Hiking in the Andes mountains is one of the most popular activities Ecuador has to offer.Active nature-lovers of various fitness levels can enjoy a wide variety of hikes in Ecuador.
Be sure you have the necessary equipment and personal items before you begin your hike, by checking our packing list. Gear can be purchased at many outfitters throughout Quito and to a lesser extent in Baños and excellent hiking tours can also be arranged with local guides.
The description of this hike: Oyacachi to El Chaco hike, is an excerpt from the book Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador, written by Mark Thurber.
It’s just one sample of the impressive variety of hiking opportunities in Ecuador.
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This two to three day hike takes you from the small mountain village of Oyacachi (3,200m) located south of Nevado Cayambe, along the Río Oyacachi, to the jungle town of El Chaco (1,600m). Oyacachi has a well-developed hot spring that is frequented by visitors from Cayambe and Quito on weekends.
The local legend is that the Oyacachis fled the Incas in the 15th or 16th Century, retreating from Cayambe to the Oyacachi valley on the eastern side of the Sierra. From here they existed relatively unmolested, trading with people in the highlands and the jungle. The Oyacachis never came under the hacienda system, but the Jesuits had a mission in Cangahua (until they were expelled by the King of Spain in the 18th Century) and used this route to supply their missions on the Aguarico and Napo rivers in the Oriente.
Although its exact age is unknown, this route to the jungle is believed to be quite old, as it is paved with cobblestones similar to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. There are some interesting stone ruins called Maucallacta near the present town of Oyacachi that are at least a few centuries old and deserted in the 1960s after a landslide covered some of the houses. There are also several farms on the valleys sloping below these ruins that are terraced as well as some flat hills in the center of the valley that are probably pre-Columbian.
Recent construction of the road heading down in to the Oriente means you may be able to take a truck the first several kilometers detailed below, so substantial time may be taken off of the estimates. How much, well, they’re building the road now, in 2013, but the locals should be able to tell you how far the road has advanced.
The cobblestone trail takes you through the heart of the Reserva Ecologia Cayambe-Coca. This is truly wilderness hiking. The trail has fallen into disrepair in the middle section between two big river crossings (Río Cedro and Río Santa María) where bridges were destroyed by an earthquake in 1987. The area between these rivers is heavily forested and there are good opportunities for birding and animal spotting.
A road was built to Oyacachi from Cayambe in 1995, so access is now much easier for hikers. This road, which was extended about 10 kilometers down the valley in 2004, is hardly used and still pleasant for hiking. The government could restore the route down to El Chaco as a national archaeological and natural history trail. It is one of the most interesting walks in Ecuador and would attract people from around the world, as does the Inca Trail in Peru. As it is, however, the hike is for the prepared and intrepid.
Take a 1.5-hour bus ride from Calle Manuel Larrea and Portoviejo in Quito to the town of Cayambe. These buses run every 30 minutes until about 7:30 p.m. In Cayambe take a bus or hire a taxi for $30 to take you the 1.5 hours on a dirt road to Oyacachi. Above the village is a community-run Ministerio de Ambiente control station for the Reserva Ecologica Cayambe-Coca; currently there is no charge but this may change. They are mostly concerned with illegal hunting, fishing or wood harvesting in the reserve. If you get permission from the reserve office in Cayambe, it may be possible to walk or bicycle from here on the EMAAP (Empresa Municipal de Alcantarilla y Agua Potable)—managed gravel road to Papallacta.
The village of Oyacachi currently has several basic hostels that charge about $5-10 per night, and you can arrange to camp next to the hot springs on the far side of the river. There are a dozen small restaurants that serve fresh trout, and basic supplies in several small shops. Oyacachi is known for its woodworking, and spoons, bowls and sculptures can be purchased at the community store near the entrance to the hot springs. Trout fishing is possible in the streams.
You may want to hire a guide and mules to carry your gear as far as Río Cedro. A guide charges about $25 per day in addition to his food; mules cost about $15 per day. David Parión has experience guiding or can put you in touch with someone from the community since he lives at the entrance to the hot springs. It is important to spend your money locally, since the community is experimenting with ecotourism as a viable alternative to agricultural expansion.
We recommend rubber boots for the mud but some sections are quite rocky, so hiking boots would be a good idea for those with weak ankles. A tent is a good idea, but you may find wood shelters along the way. Definitely bring good raingear, and at least one sweater, gloves for vegetation, a machete for cutting the overgrown trail and insect repellent.
Follow the gravel road 10 km down valley to where it turns into a trail on the left side of the Río Oyacachi. Once you are on the trail do not try to cross to the right side, even though the IGM map (incorrectly) shows a trail on that side of the river, until you get the suspension bridge downstream of the Río Santa María crossing. The major river crossings, Río Chalpi, Río Cedro and Río Santa María all have foot bridges. Find the road that leaves the eastside of the village of Oyacachi. Entrance fee for this road is $2 if you have a car. Plan to pay about $15 for a ride in a pick-up to the end of this road. The first day you will walk along this road alternating between pasture and forest. About 30 minutes out of Oyacachi you will encounter Maucallacta, an abandoned group of three-sided stone structures including an old church and a reconstructed house. This is the old location of the town that was abandoned in the 1960s after a landslide destroyed several houses.
The road currently goes as far as the Río Cariaco (not labelled on the IGM map), where there is a suspension bridge (two hours from Oyacachi). The Oyacachi valley soon narrows from a broad, U-shaped glacial valley to a steep-sided, V-shaped river valley. This point marks the maximum glacial advance during the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago. The Río Chalpi is reached 2.5 hours from the end of the road where there is a suspension bridge. From here the trail narrows, becomes rockier, requires some route finding, and involves more up and down hiking. About six hours from the end of the road you arrive at the Río Cedro, where there is a suspension bridge. This is as far as mules can normally go. There may be a wood shack near the river where you could sleep in a pinch. Camping is best on the far side of Río Cedro, but may require some clearing of vegetation with a machete.
The trail downstream from the Río Cedro crossing has numerous and sometimes precarious muddy ascents, descents and traverses; it is overgrown and difficult to find in places. The trail is also the most beautiful section of the hike, with great views of primary forest on the opposite bank of the Oyacachi. In two spots you are walking along the boulder bank of the Río Oyacachi. You are confined to the narrow Río Oyacachi valley, so if you lose the trail it must be somewhere on the slope above or below you. The trail is never more than 100 vertical meters above the Río Oyacachi in case you lose it. About an hour from Río Cedro you reach Quebrada El Muerto. The next landmark is Quebrada Sisahua (four hours from Río Cedro), a gravel-clogged channel where you need to find a trail up the far bank. About six hours from the Río Cedro, the trail flattens out on the vegetated floodplain of the Río Santa María. The route is confused here by numerous cattle trails. The suspension bridge is a large structure several hundred meters upstream on the Río Santa María, a wide river that cannot be waded safely unless it is at very low flow conditions.
The bridge curiously does not have an access ramp and you need to scramble up the support structure to reach the bridge platform. Once across the suspension bridge, follow a trail on the left side of the Río Santa María to farms connected to power lines from El Chaco. In about 45 minutes there is a suspension bridge across the Río Oyacachi to a gravel road on
the far bank. The walk on the gravel road to the town of El Chaco takes about three hours depending on the soreness of your feet and you may be able to catch a ride on a pick-up truck for a few dollars. Frequent buses pass through the town of El Chaco on their way back to Quito (three hours).
Hike Facts Box
Distance: 42 kilometers
Time: 2 to 3 days
End: El Chaco
Best Weather: June to January in the Sierra and December to February in the Oriente
Maps: IGM 1:50,000 Oyacachi and Santa Rosa de Quijos
Special Interest: Páramo, Cloudforest and Rainforest Habitat, Ruins, Trout Fishing, Bird Watching, Indigenous Villages
Other Ecuador hikes and treks described in Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador (Viva Travel Guides, 2008):
Hikes in the Quito area • Parque Metropolitano • Parque Metropolitano Sur • Chaquiñán • Loma Lumbisí • Río Pita • Ungüi • Pululahua Crater
Nono hikes • Nono to Lomo San Ignacio
Hikes around Tandayapa and Mindo • Tandayapa to Bellavista and Mindo • Lloa to Mindo
Other hikes around Mindo • Tarabita • El Monte Sustainable Lodge • Yellow House • Cascada Primavera • La Isla • Mindo Lindo • Reserva Yanacocha (Fundacion Jocotoco) • Cerro Ilaló • Three Peaks of El Chaupi
Longer hikes • Imbabura Circuit • Luma Cubiliche • Laguna Mojanda • Laguna Mojanda to Esperanza • Cerro Pasochoa-Río Pita Canal Route • Cerro Pasochoa-Machachi Route • Cerro Pasochoa-Bosque Protector Route • Salasaca-Teligote
Hiking in the Zumbahua Area • Zumbahua to Angamarca • Angamarca to Tambo Loma • Zumbahua to Sigchos • Chugchilán to Guangaje • Chugchilán to Pucuyacu
Hiking in the Chimborazo-Carihuairazo Area • Doce de Octubre to Vicuña Reserve • Urbina to Laguna Cocha Negra and Vicuña Reserve • Chimborazo-Normal Route (El Castillo) • Chimborazo-Direct Route • Chimborazo-Whymper Route • Chimborazo-Murallas Rojas Route • Chimborazo-Piedra Negra • Chimborazo-Arista del Sol (Grade V/TD)
Laguna Puruhanta Hikes • Shanshipamba to Laguna Puruhanta • Pesillo to Laguna Puruhanta • Laguna San Marcos to Laguna Puruhanta
Laguna San Marcos Hikes • Río Azuela to the Oriente • Main Peak-Normal Route • Main Peak-Old Route
Cerro Sara Urco Area Hikes • Oyacachi to El Chaco Hike • Oyacachi to Laguna Encantada
Papallacta Lake District Hikes • Papallacta Pass to Papallacta • Oyacachi to Sigsipamba • Quitoloma • Las Puntas • Las Puntas to Oyacachi
Other Hikes on or near the Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca • Río Salado • Río Chalpi • Bosque Protector Los Cedros• Oyacachi to the Hacienda Piemonte • Río Blanco Chico Reserva Ecológica Antisana • Volcán Antisana Climbing Antisana • Central Peak-Normal Route • Central Peak-Direct Route • Southern Peak-Normal Route • Southern Peak-Nuevo Amanecer • Southern Peak-Truenos y Centellas • Southern Peak-Espolon Suroccidental • Eastern Peak • Northeastern Peak • Antisana to Papallacta
Laguna Volcán to Laguna Papallacta • El Tambo to Quincharrumi
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi and Surrounding Hikes • Lasso Entrance • El Boliche Entrance • Machachi Entrance • Hiking Around Cotopaxi
Parque Nacional Llanganates Hikes • Laguna El Cable to Río Topo • Sacha Llanganates
The Baños Area • Day Hikes from Baños • Rock Climbing Baños • Tungurahua
Parque Nacional Sangay El Altar • El Altar Crater and Beyond • Monkey Hippy
Volcán Sangay • Sangay-Eten/Plazapamba Route • Sangay-Culebrillas Route • El Placer
The Atillo Area Treks • Atillo to Achupallas
The Inca Road to Ingapirca Trek • Ingapirca
Gima to Nueva Tarqui Saraguro • Saraguro to Yacuambi Trek
The Vilcabamba Valley and Parque Nacional Podocarpus • The Vilcabamba Valley • Cerro Mandango • Parque Nacional Podocarpus • Canjanuma Ranger Station Park Entrance • Hikes within the area • El Mirador Trail
Laguna de Compadre • San Francisco Station • Bombuscara Ranger Station Park Entrance • Cerro Mandango Quebrada Honda
Tena and Puyo • Papallacta Pass • Baños area hiking • Jungle Trips • Continuing into the Oriente
Huaorani • Jungle Trips
Reventador • Alto Coca
Parque Nacional Sumaco-Napo Galeras • Volcán Sumaco • Climbing Sumaco
The Baeza Area • Baeza to Communication Towers The Macas Area
Updated June 6, 2013