Where is the world’s highest active volcano and, according to some, the most beautiful? Did you guess Ecuador? At almost 20,000 feet Cotopaxi is quite a sight — on a clear day you can behold its perfectly symmetrical white cone from miles around. Fear not…although its past eruptions are legendary, since a burst of activity in 1904 it has been quiet.

I first traveled to Ecuador to cruise the Galápagos Islands, but thankfully decided to see some of the mainland. Arriving in Quito at night it wasn’t until the next morning that I awoke, and to my surprise, saw volcanoes punctuating the fast moving grey clouds enveloping the city that morning, some very close, others far in the distance. Two parallel chains of the Andes cross Ecuador from north to south and sweep to their most dramatic heights just south of the capital. Traveling down the Pan-American Highway through this “Avenue of the Volcanoes” is spectacular. After exploring the charming colonial old town of Quito I drove 90 minutes the next day with my guide to Cotapaxi National Park, Ecuador’s largest protected area. I’ll never forget the magnificent early-morning light illuminating the tawny carpet of grasses and the amazing variety of birds. A couple of large lagoons spectacularly mirror the mighty volcano. The boutique Hacienda San Augustin de Callo is one of the most special places to stay in Ecuador.  Each unique room has a fireplace and art and textiles from local craftspeople. You can find such treasures yourself at the several indigenous markets in the area. Close to the park, the Hacienda offers hiking and horseback riding.

The provincial capital Latacunga is just a short drive from the Hacienda and has a beautiful historic center. Latacunga is also home to one of the country’s most colorful and fascinating cultural events the Fiesta de la Mama Negra, comprising a mixture of indigenous, Spanish and African influences. The festival is held in two parts—the first being in September, the second in November – and includes parades with shamans, brass bands, clowns, transvestites, costumed dancers and special foods. Characters include a Moorish King, Angel of the Star, and the Mama Negra who carries dolls that squirt out milk. It is great fun!

Heading south, I visited the lovely town of Banos and Ecuador’s highest volcano, the extinct Chimborazo. The surrounding province is home to Ecuador’s highest concentration of indigenous people who worship the volcano as a god.

Part of my journey was after sunset and winding through the mountains an amazing sight was red lava spewing periodically from some of the active volcanoes in the distance.

For a thrilling end to your Avenue of the Volcanoes journey take a train ride down the “Devil’s Nose,” a near vertical wall of rock. This feat of engineering takes you on switchbacks with breathtaking scenery and pumps you with breathtaking adrenaline.

I continued from the highlands through banana plantations down to the coastal port of Guayaquil where I caught my direct flight to the Galapagos.

An interesting way to travel the Avenue of the Volcanoes is the new luxury Tren Crucero, a 4 day/3 night train journey from Quito to Guayaquil where you stop to see the sights and overnight in haciendas along the way.

Photo Credit: Dave Lonsdale via Creative Commons

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