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Tick the "Volcano Land" list
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Ecuador harbours some of the tallest and most active volcanoes in the Ecuador. The country is bisected by two parallel mountain ranges, rather like a ladder, where barren nudo highland rungs separate fertile hoya valleys. Its volcanoes, and accompanying sizeable seismic activity, have defined its history in many ways. They loom like talismans above the fields of hard-working Indians who have inevitably personified them, the great Chimborazo, for example, is known as “Taita,” father.

Towns such as Latacunga and Riobamba south of Quito have been founded and re-founded over the centuries as a result of earthquakes and lava flows. More recently, scientists monitoring Volcan Tungurahua had the spa-town of Banos evacuated for fear of a major eruption, and in October 1999, Volcan Guagua Pichincha exploded, creating an 18-km-high [11-mile] mushroom cloud above Quito.

The indefatigable, nineteenth-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt dubbed the road south of Quito the "Avenue of Volcanoes". And on clear days, the lofty, snow-capped peaks do indeed form an avenue as you travel south. Like keen birders, most travellers become avid volcano-spotters, ticking off a list of Ecuador's "Big Ten", the volcanoes which rise above 5,000 m [16,400 ft], as they travel the country.

Volcan Cotopaxi, at a height of 5,897 m [19,655 ft], is probably the country's most famous volcano. You can drive through the wild and beautiful Parque Nacional Cotopaxi up to the parking lot on the mountain itself at 4,600 m [15,332 ft]. Climbers continue upwards to the refugio where they rest before attempting to climb the peak in the wee hours of the morning. For something more laid-back, check into the haciendas we recommend in the area. where you can enjoy the view from a comfy armchair, whiskicito [a little whisky] in hand.

Next on anyone’s list is Chimborazo, the country's highest peak and at 6,310 m [20,697 ft] - trivia buffs get your pens out - the farthest point from the earth's centre [due to the bulge at the equator]. Until Mount Everest was discovered and measured, Chimborazo was thought to be the highest mountain in the world. In the nineteenth century, Humboldt climbed it, writing afterwards that the ascent ranked among one the most spiritual moments of his life. Even Simon Bolivar had a go. The first to reach the top was the intrepid British climber, Edward Whymper, in 1880. As with Cotopaxi, you can drive up to its breath-inhibiting refuge at 4,800 m [15,744 ft], within a fauna reserve peopled by shy vicuna.

The Central Highlands around Chimborazo make excellent ticking country. Opposite the colossus, Carihauirazo [5,020 m or 16,466 ft] challenges even the most experienced mountaineers, while on the other side of Riobamba, the incisor peaks of El Altar [Cupac Urcu or "sublime mountain" in Quechua] bite into lapis skies. Within its amphitheatre crater of jagged peaks, a stunning yellow-green lagoon can be reached on a three- or four-day hike from near Riobamba.

El Altar is just one of the three volcanoes which puncture the wilds of Parque Nacional Sangay. The most famous of these is Tungurahua, on its north-western border. Although intrepid climbers are returning to the peak since the eruption alerts of 1999, most visitors are content to visit a viewing station, spectacular at night, when the volcano lights up the sky with firework explosions. Competing with Cotopaxi for its photogenic, symmetrical cone, Volcan Sangay, the third volcano in the park, rises to 5,230 m [17,154 ft]. However, unlike Cotopaxi, Sangay is an angry mountain, considered to be one of the most active on the continent. Although climbing it is not discouraged per se, ash and rock explosions make the ascent very high-risk. Hikers wanting just to get near to the volcano, and camp around its base, can arrange guides at the village of Alao, southeast of Riobamba. Arguably the best views of Sangay park’s volcanoes is from Macas, or on the eastern skirts of the Andes in the Oriente. On a clear morning or evening, the snow-capped peaks seem to float above the tumbling forested hills.

For the country's third-highest volcano, head north of Quito. The mammoth Volcan Cayambe at 5,790-m [18,991-ft] peak is regarded as one of the hardest and most dangerous climbs in the country. The beautiful volcano glowers above the vast Reserva Ecologica Cayambe-Coca, protecting some 10 life zones as it descends from dizzying heights, through dense cloud forest and on down to the jungle of the Oriente. For the best views of the mountain, take the old road round from Cayambe on the Panamericana towards Olmedo and Zuleta. Though not capped in snow, the famous Volcan Imbabura [4,621 m or 15,157 ft] lies further north still, looming over the weaving towns of Otavalo and Imbabura Province.

South of Quito, you can tick off the Ilinizas [two for the price of one!], the twin peaks 5,248 and 5,126 m [17,738 and 16,813 ft] high, often lacquered with fresh snow and usually pretty visible.

The final volcano in the Big Ten is Volcan Antisana [5,753 m or 18,870 ft], southwest of the capital, one of the most frustrating to spot. Lucky individuals can admire its four great glacier-tipped peaks soaring into the sky from the road to Coca around the thermal baths of Papallacta.

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|Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||
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