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Ecuador’s Cotopaxi Route Might Be The Best Hut-to-Hut Experience in the Americas

Experiencing the highs and lows of Ecuador’s trail running scene. 


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By mid-morning on our first day, my shoes were soaked through. And not just a damp upper with mildly wet socks, either. I could feel pools of standing water around both feet. 

Hiking uphill on a trail-turned-stream, the four of us fought through brush and navigated muddy chutes, wondering if our ideal weather window was behind us. Morale was still high, although I knew that wouldn’t last forever. The “trail” on our iPhone maps wasn’t well used by hikers, but we did run into a few cows and wild horses along the way. Later in the day we would learn “alternate route” is Ecuadorian parlance for the wrong way to go. 

“Why go the harder way when the normal route is already an adventure?” a local friend told us.

Almost noon and still a few thousand feet below the 13,780-foot summit of Pasochoa volcano, we had to keep moving. Even though we were just an hour’s drive from Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, on a route often billed as a good acclimatization for larger summits to the south, we were already in the thick of it. It was unclear if the path in front of us would lead us to the top, or if it would just end abruptly. Forward we went, determined to find out.

The Grand Idea

Ecuador already has all the ingredients for a world-class hut-to-hut trail running trip: stunning landscapes, a web of rugged mountain trails, colorful haciendas with regional food, warm showers, beds to crash in. The infrastructure is basic compared to popular hut-to-hut routes in Europe, but the novelty drew us to its less beaten path. 

Other activities like horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking are growing in this area of the Andes, but trail running is still an afterthought. The country has recognized the economic potential of recreational tourism and is beginning to market this area as one of the key locations to visit. For running specifically, the elevation here is a challenge – most of the park is above 10,000 feet – but the real crux is a lack of guides who know the area and also trail run. There are few established routes and no organized running trips in this area we could find. Yet, there is a ton of potential, using a mix of singletrack and gravel roads, linking haciendas together. 

We designed the route on Gaia and refined it on Google Maps with satellite imagery, but that was just the start. Juan Carlos, the manager at Pungo Lodge, helped by providing great local beta, but the real test came in person. 

“You really have to respect the mountains here. Weather moves in fast and you need to be adaptable. As long as you do that, you’ll be OK,” said Juan Carlos.

Outside of rain, hail, and wind, we had plenty of surprises. We ran into at least a handful of fences and private property signs, forcing us to reroute on the fly. No amount of time behind a screen could solve for stuff like this; you just have to be fluid and flexible. 

The Route And Haciendas

After a short shuttle from the city to the southern reaches of Quito, we started our five-day trip with a twelve-mile day up and over Pasochoa, terminating at Pungo. Early rain and mud helped set the tone as a true exploratory mission. The following day, we stayed lower in the valley and ran longer, ending at Los Muertos, which has stunning dining room views of four volcanoes, including Cotopaxi. 

 

“Why go the harder way when the normal route is already an adventure?” a local friend told us.

 

The third day was one of our hardest: 17 miles and a summit of Ruminahui Volcano (15,489′), before ending at Tamobaxi, a well-known, bright red hacienda. The next day we climbed Sincholagua Volcano (16, 033′) and ended at a remote Airbnb called Finca Salma, which requires a 4×4 vehicle to access. On our last day, we ran back to the outskirts of Quito, completing our U-shaped route.

Most of the logistics, from booking haciendas to renting a car, were straightforward. Cotopaxi National Park is a short drive from the city; during our entire week in Ecuador our shuttle driver used less than a tank of gas, moving our luggage from hacienda to hacienda. Most of our hosts spoke English and all of them were incredibly friendly. 

The biggest challenge was the weather. We were unlucky to catch the tail end of the rainy season, forcing us to get up early and move quickly each day, before storms rolled in. If you are planning a trip, I would suggest July or August as great months for running in the Andes.

The Gear We Used

Our goal was to run as light as possible, while staying prepared for the unexpected. We packed everything needed for the day into Nathan 12 Liter packs, including a small first aid kit, Garmin InReach Mini, extra layers, raincoat, and various snacks like a stack of GU Energy Stroopwafels. I also brought a small filter to refill my reservoir along the way.

Most of us ran in Brooks Catamount shoes and were glad to have a pair of Leki FX poles to stabilize us on wet, loose, and steep slopes. Weather often changed quickly, forcing us to swap between sunglasses and sunscreen to wool hats and warm gloves almost too many times to count. Despite a lush, green ecosystem, this area is an alpine environment and you have to respect it like any other mountain range. 

The Lessons Learned

On my flight from Miami to Quito, I wrote a note to my future self, to read on the return flight home. I learned this trick from a mentor years ago, as a way to remind myself of the important things. 

 

In the end, after over a week in Ecuador, we found very little buttery singletrack – maybe a dozen miles the entire trip. Honestly, the route was a slog, with steep climbs, rocky descents, plenty of exposure, and a constant struggle with altitude. Oh, and the rain, wind, and dead ends. But through all of this, we found a unique form of joy. A joy in solving problems and exploring a new place together. 

The process of developing this route is on-going. It’ll take at least a few more trips to fully develop the Cotopaxi running playbook, but learning to enjoy the process and connecting with people in the area is the most important part. Our next step is spending time with and learning from the locals. Because even when we saw a trail on Google and Gaia GPS, their advice to go another way – alternative route – was almost always correct.