Since 1738 the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador has erupted more than 50 times, killing thousands of people and wiping out entire towns. But for Ecuadorian 4×4 enthusiasts, the 6km high volcano provides a unique and extreme challenge.
Text and photography: Robb Pritchard
The day starts with guinea pigs for breakfast, roasted on a street-side barbeque near the city of Quito, capital of Ecuador. But my head starts to hurt at 3800m above sea-level.
My travelling companions tells me that a cocaine leaf helps alleviate the symptoms. Cocaine? Where would a sweet and innocent traveller like me find cocaine?
No need to worry, my hosts say. Here cocaine comes in candy form from a kiosk at the entrance to the national park! Now that’s a great introduction to off-roading in Ecuador. And all before a cup of coffee!
I am with Pablo Contreras, editor of Terreno Extremo, an adventure motoring magazine. For a few years I’ve been sending him stories from all over the world and now I am in Ecuador for a taste of Ecuadorian off-roading.
I tend to gravitate towards the more extreme side of 4×4-ing, so to be in a totally standard 2004 Toyota Hilux 2.4 with barely legal rear tyres is quite a new experience for me. For once I am surrounded by features being used as the manufacturer intended them to be. But we are not about to do anything extreme. It’s not as though we’re going to drive up the world’s biggest active volcano or anything. Oh, hang on a minute. Yes, we are!
We’re not going alone, though. There are two Suzuki Vitaras with us. Strangely, they have Chevy badges on the grill. Terreno Extremo graphics editor Andres Jaramillo explains that it’s because the 1989 model was built here in Ecuador under licence until just a couple of years ago. So the Vitaras are Ecuador’s most common 4×4.
Okay, so in this country they eat guinea pigs for breakfast and have cocaine candies, so on the list of surprising things, the Suzuki/Chevy model is not really that high up.
A few kilometres after the candies have begun to kick in we crest a rise and the view catches my breath.
Brooding mountains carpeted with close-cropped grass, herds of wild horses dotting the rough, boulder-strewn valley, and there were even sheep. I couldn’t help being struck by how similar the landscape was to my home country of Wales. Every now and again the clouds would part and there’d be a glimpse of snow streaked mountainsides. Snowdonia in the winter. But they have big sheep here. No, wait. Damn, these candies are strong… they’re llamas!
But appreciation of the natural wonders is suspended as a Suzuki splutters to a halt. Bonnet up, filters checked, fuses pulled, ignition leads tested, random things in the engine bay pulled and checked for looseness…
Andres’ girlfriend gets bored and wanders off to get a closer look at the wild horses while the guys carry on the fault finding diagnostics with a Christmas cracker tool kit. All I remember seeing them use is a screwdriver and a multi-tool. Eventually a melted fuse is found, swapped and off we go again.
About 250 years ago Cotopaxi volcano blew up and deposited huge fields of boulders in the valley. We follow a rough track of dark volcanic silt that winds through them. We are at 4000m and with the low, racing clouds throwing out sharp, sudden showers the dark land with moss-covered stones looks absolutely surreal.
It feels as though we’re on a 4×4 trail leading to Mordor (from the film Lord of the Ring). Come to think of it, the Ecuadorians are rather small. Next time we stop I will check to see how big their feet are. You never know, maybe they are Hobbits!
Through a deep fissure we head down again over bridges made with slippery metal pipes. The clouds have lifted. Pablo points ahead and it takes a moment to realise what I’m looking at.
Rising so far above us that I have to sit forward to see it is the snow-covered volcano cone. But it’s not all snow. I can see some pale blue bands of ice near the top. There’s a giant conical glacier on top and it looks absolutely amazing.
I run about taking photos, which is a mistake so high above sea level. Gasping for breath in the low-oxygen air, I take another candy.
But then around the corner come three chagras or horsemen, with big hats, ponchos and lassos dragging a raging bull. The others are all talking about Suzuki spare parts and don’t think the cowboys are anything special so I am left staring at them on my own. I’ve only seen this in the movies (and once in Las Vegas, but I am pretty sure that wasn’t the real McCoy) and it’s as though I am looking back through the years to a near forgotten time. It’s one of those bewildering moments you can never anticipate but which you’ll always remember.
Lunch is at Hacienda Yanahurco, a 26 000ha reserve with nearly 2000 head of cattle, semi-wild horses, llamas and deer. We have lunch in an open-sided hut, all huddling from the sideways rain.
“How do you like this?” asks one of the girls apologetically, her arms folded tightly across her chest, trying not to shiver.
“It’s like Wales in the summer,” I reply. I smile some more when she looks at me in horror to think that people could live in such a terrible climate.
The track has ended but our adventure hasn’t. Barely discernible tyre marks lead over boggy ground and our Hilux does fine. I guess I’ve spent so much time driving modified vehicles that I’ve forgotten just how capable a completely normal one can be.
On the way back Pablo lets me take the wheel and I thread through the rocks and over the bridges, trying to remember the last time I had driven somewhere so spectacular. I couldn’t. I can’t stop yawning but not because I am bored. At this altitude your brain struggles for oxygen… and I’ve finished all the candies.
We climb back up to 4030m and wait for the second Suzuki… but it doesn’t appear. A couple of minutes back down the track we find owner Fito, legs sticking out from underneath the vehicle, cute girlfriend Eva dutifully passing spanners and hammers.
The culprit this time is a dodgy suspension link extension, added because of the lift kit. The bolts have sheered. There’s a detached axle and all we have to fix it with is a multi-tool. We’re 4000m up, the rain is threatening, it’s getting dark, and there are no more special candies!
I wonder if perhaps we should call someone, or cram us all in the Toyota and come back for the Suzuki tomorrow so that we won’t be stuck on the volcano all night. But Pablo is totally relaxed, and using rocks and wheel jacks he manages a make-shift repair as dusk descends.
We limp back in first gear, ambling along, headlights cutting through the rain and illuminating the eerie boulders in the valley, the moss and lichen looking like snow.
Finally back in Quito, Eva says her farewell: “Goodbye Boff.”
“Boff? My name is Robb!” I reply.
“What?” she exclaims. “Fido said all day that you are called Boff!”
I watch in amazement as she chases Fido along and over a busy road, catches him on the traffic island, brings him down to the wet ground like a tigress taking down a gazelle and proceeds to kick his bottom for his indiscretion. All in my name.
Not so Hobbit-like after all, then.
It was a fittingly memorable end to one of the best and most spectacular off-roading days I’ve experienced.
There are a few off-roading Meccas in the world – Russia, Morocco and the Australian Outback come to mind. Oh, and Johnson Valley in the Mojave Desert in southern California. But after the amazing weekend I had with the guys from Terreno Extremo magazine, I think Ecuador should be added to the list.
Ecuador – a diverse land
Originally inhabited by a variety of indigenous groups and later incorporated into the Inca empire, the region was colonised by the Spanish in the 16th century. In 1830 Ecuador became a sovereign state, and today its population of almost 16 million consists of a diverse mix of cultures.
Spanish is the official language, but 13 indigenous languages are also recognised.
Quito is the capital, and at 2800m above sea level it is the highest capital city in the world.
The Galapagos Islands, situated about 1000km off the coast in the Pacific Ocean, fall under Ecuador’s jurisdiction. Originally made famous by British naturalist Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, The origin of the Species, based on his observations and findings there, the islands today have more than 25 000 inhabitants and are a popular tourist destination.