The Illinizas offer an incredible adventure for beginners and expert climbers in the central highland on Ecuador.
These two active volcanoes covered with snow (5248 mts. Illiniza South, 5126 meters – Illiniza North) are located south from the city of Quito, just 2 hours away by car. This unique twin peaks formation is the only mountain in Ecuador that offers treks and climbing sections of several levels of difficulty. In a clear day you can appreciate them and enjoy the beauty of the nature surrounding you.
The same highway that takes us to the Cotopaxi national park, leads us to the Illinizas Ecological reserve, named after its 2 representatives.
Due to the difficulty in accessing it, this ecological reserve is still a mystery. The reserve is divided in four sections. The first and biggest one includes a big forest to the west of the lagoon Quilotoa and further down to the river Toachi. The second is located on the northeast and includes the volcano Corazon and Illinizas. The third area, located on the southwest and separated by the a little bit bigger section of the highway between Latacunga and La Mana. The last one is a very small area like an island of approximately 800 hectares, surrounded by Quilotoa.
From the main highway, we drive 2 hours through a small road until we arrive to a sector named La Virgen. In this place we leave the car and we take our gear to continue for 2 to 4 hours, depending of weather and your physical condition, until arriving at the refuge of the northern Illiniza.
From there you have a spectacular view of the area. The wide landscapes covered with paramo vegetation enclose many endemic species of flora and fauna, many of which can only be found at the area of the reserve. One of them is the endangered pacarana, also named as by some as the tailed-guanta. It’s part of the rodent family group, who makes its own hole in the base of large trees to use as a home. Another well known animal is the puma. With its gracious walking and skillful climbing up the trees, this wild cat is considered one of the most beautiful animals in the tropical forests of Ecuador. The spectacled bear is also part of the huge biodiversity in this South American country. It is a rather ‘shy’ animal usually living alone, as its main food are different fruits, insects and very small animals. Something unique about them is that they do not hibernate like other bears, but they make their own ‘nest’ out of leaves or small branches up on the trees where they sleep. Illinizas is also home to some of the most interesting and hard to observe birds – the yellow-eared parrot. Despite its danger of extinction, this specie weighting a little less than 300 grams nests usually on palm trees and eats the wax palm fruit of these specific plants as well as seeds and other fruits. Due to its beauty and uniqueness, it is unfortunately hunted for food and selling on the black market, as only 212 mature individuals are considered to be left in Ecuador and Columbia.
Once you arrive to the refuge, depending on the time, you can decide if you want to continue to the summit of the north Illiniza for approximately 3 hours or you can stay at the refuge and rest so you have enough energy to do it the following morning.
To climb this section of the Illinizas, you are required to have some basic climbing experience and specialized gear – a polar jacket, stable mountain shoes, gloves and clothes resistible to cold temperatures of up to -2°C. Only in the final meters to the summit, there is a short part of the road where you must be careful. This route is ideal for people who are planning to conquer summits like those of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi.
Once we return to the base of the refuge, we can see to our left his bigger brother – the South Illiniza. From both peaks, Cotopaxi can be seen in its complete beauty.
For this ascent, it is required to have the knowledge about ice climbing and rescue techniques, since the climb is considered to be difficult and dangerous. It is essential to have at least a day of acclimatization on approximately 4000 meters beforehand.
The South Illiniza is consider one of the 3 most difficult places to climb in Ecuador, after El Altar in Chimborazo Province and Antisana between Pichincha and Napo provinces, especially when there isn’t enough snow on the mountain and most of the route is covered only with ice. Experience on ice climbing is necessary due to the existence of cracks and sheer slopes of snow and ice with 70 degrees on inclination. It is necessary to cross several cracks of up to 4 meters wide and even more when it comes to their depth. Similar to the ascent to the North Illiniza, the starting point is the refuge. From the same one, the road will take us for 4 to 6 hours to arrive to the summit depending on the conditions of the normal route. From the south summit, the view of Cotopaxi is mesmerizing.0