Peaks and pelagics
Top of many a visitor’s wishlist are the Galapagos Islands, famous as the place where Charles Darwin started to formulate his theor y of evolution by means of natural selection. A full 900km off the Ecuadorian coast, they are volcanically active and so are more arid and rocky than lushly vegetated. Diving here is focused on a procession of pelagic fish species out in the blue, as well as marine mammals such as playful seals and the less playful but characterful iguanas closer in. To get the full experience, you’ll need to island-hop so it pays to go with a bigger, more luxurious boat such as the Galapagos Aggressor III, run by the Aggressor Fleet, www.aggressor.com Going December to May brings hotter and rainier weather, with calmer, warmer seas. The flip season brings less predictable weather under the influence of the cool Humboldt Current but those nutrient-rich flows are also more likely to draw hammerhead and whale sharks. Switching to t he mainland, t he usual centrepiece of any exploration is La Avenida de los Volcanes: a road trip or train ride flanked by the volcanoes of the Eastern and Western Cordillera. Many of them are active but still popular with local and visiting hikers. Shapely Cayambe and Cotopaxi – visible from the capital, Quito – are both well over 5,000m, but the tallest of all is Chimborazo at 6,268m. Indeed, the bulge in the Earth at the Equator makes its summit the furthest point from the planet’s centre – so in a way it is the world’s highest mountain. Besides hiking, this is also a good peak for mountain biking on the paramo, or alpine tundra. The guides at Biking Spirit, www.bikingspirit.com, run a number of routes on the mountain including a few spots they guard for their clients alone. Book ‘Route 2’ to share in their secret, riding on dirt roads and singletrack following the old Talagua summit route up to the Whymper shelter at 5,000m. After the couple of kilometres grind up, you get the glory of a view of the south face of Chimborazo, followed by the glee of turning about for more than 30km of downhill!