ECUADOR'S HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IS EASILY REACHED
For a spectacular hike up Chimborazo's 20,700 foot peak, take a bus from Guaranda in Bolivar Province. The road winds up the side of the mountain, and you can start your hike at 13,000 feet. Here is how we did it.
Marimba music blared through the bus from Guaranda as it climbed around another steep bend in the Ecuadorian highlands. I gazed out the window at the enchanted Andean landscape. Under a brilliant blue sky, sheep grazed on a steep hillside backed by towering green mountains, and the snow covered peak of Chimborazo appeared in the distance.
My wife, Judy, leaned towards the window to catch the view. We were four months down the Pan American Highway from our home in West Virginia, and we felt a little battered and road weary. I looked at the map on my lap which showed the road climbing quite close to Chimborazo's peak. The plan was to stay on the bus as long as it was going up, and get off when it crested.
The ticket seller on our bus, a teenage boy with unruly black hair, started down the aisle to collect the fares. Bus travel in Ecuador is very cheap. The boy braced himself against the sway of the bus as he took a few centavos from an old woman wrapped in a rough, homespun shawl. He worked his way through the passengers who were simply dessed campasinos with brown, Inca-like faces. Some of the women wore round straw hats and embroidered shawls that were traditional to their village.
Ecuador is home to many indigenous tribes, and each village in Bolivar Province seems to have its own traditional dress. Most of Ecuador's Indigenas live in the highlands and speak dialects of Quichua, an Inca related language. Ecuador was invaded by the Incas in the 15th century, but Inca rule lasted less than a hundred years before the Spanish arrived.
PEOPLE OF ECUADOR
An hour of gear grinding, curve hugging travel upward, and the peak of Chimborazo seemed quite close. The bus ascended into the fog of a cloud. the farmlands disappeared, and the terrain turned into grassland. This high altitude landscape is called the paramo.
The bus continued its ascent, and we climbed above the fog. We were traveling along a hillside that sloped up from the road. It was covered with huge clumps of paramo grass, and the domed peak of Chimborazo rose behind it against a clear blue sky. In the thin air of 13,000 feet, the landscape fairly sparkled.
We got off the bus and watched it disappear, leaving us alone with the mountain. As it turned out, this was a good place to start our hike. It is located about 18 miles north of Guaranda on the main road to Ambato, a short distance north of the turn off for the road to Riobamba. Unfortunately, it is not marked or signposted. There is no trail, but none is needed because you just walk uphill towards the mountain.
We were five miles from the summit of Chimborazo. The sloping hillside leads up to a ridge called Loma Pedrigal at 15,000. From the rigde, you get spectacular views of the summit. You can go furhter by descending into a shallow valley, and climbing the summit from there.
Now that you know where you are on the map, let me tell you where you are in a cultural, and even spiritual sense. People of the Andes believe that high mountains are the abode of powerful spirits that control the weather, and therefore the fate of the crops. Mountains are considered either male or female. Chimborazo, and the mountain Tungurahua near Banos, are considered a sacred couple by the Ecuadorian people who call them Taita (father) Chimborazo and Mama Tungurahua. According to legend, the two mountains are married, and the locals say that when fresh snow lies on both mountaintops, the couple has been making love during the night.
A strong windswept across the tree-less landscape as we gazed up the hillside to Chimborazo's peak. At this altitude, the air was noticeably thin, and it carried the sweet scent of sage. The bright sun was intense, but the wind brought a chill. We took our sweaters and wool hats from our day packs and put them on.
Beneath the whistling of the wind, there was a devastating silence. We felt completely alone with this powerful mountain. We hiked uphill, stopping often to catch our breath or simply to stare at Chimborazo's snow covered summit that tilted to one side like a giant ice cream cone. Sometimes we would lie flat on the ground behind a clump of paramo grass to get some protection from the constant wind.
We climbed to a height where the road appeared as a slender snake far below us.The wind eased a bit, and we came upon a trail that we followed up the ridge called Loma Pedrigal. We were at 15,000 feet and quite focused on our breathing.
The top of the ridge was strewn with boulders set among thorny bushes. Just below it stood a stone shrine that contained a small statue of the Virgin. Offerings lay scattered about the shrine. People had left flower, an empty liquor bottle, and a few coins to please the mountain that now stood like a god above us. Past the shrine, the wind ceased abruptly, allowing the bright sun to bathe us in its warmth.
We climbed among twisted rocks and prickly bushes to the top of the ridge. The summit of Chimborazo towered thousands of feet above us across a narrow valley. It seemed so close, we felt we could have reached out and touched it. We could see the cap-like snow ridge formed by winds blowing across the mountain's peak. Streams cascaded from its snowfield into the shallow valley that separated us from Chimborazo's face.
We found a place to sit among the rocks. After a while, we unpacked the sandwiches and hard boiled eggs we had brought with us. Neither of us spoke, as if our voices would break the mountain's silent, pristine beauty.
After we had eaten, a long cloud blew across the top of the mountain. An icy wind swept towards us, and we heard it whistling crazily about the peak. As we prepared to leave, we spotted a condor gliding from behind the mountain on its broad, motionless wings. It flew in a wide circle between us and the face of Chimborazo. Then a second condor appeared. It glided across the path of its partner before joining the circle.The two birds circled effortlessly on the wind, and then, as if on a signal, they broke away and sailed high in the air. We watched them disappear into the sky before we began our descent.
CHIMBORAZO IS AN DAY TRIP FROM GUARANDA
Guaranda is a picturesque town with a peaceful, Andean ambience. Even though it is the provincial capital, you will not be surprised to see cows led down a main street or women wearing traditional costume. At 9,000 feet, there is always a coolness beneath the Ecuadorean warmth.
Many buses run daily along the road from Guaranda to Ambato, and they will take you up to Chimborazo. Once you have finished your hike, return to the road. Buses will stop if you flag them, and take you back to Guaranda.
MOUNTAINEERING IN ECUADOR
Ecuador has one of the largest concentrations of volcanoes in the world. Mountaineering huts have been built on the more popular climbs. Hiking in the Andes does not usually follow a set trail, but utilizes local footpaths and dirt roads as the hiker follows his compass in the direction of the summit. Be prepared to draw a simple map of the turns you make and the paths you follow, so that you can find your way back
www.saexplorers.org The South American Explorers Club supplies topographical maps and a wide range of information for travelers to South American countries.
www.ecuador-travel-guide.org has a wealth of information on Ecuador's people, natural environment, and travel options.
www.ecuadorexplorer.com is another site that covers travel and culture in Ecuador.