Unexpected Lessons from Ecuador’s Ruta del Condor


Ecuador may be less known for trekking than its southerly neighbor, Peru, which is why we were so excited to hike through the former’s supposedly wilder, less-frequently-traveled backcountry.

After reading up on dozens of trails of varying difficulty, my husband and I settled on the Ruta del Condor, which purported to take us past three of Ecuador’s most impressive volcanoes: Antisana, Sincholagua, and Cotopaxi. At 60 kilometers, we figured it was about the right length for a 5-day trek,

looked to pose a challenge, and heck, we might even see some condors along the way.

Well, we learned a thing or two from the Ruta del Condor – most notably that maps are totally necessary, hiking boots are totally not necessary, discomfort makes it better, and plans are futile.

Why maps are mandatory

A fair number of people attempt the Ruta del Condor each year, more often than not with guides and pack animals. But as experienced (relatively) ultralight backpackers, we weren’t about to let anyone else do the hard work for us.

In preparation, we obtained our trail instructions from the Ecuador: Climbing and Hiking Guide by Rob Rachowiecki and Mark Thurber. This is one of the very few complete resources out there covering hikes across Ecuador, but be forewarned: though it’s not inaccurate, it’s not really thorough either.

The guide’s insufficiencies resulted in lost hours trying to find the trail and, at times, our feeling very frustrated. That being said, in the absence of a human guide, you pretty much have to have this book.

Topo maps and a compass are essential, too. I’m not an expert at trail finding, but I brushed up on my map skills and re-learned how to use a compass to triangulate my position. The total inadequacy of our trekking guide book made having these items essential.

By the way, to obtain topo maps of Ecuador, just head to the Instituto Geográfico Militar in Quito – a huge building with a green dome just outside Parque Elegido. We paid $10 for the three topo maps we needed.

Hiking boots optional

After embracing ultralight backpacking several years ago, the Ruta del Condor was the perfect place to test our chops. Hiking boots are heavy, and we’ve always gotten by without them on trails back home.

Call me crazy, but I’d rather hike in simple, lightweight trail runners than thick, heavy, inflexible (and often stinky) hiking boots.

The trail – in places where there actually is a trail – is a muddy rut. Thankfully, I tapped into that little kid inside me who loves to tramp in puddles and make mud-pies – I took the plunge!

And here’s why the trail runners worked out so well: Gore-tex boots won’t withstand eight hours of shoe-sucking, muck-slimed, knee-deep slop pools (not to mention river crossings) without getting your feet wet anyway. Our trail runners, on the other hand, are lightweight and dry fairly quickly (on our 3rd day, on higher ground, we did, indeed, dry out).

Here’s the most important part, though: Hiking with wet feet isn’t all that bad! It’s actually kind of liberating! At night, we dried our pruny feet and donned wooly socks. Lovely! And you certainly won’t see us going around with massive hiking boots strapped to the outside of our packs.

Discomfort makes it better

Hell yeah it does! It wouldn’t be the same if you could take a really huge escalator to the base of Volcan Antisana!

We got lost umpteen times, sauntered through knee-deep mud, endured wet feet, cold nights, biting gnats, and high altitudes. But oh how sweet it is when you reach that sacred place untouched by earth-movers, concrete, and human detritus where the landscape blows through your exhaustion and leaves your soul resonating with awe, wonder, and gratitude!

On our fourth morning, we climbed a ridge to the west of Laguna Santa Lucia. The sun’s morning rays, in a cloudless sky, illuminated a panorama of five volcanoes. Wrapped in diamond-enameled, whispering white cloaks of snow, they made the massive mountains around them appear like mere wrinkles in a rug.

Few are the places in the world that so fine-tune your soul. Days later my head and heart were still ringing with gladness. An escalator, a gondola, or a hundred camera-clicking tourists would have diminished that feeling, don’t you think?

Plans are futile

When taking on a poorly marked trail like the Ruta del Condor, you should expect major changes of plan. The weather is variable and can go from sunny and serene to befuddling fog or vexing rain in a matter of minutes. That’s why you should always insert an extra day into your plans (and an extra day’s worth of food!) in case you get lost, need to backtrack, or if the weather keeps you from going at the speed you expected.

In our case, we totally lost the trail just before Sincholagua. Although we knew where we went wrong and could have easily made it back to the right place, it was starting to get dark. Even if we returned to where we lost the trail, there weren’t any good places to camp. We had just come across a herd of free-ranging bulls, and the idea of setting up our tent in their domain wasn’t exactly appealing.

So alas, we hiked to a paved road that appeared on our topo map and headed out towards civilization. At first, we lamented not camping at the base of Sinchologaua or finishing at Cotopaxi National Park. Our egos were definitely miffed at not finishing the hike according to plan.

But you know what? Getting lost often means unexpectedly finding yourself somewhere, well… unexpected. Sue me if that sounds cliché.

After hiking away from the bulls, we eventually came across an affable park ranger who was happy to let us sleep in the ranger station. The next day, after riding the morning milk truck to the nearest town, we made it back to Quito before lunchtime.

In spite of our errors, we still ended up with a pretty cool story to share. Getting off track was, truly, an adventure unto itself.

The entire play-by-play of our trek with its soul-singing highs, lip-pouting lows, and scads of photos is available on our blog, Thrifty Drifter.

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