Home > Ecuador > Chimborazo: Ecuador’s Highest Volcano (Part One)

Chimborazo: Ecuador’s Highest Volcano (Part One)

ChimborazoThe morning sun rays filter through the eucalyptus trees around the gardens of our Hotel, a posh country Inn, located in the outskirts of the Ecuadorian city of Riobamba. Looking to the east, I can clearly see the silhouette of Mt. Altar, an old giant caldera, eroded by time and showing now its unique shape with at least five conspicuous snow covered peaks, looking from afar very much like a huge natural altar (thus its name), veiled in dazzling white…

Having had a bountiful breakfast, Juan Carlos, Sue, Sofia and myself board the comfortable Van and set off for the foothills of the great Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest elevation, at over 21.000 feet above sea level.  Our guide today is Marco, one of Ecuador’s most and best reputed mountain climbers, a geographer, writer, photographer and nature expert, a privilege allowed to a lucky few…. Marco is a native of Riobamba, the central Andean city which lies at the actual slopes of the awesome Chimborazo volcano.  Having grown with the colossus in front of his eyes, he developed a passion for the mountain, which he has climbed, to the very summit, over a thousand times, accompanying national and international expeditions. Marco’s enthusiasm is contagious and his knowledge immense, a never ending source of fantastic information about geology, geography, archaeology, history, culture, ancestral peoples, farming, traditions and legends.  He has been to the summits of just about all of Ecuador’s 73 volcanoes….

As we ride the paved road which leads due west, to the southern side of the great giant, Chimborazo appears in full splendor, with its three bonded summits, each one, slightly higher than the previous one, up to the very top… I cannot resist the idea of seeing a humongous vanilla ice-cream, this one made of huge fields of perpetual snows and ancient glaciers, presented on three gigantic scoops….  The morning light makes the mountain acquire some golden tones over its large surface of snow and glacier…. We go past the colorful town of San Juan and picturesque Indian villages, where the natives wave at us with friendly hands and smiles, while the surrounding countryside is a patchwork of terraced fields, like a surrealistic wall hanging, made of squares or rectangles of a large variety of greens, yellows, golden and orange tones… the rich land, providing abundant produce for the entire country….

We reach Marco’s spectacular Estrella del Chimborazo (Star of the Chimborazo) Base Camp and High Mountain Lodge.  At an elevation of over 4500 meters, (some 15.000 feet) above sea level, the attractive Lodge looks like an Alpine Camp, but with a fully Andean touch, both on its architecture, as well as on the interior decoration.  The main building houses the public areas: a cozy living room with fireplace; the scenic dining room with breath taking views of Chimborazo (which now looks as if we can actually touch its snows with our hands) and some guest rooms…. The walls are decorated with Marco’s pictures of Ecuador’s mountains and volcanoes as well as with a variety of native objects of various ages, from recent to centuries old, and some souvenirs of Marco’s travels around the world climbing the most emblematic peaks of all the continents.  A refreshing “canelazo”, a typical hot drink made of naranjilla juice (from a local Ecuadorian fruit), mixed with some “aguardiente” (fire water, made of sugar cane), helps us combat the cold temperature, at such elevation and so close to the snows of Chimborazo, in spite of having a sunny morning.  Delicious “bonitisimas”, mini patties made of oven baked maize, serve as a perfect mid mornings snack….

A second, separate building, hosts more guest rooms, well appointed, comfortable and with private bathroom and shower facilities.  Many expeditions of high mountain climbers depart from here and use the Camp-Lodge to acquaint themselves to the altitude before doing the final “assault” to the colossus’ summit.  The open area around  shows us vast moorlands of wind-swept Andean “paramo” or pampas… In the distance we can see wild horses roaming free, as well as brave bulls…. On the Camp’s premises, a large number of llamas and vicunas, the most emblematic Andean camelids are raised and cared for by Marco and his staff. Small groups of them slowly approach us and even pose for pictures… we cannot stop marveling at the tenderness of some baby vicunas, cute as can be, trailing alongside their more weary mothers….  As a backdrop for this fascinating moment is the superb sight of Chimborazo, standing there in all its immensity and grandeur, its steep rocky cliffs, its ash fields littered with gigantic rocks, once spewed from the mountain’s womb and the awe-inspiring huge masses of ice, snow and millenary glaciers, proclaiming “I am the highest mountain of Ecuador and, due to the Equatorial location, the closest point from earth to the Sun”…..  Yes, this is magic Ecuador….and, as the story is not finished, its second part will follow on next week’s edition…..

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