Travel: On the crater's edge

Volcanoes - grey, lifeless, smelly. The people who climb them - intrepid, brave, a bit silly. The place to do it? Ecuador, home of absolution and the retro vibe

`I love the smell of napalm in the morning.' Robert Duvall's caustic admission in Apocalypse Now came back to me as my nostrils filled with sulphur, the stench wafting up from the huge crater that threatens the people of Quito down in the shadow of Volcan Guagua Pichincha's brooding peak. God knows how I got there. It really should have been out of bounds, all 16,000ft of it, on my first day in Ecuador.

"So tell me about yourself," asked Gabriel, my guide, as we squatted at the crater's rim, peering into space. I was knackered to my knees and all I could offer were short staccato bursts of autobiography. "Late forties," I replied. "Dutch-Jewish parentage. Bunked and flunked school in the Sixties. Campaigned for human rights in the Seventies. Parachuted over the Alps in the Eighties. Stand-up comedian in the Nineties. Restless and reckless to a fault."

Perhaps this in some way explains why my idea of a holiday is to climb four volcanoes in as many days, clambering over mountainside memorials to fallen climbers, taking gravity-defying train rides that are temporarily suspended every time a carriage detaches and shoots into a ravine. They say South America is unsafe. This isn't what they meant.

Having scaled Kilimanjaro a couple of months earlier, I reckoned the fabled Cotopaxi - my Day Two climb and, at 19,400ft, the same height as Kili - would be, as Gabriel put it, "a piece of piece". He was wrong. It was too much too soon. Not properly acclimatised, I struggled to the climber's refuge - itself higher than any Alpine summit - before decorating an intrepid German and his guide with Pollock-like splashes of colour - acute mountain sickness as modern art.

For many people it is enough just to look at Cotopaxi. Apparently perfectly symmetrical, it looks somehow like an upside-down Cornetto with the ice- cream running down the side, stopping halfway in zigzag formation. Seen from afar - and on a clear day it can be seen 80 miles away - it looks like a mountain. To walk up its ash slopes - so deep and grey and lifeless they offer scant hope to any form of vegetation - you know it is a volcano. On the scree of Kilimanjaro you make three steps forward, slide back one. The ratio is worse on Cotopaxi, causing calf muscles to scream out for respite, until you reach the glacier. Not that I reached the glacier.

Had I been climbing alone I'd have given the summit a go. But Cotopaxi is what they call a semi-technical climb, and with you and your party all roped together, it's a case of one back, all back. So, rather than reduce the chances of the others, I did the honourable thing and stayed behind. Or, more to the point, I headed for the shanty town of Alausi and the train ride from hell, the infamous Nariz del Diablo.

Think of the hairiest rollercoaster you've ever been on - the Diablo is hairier. As we rose from Alausi, climbing through the clouds to well over 14,000ft, we negotiated a stupefying series of switchbacks, the mountain disappearing to either side in vertical free-fall. The train clung on somehow. Precipitous. That's a good word for this environment. Suicidal. There's another.

Inside it was all warmth and hip-flasks, the passengers cosily cocooned from the terrors outside. Trouble is, this passenger was outside. For some reason, I had elected to share the roof-rack with some Italian revellers. Don't ask why. We sang, we drank, we prayed, we compared designer labels. And, heaven knows how, we didn't fall off.

All such terrors were forgotten on reaching Cuenca, Ecuador's beautiful southern citadel, a place that transports the visitor back through the centuries, down narrow cobbled streets, past whitewashed colonial buildings, ornate churches and tranquil convents, all set in unlikely yet harmonious juxtaposition with the elements of a modern metropolis.

Cuenca was the perfect place to rejoin the others and swap tales of terror. I won hands down. Vaulting a crevasse at 17,000ft on Cotopaxi is kids' stuff compared to the Diablo, or so I had them believe. Our macho posturing continued all the way to the foothills of our next climb, the mighty Chimborazo, at 20,800ft the mother of all volcanoes, whose peak, due to the bulge around the equator on which it all but sits, is the point on Earth which is closest to the sun.

With two climbs still to attempt and our itinerary changing by the minute, time was not on our side, and a speedy decision needed to be made. Rather than drive up to Refuge Two and hang around before making a midnight assault on the summit, we decided to climb just the middle section of the mountain in the few daylight hours that remained. In short, we aimed to hike from 13,000ft to 19,000ft in five hours. That's 1,000ft an hour up a one-in-two gradient over loose scree that metamorphosed at Refuge One into packed glacier. At least I'd get to use my ice-axe.

Chimborazo is cold, grey, forbidding, haunting and glorious. Trussed up like Michelin Man at a bring-and-buy sale, I wandered up the slopes rejuvenated at the prospect of using my new toy, until I caught sight of something that made me double-take. I wasn't hallucinating. It was a cemetery - a dozen grey headstones marking the last resting place of climbers who hadn't made it. I lay down between two graves for the obligatory photograph, shocked by the chill from the granite. I'd never been this close to death.

We made it up and down on the dot of five hours - I'm plucky under pressure. It was time to chill out. In Ecuador this means Banos, mountain spa resort extraordinaire, a place that oozes atmosphere. In fact, it is strangely reminiscent of the Southend of my childhood. Bikers, candy floss, helter- skelters and - bizarre as it may seem for a land-locked mountain hamlet - stalls selling beach balls, lilos and rubber rings. The place was filled to overflowing with day-trippers and dirty-weekenders and yet - and this is where Banos and Southend are different - there is always a quiet corner in which to lose yourself, a shaded gazebo in a church courtyard. And definitely nowhere in sight called The Kursaal.

Like some gigantic amphitheatre, Banos is enveloped on all sides by the hills that issue the water to the town's hot springs. And when you've been up Chimborazo, even part of the way, a hot spring is just the place to scrape off the volcanic dust. Absolution can also be achieved at the Santuario de Nuestra de Agua Santa, the Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water. The virgin is credited with many miracles, and many Ecuadorians make the pilgrimage to Banos to seek her blessing. I was looking for an Internet cafe where I might log into the English football results. I needn't have bothered. Ecuadorians know every soccer score from every corner of the planet.

"Who do you support?" a street trader asked me. "Luton," I replied. "2- 1 to Walsall," came the reply. "Thomas sent off." Impressed? I bought his entire stock of FC Guayaquil rosettes.

From Banos we headed back north to Quito. Any ride north in Ecuador - or south for that matter - takes you along one of the world's great highways, the Avenue of the Volcanoes. If there is anywhere in the world a more scenic thoroughfare than this, I would like to go there. For 300 miles, volcanoes line this stretch of Pan American Highway, their names as magical as the vistas they provide: Cotopaxi, Cotacachi, Cayambe, Illiniza, Fuya Fuya.

The highway climbs sometimes as high as 12,000ft, the patchwork valleys with their thatch-roofed mud huts disappearing beneath us, before easing back up into the foothills of the imperious volcanoes. Bolivians claim the road between La Paz and Yungas as the most beautiful, and terrifying, in South America. I guess I'd have to see it to believe it.

And so back to Quito, and the Hotel Sierra Madre, an 18-room gothic villa in the centre of town. Quito is my favourite capital city, a place of high contrasts. Colonial and contemporary, poor and prosperous, chaotic and serene, it is all things to all people. And the locals are so open, so friendly, the myth of the "unsafe continent" explodes before your very eyes.

I spent my remaining days there hanging out in one of Latin America's great eateries, the effortlessly funky Magic Bean, where gigantic all- day breakfasts, scratchy protest songs, Jimi Hendrix posters, and bandana- clad post-Hippie backpackers vie for sound and space on the wisteria-shrouded patio. All that's missing is the mud and the ganja (well, the mud anyway) to complete the illusion that you've wandered off the street and into Woodstock.

The perfect way to wind down before cranking up for the final climb, Pulumbura - at a shade over 14,000ft a relatively gentle jog with which to bid adieu to the peaks that shape this wonderful country.

Getting there: the easiest way to reach Quito from most UK airports is on the Dutch airline KLM via Amsterdam. Better fares are usually available on Iberia via Madrid; South American Experience (0171-976 5511) quotes pounds 531 from September, pounds 90 more until then. Best of all is on Avianca via Bogota. If you can travel out on a Thursday, you pay just pounds 392 from 15 August to 15 September

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