet forest. When you come to a clearing, keep your eyes peeled for birds. In fact, anywhere from this point on is a good idea. After being re-united with the water, you might be a tad surprised to find yourself walking alongside agricultural land and even pine trees. The trail rises and falls before you reach the end, passing a homestead which would be more at home on the Costa del Sol. Of course, if you do it the other direction, flip everything on its head.

No doubt you'll be eager for a dip in our favourite lodge's Japanese hot tub by now. Don't worry, it's only half an hour or so by road from here.

Passing through farm land to the Otavalo Market

It's from that very same lodge that we now begin our next walk. You might be pleased to know that it's somewhat lower impact than the last one too, though you do have to get up pretty early to make it work.

Otavalo Market is another usual suspect from any top 10 things to do in Ecuador list. Top 5 even. It's Latin America's biggest indigenous market after all. The trouble is though that most visitors don't get to see that side of it, instead being whisked straight to Plaza de los Ponchos and souvenir shopping nirvana. We have long since mused over how authentic the whole experience is and how we can best share it with you. Or whether we should do so at all. So finding a way to do it justice was something of a priority for us. I'm pleased to say, I think we did just that.

You'll need to get a map off of Jorge and ideally you'd be asking him for an early breakfast - trying your best to nudge him a tick ahead of the 7am start. Keep it fairly small, down your morning cuppa and you could be out the door by 7:15am and walking through some rather lovely farm land, with the morning haze still hanging in the air. The leaves of the eucalyptus trees are almost blue in this light. Basically you are going to follow the path of the water for most of the way, passing alongside tended fields, terraced hills and the gaze of horse, cattle and a few chickens. Better yet, you can consider yourself highly unlucky if you meet anyone other than the odd friendly local going about their morning activities.

Walking through farm land to Otavalo animal market

When you reach the end of the greenery, a sharp left turn takes you down onto the road. I didn't love this part - it's a ten minute walk along a cobbled road followed by a few minutes alongside the Pan-American at the end of the day. If you're with a guide and driver, ask them to pick you up at this point. Otherwise you could always try to talk to the locals heading to the market next to you, or at least speculate what might be on their shopping lists.

There's a reason for this walk too, other than getting you from A to B on the most scenic path possible. You are walking to an animal market. So this little amble is already giving you some proper meaningful context before you arrive - which will come in handy.

In truth, you might not enjoy the animal market - there are live chickens, rabbits, pigs, cattle and sheep being brought and sold in a raw environment. It is a bit in your face and overwhelming, especially when the pigs start squealing. But this is real life and judging them could be a bit hypercritical on our part. If you think back to what you just saw and try to keep in mind that this is the primary livelihood of the region then you'll have an easier time rationalising it all. We are lucky to be sheltered from this in the UK.

There's none of this in Waitrose.

It's worth climbing up the hill behind the animal market to get a good panoramic view of the whole proceedings. Then it's a ten minute walk via the indoor food market (on the other side of the Pan-American) to the huge crafts market in the centre of the town. Allocate at least an hour to this if you want to do some proper shopping.

Looking down over Otavalo animal market

Walking between waterfalls in a giant river canyon

The penultimate walk. This stamina will serve you well in Ecuador.

From the same lodge as the above you can also do a pretty nice walk to the Taxopamba Waterfalls, around 30-40 minutes each way. Driving south from here, en route to Cotopaxi, I was tempted off the slick Pan-American and onto the back-road in. Then I was tempted off the road altogether by the prospect of Condor Machay. Never mind the rain.

Before you get too excited, your chances of spotting a condor here are slim. But what you will encounter are a half dozen cascades of varying sizes, culminating in a stupendous 80 metre high drop in a natural amphitheatre at paths end. It was a literal 'wow' moment for me. Words struggle to do it justice.

You walk through a vast river canyon, the legacy of several historic eruptions of Cotopaxi. It is from the glacial melt of said volcano that the Rio Pita charts its course, tumbling over the side of the Condor Machay waterfall and continuing on between its steep walls. And it is this river which you criss-cross via a number of short bridges, watching your step as you go for the odd missing plank of course. At over 3,000 metres you are still at altitude here, but the path is flat and so the going is not too hard. It's a 8.5km round trip, which should take you no more than four hours, unless you want to linger.

The canyon walls of Condor Machay

The vegetation here is typically Andean, with lots of moist undergrowth and thickly mossed branches. There are caves here too, which unveil underground streams when you peer into them and one which promises small rainbows when the sun is shining. The river comes to a loud foamy head at several points for some nice photo ops and you'll often see an impromptu cascade tumbling down the canyon-side or spilling into the river next to your feet. Raptors circle overhead, the odd hummingbird flitters relentlessly and a myriad of Andean birds can be spotted by the fortunate or good of timing.

Of course, all this and the other falls are a mere entree to the main dish - the Condor Machay waterfalls are a sight to behold. The drop of water is staggering and deafening. Some brave souls even went in for a tentative paddle and a precious snap to show their friends. There's never anything wrong with just looking and trying your best to take it all in though. That's what I did and the memory is as vivid now as when I turned my back on it to begin the return journey.

Condor Machay Waterfall near Cotopaxi

Clambering up the world's 2nd highest active volcano

I've saved the shortest yet most difficult and most memorable until last. Whenever I face hardship in life, I don't think I'll ever stop flashing back to that moment when I stood roughly equidistant between the car park and the Refugio Jose Rivas half-way up the world's second highest volcano and decided to keep going. A pre-teen Ecuadorian sauntered past me. His mum slowly trudging up behind him, exchanging knowing glances with me. A caracara effortlessly swooped and circled just a few metres from me.

250 metres. That's all this 'walk' is. And it took me 40 minutes.

"One foot in front of the other..."

I was spurred on by this sight...

Climbing the final 250 metres to Refugio Jose Rivas on Cotopaxi

It was the first time I'd seen this part of Cotopaxi since I landed in Quito two weeks ago.

The walk begins at the car park. At around 4,600 metres above sea level, few in the world can be higher. Over four and a half kilometres above the sea. Then it goes up to the refuge at 4,864 metres. I've been higher on multiple occasions, but I've never had to walk uphill on loose volcanic sand at these elevations before. Then the hail came.

I'm aware that this might all start sounding a bit off-putting. I can see why. But there are few times in life I have felt such a strong sense of acheivement or relief as I did when I reached the refuge. If we really do believe that to travel is to live (and we do) then this is living. Pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone is extraordinary.

Inside the refuge a 'base camp' atmosphere reigns. There are flags from various countries with all manner of messages scrawled upon them. There's a Union Jack that I forgot to sign. Maybe it's for the best - for me this was journeys end, the final few hundred metre climb to the snowline robbed from me by the invading cloud, but for others this has been the beginning of epic assaults to the top. At least in the pre-eruption days. Instead I brought a hot chocolate, a piece of corn and some coca leaves to fuel my body and relieve the altitude. I swapped stories with a couple eighteen months into a drive from Seattle to Patagonia and pointed them in the direction of some places we love in Chile.

Then I went back down. It took 20 minutes in total, mainly because I handed out the remaining coca leaves to those struggling up the other way, their view of the glacier now obscured and their lungs starved of oxygen. Then I got back in the car and drove back down the volcano.

Walking back down through the loose volcanic sand of Cotopaxi

Over to you?

What do you reckon then? Like the idea of making your own footprints? What you have read here is an introduction to a broad mix of walks in Ecuador. There are many more. You might have loved them all, or perhaps one or two put you off. That's ok - it's only intended to start a conversation of course. Getting to know you and what you have and haven't enjoyed in the past, what your hopes are for your next trip, is all part of the process for us. If you'd like a chat, just pick up the phone and we'll be on the other end.

Thanks for reading.

Our Ecuador holidays   Get in touch   Subscribe to The Pothole

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.

Share your story with us