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ALONG ECUADOR’S AVENUE OF VOLCANOES TO THE OLDEST CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE COUNTRY, PART ONE

The Pan America Highway, to the south of Quito, is progressively becoming along the entire center of Ecuador’s Andean Region, a fine backbone of eight-lanes, international-class motorway.  Chatting cheerfully away, Maria Paz, Andres and I see how the impressive row of volcanoes, rise like giant monuments, to both sides of the road.  Inevitably we think of Alexander Von Humboldt who, very graphically, called this part of Ecuador, “the Avenue of the Volcanoes”.  As we devour kilometers on a rather quiet early morning, the Pichincha, Atacazo, Corazon, Ilinizas, Quilotoa, Carihuarizo and Chimborazo volcanoes, some covered with a huge mantle of snows, startle us to our right.  But also to our left, there they stand, like disciplined soldiers, the Pasochoa, Sincholagua, Rumiñahi, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua and Altar Volcanoes,  What an amazing view….!!!

Andres proposes a short stop at his parents’ hometown, Latacunga, capital of the Province of  Cotopaxi, bearing the name of the majestic volcano that happens to be the highest active in the world, rising with its cover of glaciers and snows, well over 19.000 feet above sea level.  The stop has one sole purpose: to taste the most famous local dish of the city: “chugchucaras”, a platter of fried pork chunks, boiled hominy mixed with hard-roasted corn cornels, small slices of fried sweet plantain and a half-dozen small but truly delicious “empanadas” made of flour and sprinkled with white sugar.  A big downpour comes thundering from the skies all at a sudden, but it rapidly subsides and we can continue our southbound journey.

Next stop is the small but increasingly busy town of Salcedo, Ecuador’s “Ice-cream City”. Every block in town features no less than four or five ice-cream parlors.  The villagers have developed an ancestral way of making a type of ice-cream which, for conventional purposes, could be considered rather a type of sherbet.  The secret is the use of fresh fruit juices and a special preparation.  Of course, we cannot resist the temptation and we stop at one of the parlors, to savor three different kinds of ice-cream flavors, all simply delicious: “mora”, (a local type of blackberry); “guanabana” and “naranjilla”, two local exotic fruits from Ecuador’s subtropical valleys.  We continue on to our destination for the day, the antique church of Balbanera, Ecuador’s oldest catholic temple, built in the early 1500’s, right across from the picturesque and historical Colta Lake. But, before reaching it, we have a host of sights, scenes, villages, cities and towns to see and enjoy.

The road passes by the bustling city of Ambato, one of the country’s most important centers of commerce and industry.  From different angles as we circumvallate the city, we can see the impressive, perfect-shaped cone, of the Tungurahua Volcano, one which has been quite active, and continues to be, since ten years ago.  We were hoping for a plume of volcanic clouds or vapor to be rising from the summit but the volcano is quiet today. Now we climb to the highway’s highest point, at almost 12.000 feet above sea level. The location is perfect to watch, semi-hidden in the clouds, the immensity of the colossal Chimborazo Volcano, Ecuador’s highest mountain, which reaches 20.000 feet of elevation. Soon we are descending towards Riobamba, another provincial capital city and a history-rich town, located at the very center of Ecuador’s Andean Region.

It is noontime and we make yet one more “eating stop”, to enjoy Riobamba’s cuisine specialty: a platter of roasted pork, semi-soaked with “vinaigrette” made of onions, tomatoes and slightly hot chili.  The dish is complemented by two mashed-potato “tortillas”, (not the Mexican style or type), but rather patties, filled with cheese and garnished with salad and small sausage pieces. The very local banquet calls for the company of a refreshing cold Ecuadorian beer.

Fifteen more minutes separate us from Balbanera, Ecuador’s most ancient Catholic temple. The story will continue on the next issue.

Exploring new wonders of Ecuador’s western andean flanks, part one

The afternoon is moving towards its last quarter as our van rolls across fascinating Andean
landscapes and our minds try to process and classify the hundreds of images we have seen since
we left Quito, the capital of Ecuador, around noontime: the magnificent Cotopaxi Volcano, the
world’s highest active, with its imposing conical shape and huge cover of sparkling white snow
and glaciers; later Ecuador’s highest colossus, Mount Chimborazo, towering at over 20.000 feet
of elevation and allowing us the honor of fully uncovered views of its three summits, equally
awash with a gigantic cover of glaciers and perpetual snows, seen from a rather unusual angle, the
northeastern side… Then, it is a never-ending parade of sights, scenes and colors which only the
most remote corners of Ecuador’s Andes can offer.

Shortly before sunset, Maurice, Jamie and I arrive into Salinas de Bolivar, a quaint and picturesque
little town, nicely nestled on a bowl-shaped small valley, at 3.600 meters above sea level (some
10.500 feet); surrounded by hills and mountains, painted in all imaginable tones of green, emerald
and brown-reddish colors. Salinas takes its name from the existence of millenary salt mines,
whose geological origin lies on saline and nitrate components of the ancient granitic rocks which
form Ecuador’s western Andean Range. Small mountainous rivers allow for the filtration of the
salt along the “Candos”, a series of large and mainly oval-shaped holes, from which the salt is
extracted, using antique techniques. Salinas acquired notoriety about a decade ago, as a center
of small community enterprising, conducted by the local inhabitants, with the support of some
national and international, public and private organizations. Presently, it is Ecuador’s icon of
cheeses production, in present days, exported to many foreign countries. Using a blend of local
techniques with European technology and know-how, Salinas now produces top-class Tilsits,
Goudas, Mozzarellas, Gruyeres and other types of superb cheeses….The industrious spirit of its’
inhabitants has taken them now into the production of fine chocolate, dried fruits and a host of
other goods and products, steadily on the rise…

We arrive at our small but more than pleasant and well-appointed Hotel, at a privileged viewing
location, atop a hill. Young Johnny and Paola, the Reception staff, cheerfully check us in, provide
us with our respective sets of fresh towels and usher us to our very comfortable rooms. We
realize the sunset hour is arriving so we rush to the Hotel’s terrace to photograph the stunning
scenery of the small and colorful town painted in colors, with the majestic background of the most
bizarre and awesome looking cliffs and rolling hills, creating a surrealistic scenario for some unique
movie… A short distance below, a rare set of barren, yellowish-brown patches, show us the actual
“Salinas” or salt mines, silently sitting there as the evidence of amazing chemical and geological
processes….The hilly mountainous backdrop is post-card perfect. Behind the Hotel, two huge and
impressive rocks stand one in front of the other, providing one more bizarre feature to the whole
scene… Without being geologists, we can almost “see” the geological origin of these mountains, in
the colossal clashes of nature, as the Oceanic Nazca plate pushed underneath the South American
Tectonic Plate, eons ago….

After a dinner of locally made pizza, topped, of course, with an assortment of local cheeses and
varieties of dried baby tomatoes and mushrooms; a large cup of also locally made hot chocolate
with dipping of fresh cheeses from Salinas, we sit at the cozy living area, around the fireplace,
for a lengthy chat with Dorian, the young President of the “Mundo Juvenil Foundation”, a private
institution ran by local youths, who, joining the town’s fame for communal enterprising, have
ventured into Community Tourism projects, which include the running of the Hotel and tourism
development plans for the area. He tells us that international experts were brought in to assess
the feasibility of the two “Farallones” rock cliffs being used as venues for vertical rock climbing.
However, the conclusions of the experts detected that the rock consistency was not hard enough
for the purpose. Nevertheless, other venues were located sufficiently close to the town, to allow
for this and other adventure sports to be conducted. Dorian’s eyes sparkle with enthusiasm as he
tells us of their ambitious plans to create a new tourism pole in the area. And we cannot wait to
start exploring this fascinating area of the Andes, early tomorrow morning. We will tell you about
the continuation of this story on the next issue…….

A fantastic journey around Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador’s Andes, Part two

May 19, 2012

A short hike uphill, over high mountain moorlands and pampas vegetation, provides us with startling visions of the beautiful “frailejones” and “chuquirahuas”, the Andean flowers’ most notorious symbols.  Curious llamas, especially young ones, follow us, presumably hoping to be handed over some food.  Several children from a nearby Indian community also follow us, their colorful red ponchos and their lively cheerfulness, adding a feisty atmosphere to our hike. The stark backdrop of the colossal Chimborazo Volcano’s upper flanks, tells us how impressively close we are to the snowline and the edge of some of its millenary glaciers.

As we approach the snowline, the summit starts looking ever farther, making us realize that the Andean giant towers well over the 21.000 feet of elevation above sea level.  Nonetheless, the views of the hectares of snow, (and a bit of the altitude), simply leaves us momentarily breathless.  After touching the icy surface of the first glacier edges we reach, an exciting experience by itself, we start our walk back to the camp.  I am tempted to run, feeling invigorated by the moment of exciting communion with Mother Nature, but I am warned not to run, as the altitude may take a toll on me.

Back at the “Star of Chimborazo” Mountain Lodge and Camp, bottled water, a typical “canelazo” hot beverage and a traditional platter of corn-on-the-cob, served with fresh cheese; green beans and mashed potatoes, serve as a late morning snack, before we continue our journey with Marco, Jimena and Willy at the wheel, around the great Chimborazo Volcano. We are now back on the mostly solitary paved road, watching towards the south the impressive silhouette of the Altar Volcano and catching momentary glimpses of the southernmost of Ecuador’s huge volcanoes: the legendary Sangay, its perfect cone-shaped summit, covered by perpetual snows and showing a plume of smoke above its crater, constantly in mild activity.

Now we are at the western side of Chimborazo, getting rare views of the fantastic mountain from little explored angles.  From this side, the slopes look steeper but we get the impression of being closer to that monumental summit (or rather three sequenced summits), covered by acres of snow and ice, a stunning view altogether.  Along the ashy lava fields on this uninhabited side of the volcano, we can see building’ sized boulders, as impressive testimonies of centuries bygone, when the volcanic giant spewed fire and incandescent rocks at great distances… As we progress along the western rim of Chimborazo, we can occasionally see in the distance the thick subtropical forests leading to the Pacific coast of Ecuador.

Now we merge with another important branch of the Pan-America Highway for an additional 40 minutes ride along the northern flanks of Chimborazo.  We make a couple of roadside stops to look close-by some of those gigantic lava boulders scattered over the ash fields.  A river-shaped glacier almost reaches the road providing yet one more reason for thrill and yet one more spectacular sight.  From the northern slopes, inversely, the mountain’s summit not only appears, but actually is, farther in distance, still giving us post-card views of the magnificent volcano. Marco complements the fabulous views with stories of the historic visitors who were lured and greatly impressed by the majesty of the Chimborazo Volcano: Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of South America, who wrote about his experience on this mountain as a “delirium”; the famous 19th century German scientist, geographer and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt and the equally 19th century famed mountain climber, Edward Whymper, whose name christens one of the volcano’s three consecutive summits.

We have reached Ambato, a commercial hub and Ecuador’s city of the Flowers and Fruits, a garden city, where, before parting in different directions, Marco and Jimena; me and Willy, we enjoy, at the main Marketplace, the city’s culinary specialty: delicious “llapingachos”, golden toasted potato patties filled with cheese, served with peanut sauce, crunchy-roasted sausages, avocados and lettuce salad.  The thirst quencher is an equally local recipe of mixed pear, peach and capuli (a local type of black berry) juice with chunks of the actual fruits.  Hence, with one more delicious Ecuadorian luncheon, this road adventure terminates as we head back to Quito.

A fantastic tour around Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador’s Andes, Part One

May 12, 2012

The rooms and suites at the lovely country inn, located just ten minutes from the city of Riobamba, at the center of Ecuador’s famed Avenue of the Volcanoes, in the central Andean Region, do not have numbers. Instead, they are named after the more than 50 volcanoes and high peaks which cover much of the country’s territory.

The crisp Andean morning, at near 9.000 feet above sea level, calls for a light outdoors jacket.  As I make my way to the central building, for breakfast, the rapidly disappearing mist allows for quick views of the awesome Chimborazo Volcano, rising to over 21.000 feet above sea level, its majestic white cover shining against a deep-blue sky…  Looking at the opposite direction, east of Riobamba, I can also spot, amongst a frame of eucalyptus trees, the silhouette of the ancient Altar Volcano, looking much like a monumental, seven-peaked altar, made of solid granite rock, millenary glaciers and perpetual snows.  Stunning views just to start the morning…!!!

After a hearty buffet breakfast, featuring exotic Ecuadorian fruit juices and fruits; we shove our suitcases into the van’s luggage compartment, as Willy, the driver, cheerfully greets us.  Marco, Jimena and I hop onto the van, ready for a unique road trip taking us around the legendary colossus, Chimborazo Volcano, Ecuador’s highest mountain and the planet’s farthest peak from the center of earth, and closest to the sun; due to its Equatorial location. A still sleepy Riobamba shows us its colonial architecture as we cross through the center of town on this pretty Saturday morning.  We leave the Pan-American Highway and take a paved branch of it, heading west.  At each new angle of the road we get a new and more impressive view of the giant mountain, a humongous volcanic edifice; its three sequenced summits looking like giant scoops of vanilla ice-cream.  Lucky we are, with a clear morning, just dotted with a few whitish clouds and the backdrop of an intensely blue equatorial sky.
Marco tells us about the life of the rural communities we pass by.  Dedicated to farming and cattle rising, the Indian population is laborious and quiet; yet they display all the colorfulness of their traditional ponchos and women’s skirts, particularly on the designated market days on each one of the larger villages of the area. We noticeably start climbing as we follow the good paved road, looking at the amazing terraces cultivated mainly with vegetables, maize, wheat and potatoes.  As we go higher, the brownish background of the volcanic terrain looks like a surrealistic painting, dotted with patches of green and gold colors.

We reach San Juan, an indigenous community that lives in daily communion with the majestic Chimborazo.  For decades, perhaps centuries, many inhabitants of this area dedicated themselves to the hard job of climbing up to the volcano’s glaciers; to bring down, over their backs, just on rustic “yute” (a natural plant fiber) sacks, large chunks of ice from the mountain to serve as a natural refrigerating element to conserve food produce and later, even to use in local variations of popsicles, covered with native fruit juices.

The legendary “icemen of the Chimborazo”, became so famous that books, documentaries and movies told their amazing stories.  Nowadays, very few “icemen” still carry on regularly with the ancestral practice.

Now we leave the main road and take on a secondary dirt road, for a short stretch, uphill, taking us to a tourist mountain lodge, precisely owned by Marco and Jimena.  The property nicely mixes, on the architecture of its cabins and buildings, materials, colors and décor, touches of Andean with touches of Alpine… The large estate, located right on the southeastern flank of Chimborazo Volcano, is home to hundreds of llamas, vicunas and alpacas, the Andean camels, tenderly cared for by Marco, his wife and their staff.  A first encounter with these gentle mountain mammals allow us for some good pictures with the phenomenal background of Mount Chimborazo, now closer to its summit and just a few hundred yards away from the snowline and the lower tips of the startling glaciers, rolling down the giant’s slopes.  It is slightly past mid-morning and, in spite of the sunshine, the wind howls strongly and the temperature reminds us that we are well over 14.000 feet above sea level, at the foothills of an Andean volcano. This story will continue on the next issue….

Chimborazo: Ecuador’s Highest Volcano (Part Two)

ChimborazoAt over 17.000 feet above sea level, the air is light, crisp, thin, soothing… As I look behind me, over and over again, feeling so close to that gigantic mass of glaciers and snow, I think repeatedly of how Simon Bolivar may have felt at those heights, low on oxygen, prompting him to write his “Delirium over Chimborazo”…. And, as every other time I have been there, I feel this strange impulse to race uphill and go touch those dazzling white pieces of prehistoric ice….. But rationality and the advice of my travel companions tell me it is not a good idea to “race” uphill.  I could try to do it, perhaps with Marco’s training, but on a slow, step by step and technically programmed climb. Such are the emotions that a mountain like Chimborazo produces….

Juan Carlos is busy taking pictures, while Sue and Sofia play with the baby vicunas and some of the less shy llamas… some of them are white, others brownish, others mixed colored…. But all of them are just cute creatures of the heights, fortunately now protected under the rules and regulations of the Chimborazo Fauna Reserve and Ecuador’s National Protected Area’s System….  Unable to fulfill my high altitude running desire, I walk over the slightly wet low pampas grass…. A small creek flows downhill carrying crystal clear water and alongside there are some pretty “chuquirahua” plants, the flower symbol of Ecuador’s Andes… From certain angles I can clearly see, far on the southeastern horizon, the towering steep-sloped perfect cone of the mighty Sangay Volcano, neatly showing a thin plume of volcanic vapor rising into the blue sky..

We cannot leave the Star of Chimborazo Camp and Mountain Lodge without a horseback ride taking us over a steady trail headed south, catching new and more glorious views of Chimborazo, the highest mountain on Ecuador’s unique Avenue of Volcanoes.  High above flies a “Curiquingue”, a large raptor from the falcon’s family, searching for prey….hope he or she is not fancying us…. Sadly, it is time to return, so we leave the nicely saddled horses and return to our van, riding back towards Riobamba, the central Andean city where Ecuador’s first Constitution was written in 1830.  It is also the hometown of Ecuador’s most prominent scientist, Pedro-Vicente Maldonado, who joined the International Geodesic Mission which determined the position of the Equator in 1736, giving the country’s its name…The churches and squares teem with people, the colonial architecture prevails on its homes, and the cobble-stoned streets give the city an atmosphere of bygone times… The market is bustling today and blocks of vendors sell from flowers to poultry; from “quinoa”, a local and rich grain, to world class blue jeans, made in Ecuador….

Marco would not let us leave without having lunch with his lovely family at his beautiful home in the outskirts of Riobamba.  The house, decorated exquisitely, is to a good extent a Museum, guarding from colonial paintings and sculptures to priceless books and Marco’s immense collection of Ecuador and World mountains pictures…. Silver, bronze and copper objects share space with tapestries and the large picture windows allow clarity and views of the splendid greenery around from anywhere inside the house.  Ximena, Marco’s charming wife is a truly fantastic hostess and their two daughters a delight to talk to… Time for lunch and we are treated to a very local “ceviche de chochos” (chochos are a local grain, rich in protein, known to some people as “lupine”) followed by the traditional “hornado de Riobamba”, delicious roasted slices of pork meat with the natural juice of tomatoes and onions, scattered over the platter, which comes accompanied by crackling pieces of pork skin and “llapingachos”, potato patties filled with cheese and served with small braised sausages…. Red wine makes perfect match for the banquet which terminates with “babaco”, a local fruit, related to papaya, but different in many ways, served on its own sweet juice…..

Sadly, we leave Marco and his family, hugs and good-byes, as we begin our still tremendously scenic three hour ride back to Quito on the Pan American Highway, leaving the reign of Chimborazo and headed for the premises of Tungurahua, Cotopaxi and Pichincha, the imposing volcanoes which so much impressed Humboldt two centuries ago and which continue to fascinate every fortunate traveler, tourist or explorer who roams the magic Ecuadorean land…..

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