The air is thick. Condensation drips down the steam-coated windows of the bus. A fellow passenger wipes it with their sleeve. I peer through the smudge out to the dense forest that’s rolling down the mountains, interrupted only by the occasional waterfall that tumbles down below the steamy clouds above us. The engine grinds over the rocks of the hairpin bends in the road. It’s a far cry from the built-up confines of urban Quito, the starting point for our multisport journey through the Ecuadorian Amazon. But we’ve been warned to expect extremes — our bodies will be tested over the next week, ricocheting between high and low altitudes, thick and thin air, ice cream and warm guayusa tea, sun cream and rain jackets. We’re entering the Amazon’s tropical upper basin, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, where we’ll be whitewater rafting, trekking, canyoning, zip-lining, rock climbing, via ferrata-ing and mountain biking. The air plays with pressure, tightening and loosening its grip on my chest as the temperature gauge changes with every glance I take… 28C, 16C, 23C, 19C… It becomes clear very early on that consistency is not going to be the theme of this trip.
“Listen up!” Pancho shouts “The river is angry today and the waves will be like the ocean, so it’s going to lash out, and we’re going to have to be ready for that, and you’re going to have to know all the safety drills, and know them well.” It’s not quite the light introduction I was expecting to whitewater rafting. After a night of torrential rain, dipping our toes into the sport is no longer a viable option. We’re on the shores of the Upper Rio Napo (known locally as Rio Jatunyacu, meaning ‘big water’) where we’ll soon be plunging our inflatable into the riot of the river to navigate downstream. Fast flowing and famed for its big waves, it’s one of the two headwaters that form the Amazon River, with its origins in a glacier and springs fed by the gorges of Cayambe — an active volcano.
I try with all my might to tell my brain to safely store each safety drill, asking it to, just for once, be a little less selective.
Within minutes of launching, we’re in the grasps of the river and any headspace previously reserved for fear is filled with a need for focus. The waves crash on and around us, my paddle catching the air as we crawl between the troughs and crests of the waves.
The river intersperses its rapids with calm waters.
This is the chance to soak in our surroundings.
We sit in silence, dwarfed by the surrounding greens of the Amazon as eagles swirl overhead. Rocks under the belly of our raft grate and crash against each other, mimicking the rumbles of thunder above us. It’s utterly captivating.
As quick as the water calms, it swells again. “This is an island we’re going over now,” says Vladimir, our guide. “The river is so swollen, we can’t even see it!” Crests curl over our heads as our feet cling to the straps of the raft for dear life, toes blistering from gripping. We crash down before approaching a raging wave as Vladimir starts to shout “Forward! Forward! I need you guys, come on!”
Paddle placed in his lap, spine stretched and eyes closed, my counterweight, Ian, is taking a moment to be in the present amid the general panic all around him. We ride straight into the head of a wave, its white foam lashing down at us, my mouth filling with the taste of sediment from the volcano. I look around the raft and it’s clear — everyone is having a great time.
“This river is usually six feet deep; Now, it’s 26,” Vladimir says, before steering us across our finish line. “This usually takes four or five hours. We’ve done it in three.” Arms aching and hearts beating, we slide onto terra firma again, exhausted and relieved at the sight of a box of cool beers. We all agree: it’s the finest beer we’ve ever tasted.
Adrenalin is a fine thing for a hangover. So the following morning, I opt to punish my body by punching it with more gushing water. We’ve travelled to Baños, a lush town in the Andean highlands known for its hot springs and adventure sport. Sitting at the foot of one of South America’s most active volcanoes, Tungurahua, it’s here many a traveller starts their journey through the forest into the Amazon Basin.
We travel into the jungle surrounding the town to abseil down the waterfalls that dot the valleys. We’re following the lead of instructor Paulo, a three-time canyoning champion. Rope held tautly in both hands, I lean back over the edge, my feet searching for a firm grip on the rock behind the running water. With more heavy rain having fallen the previous night, the water is plunging down the falls with haste. I’m two waterfalls down when I turn to Paulo for more accurate details on its speed. “Pfft. I don’t know. Fast,” he shrugs, before disappearing over the falls’ edge. When I meet Paulo at the bottom, a cacophony of wind ends any chance of further conversation. In this sheltered cul-de-sac of the forest, it’s the water’s sheer strength that’s causing the gust.
But the water’s force is no longer a punishment. I’m actively seeking its slap. I plunge myself into the bottom of the fall to feel its power; thriving in it.
The pounding of the fall is the only sound in an area so quiet and cut off from commotion. It’s a calmer end to the day.
End on a high
The thick clouds start to part as I yawn in their direction. A clear night had shown me constellations I’d never seen before — the Southern Cross, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper. At our overnight stay at Tierra del Volcan, it was a combination of this display and the thin air at 11,800ft that kept me and sleep separated. But it was a taster of what was to come.
We’re driving through Cotopaxi National Park, an ecological reserve and the most protected area in mainland Ecuador. The páramo flicks its greens and golds on a horizon that’s relatively flat but for one anomaly: Cotopaxi Volcano. An equatorial bulge caused by the rotational forces of the Earth, this is just one in a series dubbed Ecuador’s ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes’.
Cotopaxi, with a snow-topped peak that reaches a height of 19,642ft, is an active stratovolcano, a perfectly symmetrical cone formed of layers of ash and lava. Wrapped around its rim, the volcano is garnished with a glacier, and it’s the edge of this glacier that’s the destination of our hike. The bus grinds to a halt at 15,100ft. The remaining 1,640ft is down to us. Air thin and expectations high, we start the climb.
The ground is impossible; a mix of ash and rock, for every two steps there’s a crumbling slide down. The unrelenting wind forces its way through my woolly hat into my ears. Every inhale feels like the thinnest, sharpest cement; a gravitational pull, weighing my lungs down, pushing them to take me back down to sea level. Ando, our guide, throws words out into the airstream, hoping they’ll catch: “See the red rock halfway down? That’s where the glacier used to sit… climate change.” Head down, I see nothing but my feet.
The dirt trail leads me to a sign: ‘Refugio José Rivas — 4,900m’. We’ve reached base camp. We pause to sip hot chocolate, relieved at our accomplishment, soon eager to throw ourselves back in for more. The glacier is in sight, and we all have our eyes on it.
It doesn’t get easier. Our lungs feel the pain, but the torturous altitude has reached our legs, too. They’re jelly. It’s determination alone that carries us up to the ridge — I can’t carry on; I have to carry on; I want to carry on. One of the few equatorial glaciers in the world… I have to reach it. We clamber over the volcano’s alternating layers — our jackets, trousers, hats coated in ash. A trickle of water turns the ground beneath my feet to clay; the glacier is close.
I give up several times. We all do. We take it in turns to watch the routine unfold: give the defeatism some space, listen to its words, then push uphill. It’s strenuous, but we make it. I give my legs permission to crumple beneath me. I’ve scaled to the glacial ridge of the second-tallest mountain in Ecuador; the highest active volcano in the world. I lay here for a moment, stroking ice.
My body is destroyed from the hikes, rapids and rocks. Cuts, blisters, bruises and sunburn cover me from head to toe. They map out my week; each tells its own story; each aches for my attention. But it’s elsewhere, savouring the cold on my fingertips, the fresh space in my head, and the smile spreading across my face. It’s been a week. My body is destroyed. And I’ve never been happier.
Also on the route…
Head out from Tierra del Volcan in Cotopaxi National Park to bike through ancient polylepis forest. Be warned: the altitude can make this tough going.
Weave through the long grass in Baños to rock climb one of 18 routes up the side of a canyon.
Zip-lining and via ferrata-ing
To get even closer to the canyon’s entrance, zip-line directly into it over the water before scrambling up its side on a climbing route that includes a series of iron stairs, ladders and lines.
Set off from Baños, at 10,500ft, climbing even higher through Llanganates National Park to 12,470ft. The route takes in parched valleys, jungle, páramo and Tungurahua Volcano, with overnight camping at a trout farm.
Having made it back to Baños from your hike, soak weary muscles in Las Piscinas de la Virgen’s hot springs and thermal baths, fed by Tungurahua Volcano. There are a range of different pools — one reaches a fiery 42C, while another, next to a picturesque waterfall, maintains a more palatable temperature.
G Adventures’ nine-day Ecuador Multisport trip starts from £769 per person. Starting and finishing in Quito, the trip includes seven nights’ accommodation, one night camping, four breakfasts, three lunches and one dinner. Return flights from London to Quito in November start from £780 per person with Iberia, via Madrid.
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)