The ancestor speak of the legend of Pachacamac, creator of the universe. He put a sacred bird on Earth: the Condor. And its purpose would be to serve as messenger between spirits and humans. I imagine that is why its flight is so majestic as it rides the thermal winds toward dominating heights with great ease, rising and falling with elegance in the air.
If trekking is a passion (or something you’d like to do), this is one of those routes you should try at least once in your life… (and that we believe will result in many repetitions). The classic route covers approximately 80 km, starting from El Tambo (on the Pifo – Papallacta road) and ending at Limpiopungo Lake (in Cotopaxi National Park). It can, of course, be completed the other way around and there are many variations to shorten or lengthen the route depending on the number of days and kilometers the hiker wishes to complete, as well as on his experience. If you have the necessary equipment, if you can read maps and know your way in nature, you can even venture out without a guide. If not, at the small community of El Tambo, you can hire the service of local guides and porters with mules to lighten the hike.
Starting from El Tambo in the province of Napo, this journey crosses a páramo corridor that link volcanos Antisana (5704 masl), Sincholagua (4873 masl), and Cotopaxi (5897 masl), as you make your through the Antisana Ecological Reserve and Cotopaxi National Park. It is, in itself, a crucial corridor for the Andean Condor, a bird that soars long distances through this natural avenue encroached by highways, rural areas and cities, to survive. Thanks to various conservation initiatives, what was seen as an early extinction will thankfully wait. But the species is only some 130 individuals strong, which is still a very small number. This area is home to about 20% of the total population. Luckily, it has been well preserved to date, as other Andean-Amazonian species take refuge here, while remaining a spectacular path with little to no human intervention.
The hike begins
After a quick moment to present yourself to the community members and pay a modest sum to begin your adventure, we review our maps, equipment, supplies; and thus kicks-off our journey. The first segment takes us to Lake Tuminguina, also known as “la laguna del volcán” Volcano Lake, located in a small depression caused by the solidification of lava from the Antisana volcano. If you are lucky, you may have the chance to spot Spectacled (Andean) bears. You can find some protection from the windy weather amid the leafy quishuar, trees believed sacred in local tradition, and cholan trees, as if at times the cold paramo was being suddenly surrounded by the more humid climates of the neighboring jungle.
The next day, the road continues to Laguna Mauca Machay, also known as Santa Lucía. We could say this is the half way point and because of its proximity to the volcano, the coldest sector of our journey. You pass very close to Antisana… you feel like you could run to its snow, though the distance is farther than you could imagine (you also would need a special permit to access its glaciers). In this segment of the trek there are abundant paper trees (Polylepys), pumamaqui trees and extensive grasslands; I recommend making good use of it as natural insulation when setting up your camp site. It is easy to find comfortable places for your tent, with nearby water sources, in addition to enjoying the scenic beauty of the area.
A world guarded by condors
The distance covered on the third day, between Santa Lucía and Sincholagua volcano is my favorite. The route is mostly grasslands and a low-standing elfin forest. It gives you an opportunity to put your bird and plant identification skills to the test. Not in vain Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland settled in the area to study, among other wonders, the exquisite species that make up this fabulous hatibtat: gulls, ibises, caracaras, deer, ducks, coots and, of course, the majestic Andean Condor. This is, in fact, one of the places to find condors, where families nest in the rocky cliffs of the ancient lava flows, as in the case of Antisanilla. Protected by the Jocotoco Foundation, you can visit the Chacana Reserve, where it is very likely that you will see condors flying above. If it clears at any point in this particular segment of the trek, keep checking out the sky. Condors may be watching your movements through their kingdom.
The house in which Humbdoldt spent nights more than 200 years ago still stands and offers a moment to stand in front of it and reflect at its magnitude. So much has changed in these two-hundred years, yet out here in the wilderness, the grasslands must have seemed very much the same.
Fortunately, the area known as the Ovejera, where the old hacienda owners used to let their sheep graze, is regenerating and returning to former glory, as the flora timidly repopulates a land worn away by its packs of woolly tenants.
Your backpack by this time is lighter, as you’ve probably made good use of your provisions, but the fatigue may be creeping up on your stamina. You must listen to your body; stop to rest when you can. The area in itself, in addition to its stories of birds and plants, also witnessed of the passage of Sucre’s Libertarian Army on route to Quito, seeking to rid the country from Spanish rule. When warned that the Spanish would besiege all possible accesses into Quito, our heroes skillfully crossed the wild paramo bordering the eastern side of Cotopaxi and Sincholagua to arrive at Hacienda Chillo—Compañía and rest, before their final assault on Quito along the slopes of Pichincha volcano.
The objective of the day is to reach the foot of Sincholagua volcano. The area around it is sandy and generally quite windy.
On the fourth day, the proximity of arrival gives us that extra push, renewing our energies as we tread towards Limpiopungo Lake, via the Pita River. If we’re lucky, on a clear day, we can admire Cotopaxi in all its splendor, while recognizing the several neighboring peaks that give this area the nickname of Avenue of the Volcanoes.
There are several options from here: have someone wait for you at Cotopaxi National Park or perhaps continue on an extended journey toward Mount Quilindaña to El Tambo hacienda, where you can explore the vast plains of the Chalups ‘megavolcano’.
TECHNICAL DATA AND USEFUL INFORMATION
The cold wind is a constant embrace within páramo. It will always be present, it doesn’t even matter if the sun shines all day. In the dry season, there is sun in the morning and some rain or wind in the afternoon and night, so you should bring equipment in good condition and as always, dress in layers.
The beauty of the route will make you forget the mud; however, it is necessary to wear good footwear for muddy and uneven sectors of the journey.
- Estimated time of the route: 4 days
- Estimated walking time per day: 4-6 hours
- Physical Level: Medium-High
- Technical Level: Low
- Minimum altitude: 3,600 meters above sea level
- Maximum altitude: 4,350 meters above sea level
- Starting point: El Tambo (Km 73 Vía Pifo – Papallacta, 5 km before Papallacta)
- Place of arrival: Limpiopungo Lake, Cotopaxi National Park