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.

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