Amber Worthington, Alex Ewen, and I went to Ecuador for 10 days over New Years. It was awesome! Ecuador is a beautiful country, has huge volcanos that make for great high-altitude mountaineering, uses US currency, and has tons of different sorts of fruit (say yes to the guanabana). Food was super cheap and generally good, and transportation was easy and inexpensive as well.
Banos is about 4 hours south of Quito in a valley next to the active stratovolcano Tungurahua. We just narrowly missed its most recent eruption!
On the Tungurahua prominence there is the Casa de Arbol which overlooks the ridgeline. We hiked up there from Banos (which was not well marked and is not done frequently apparently) which took about 3-4 hours but was worth it for the views. During the hike we ran into one of my former students (from the University of Georgia) which was very strange!
In Banos there are a variety of cool things to do. Notably "puenting" off a bridge, which is pretty fun. All the equipment is legit and it was a nice thrill. Basically it is a rope swing. You jump off one side of the bridge with a rope attached to the opposite side of the bridge which has a bunch of slack in it. So you free fall for about a second or two and then do a big swing.
They take New Years very seriously in Ecuador. Paper mache dolls that represent all the bad stuff from the previous year are burned in effigy at midnight. People also wear masks of varying levels of creepiness. Nearly everything in the city was closed the following day, and the 2nd is apparently a national holiday that is supposed to promote domestic tourism (neat but unfortunate for us). The perhaps strangest part is that tons of guys cross-dress and stop traffic all over the country in an attempt to solicit some payment for passage.
We did an acclimitization hike to Guagua Pinchincha (15,696 ft.) with one of our guides from Andean Face, which I found through summitpost. Guides are required on all glaciated peaks in Ecuador. The hike wasn't so hard but was pretty nice: a bit of scrambling and some nice exposure! From the parking lot past the refuge and to the summit is about 2,100 ft. of elevation gain. It took us maybe 2 hours and change to go from the parking lot to the summit and then back to the refuge (which was not a nice refuge, at least compared to Cayambe).
The main event of our trip was Cayambe (18,996 ft.), which is an extinct volcano west of Quito, and the highest point on the equator. We spent two nights at the very nice refuge at 15,000 ft. We had intended on summitting on the last night but were prevented from doing so because of weather, which is very unpredictable given the mountain's proximity to the jungle. This was my first experience with proper mountaineering (i.e. things that weren't just high-altitude hikes). Cayambe is glaciated, has a ton of crevasses, and the weather is much harsher than anything I'd experienced before. Most of the time we were there winds were in the 40-50 mph range, though it wasn't terribly cold. The first two days none of us were really acclimatized and it was 100% type-2 fun. By the time we were supposed to summit (it snowed that night, covering all the crevasses, which is why we didn't go) things the altitude wasn't as much of a problem. The following day we went to a ridge that is a little over 17,000 ft.
The reasons for the so-called "alpine start" became obvious while doing this. The sun warms up the snow enough that if you weigh anything you will be postholing pretty much continuously, which is exhausting. Additionally high stepping with crampons is a great way to rip your pants to shreds. Of course the risk of avalanche, rock, and ice fall are also increased during the day. On our way back home we ran into some people who had been on Cotopaxi and were hit by some pretty bad rockfall. Wear helmets people! Andean Face's gear list omitted some important things: I wish I had goggles with very dark lenses, waterproof gloves (only had waterproof mittens and liner gloves), and a shell with a helmet compatible hood.
It is easy to see how mountaineering is addictive. I think if I had it to do over again I would have spent an extra day acclimitizing before heading to Cayambe and done much more serious (read: any) training (this looks like a good place to start). Hopefully I can go back and climb Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, and maybe some others in the near future! It was nice learning some of the technical skills necessary for alpine climbing. We definitely could have covered more (we did basic crevasse rescue and glacier rope systems), but that is what this is for.