“Ttttsssshhhhhh,” I kept telling my big black horse Melvin. He kept stopping to eat long blades of grass along the side of the trail and our guide Raphael had told us this hissing/shushing sound would get the horses moving. Melvin had other ideas and we hadn’t even left the grounds of Hacienda El Porvenir yet. I became convinced that this was going to be a long horseback ride. I don’t know what I was expecting from the Avenue of the Volcanoes high in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador other than a view of the legendary Cotopaxi, but this was better than I ever imagined.
As we planned our Ecuador itinerary, horseback riding in the Avenue of the Volcanoes was the thing I was probably least looking forward to. I’d been in a riding accident when I was six or seven years old. The horse spooked and I got hit in the head with a tree branch. However, I really wanted to see the conical Cotopaxi volcano – the world’s highest active volcano – and its red slopes. The horseback riding interlude was also planned to balance out the cultural activities in Quito and the naturalist activities focusing on the Galapagos wildlife. Yet, looking back, it is the Avenue of the Volcanoes that gave us some of our best memories of Ecuador.
The Avenue of the Volcanoes is a tourist marketing term for the region south of Quito that straddles the Pan-American Highway. Here, Ecuador’s largest wildlife refuge, the Cotopaxi National Park, is surrounded by vast haciendas and ranches like our Hacienda El Porvenir. The whole area is an outdoor playground with trails for horseback riding and hiking, along with other activities. Being high in the mountains, the Avenue of the Volcanoes presented a packing challenge in that we needed an entire third wardrobe of heavier, warmer clothes just for this area.
The Hacienda El Porvenir had beautiful views of the low, graceful volcano across the valley. Over breakfast, I stared out at its gentle rise, soft peak and lush green flanks. While Cotopaxi gets most of the attention, I think Pasochoa may be my favorite volcano in the region. My peaceful thoughts of the volcano were broken as Raphael instructed us that it was time to chagras up! We got to slip into our heavy, wool (ass-less) chaps and warm ponchos for the ride up into the cold highlands.
Leaving Hacienda El Porvenir in the morning, I sat atop Melvin and Laura climbed up Pomperro – her big brown horse. We rode high up the slopes of the Rumiñahui Volcano. The rocky peak of Rumiñahui was in the clouds high above us. Off to our left, the slumbering mass of Cotopaxi could be seen only during breaks in the clouds. All around us, the long soft grasses would rustle in the wind. And our horses would frequently bob their heads down to get a big mouthful.
High up on Rumiñahui, we stopped and dismounted our horses, slumping down on the grass, using the big clumps as a kind of seat. Raphael brought mint tea with him and we sipped the hot brew while looking out at Cotopaxi. It warmed us to the core.
Suddenly a big, black shadow appeared in the sky high above us. Out of nowhere, an Andean condor sailed on thermals above us, gradually dipping lower and lower towards us. At one point, it sailed over 40 or 50 feet over our head. Our guide got a good view and said it was a juvenile. It was so impressive to be so close to this majestic bird.
And then there was a second condor. And then a third. And then two more. Before we knew it, at various times, there were eight different condors in flight above our heads. Raphael quickly urged us towards to the Southeast, down the slopes of Rumiñahui towards what appeared to be a deep valley. He said he’d never seen so many condors here in all of his 60 years and he wanted to check it out. As we neared the deep valley, Raphael could make out the guano markings on the cliff face – a sign of a candor nest.
After several hours in the cold weather, Melvin and Pomperro brought us back down to Hacienda El Porvenir for a late lunch – and warmer weather. We really didn’t know what to expect of horseback riding Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip!