After having enjoyed a delicious and bountiful typical luncheon, a short stroll down the cobble-stoned streets of downtown Riobamba, in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes, take us past some neatly restored old houses, which add charm to the city, located just on the southeastern foothills of the colossal Chimborazo Volcano.  The main square boasts nicely gardened areas and the centerpiece statue in honor of Pedro-Vicente Maldonado, one of the most illustrious sons of Riobamba and Ecuador’s most prominent scientist, geographer and member of the French-sponsored international Geodesic Mission which, in the early 1700’s, determined the location of the earth’s Equatorial Line, a short distance north of the capital city of Quito.

We also make a short visit to Riobamba’s newly revamped Train Station, one filled with history when, in the first years of the Twentieth century, it was the main hub of the Trans-Ecuadorian Railway and the most important commerce and exchange crossroads between the country’s Andean Region and the Pacific Coast. The Station recreates the spirit of the early 1900’s and some old photographs take us a century back in time.  At the “Train’s Coffee Shop” we stop to enjoy a freshly brewed Ecuadorian coffee (Maria Paz and Andres do), while I opt for a cup of equally delicious hot chocolate.

Now it is time to reach our main target of the day.  We leave Riobamba and get down again on the Pan American Highway, with a southbound direction.  Just eleven miles and a little more than fifteen minutes along a first-class road, filled with wonderful Andean scenery, bring us to the historic Colta Lake.  The large lake is the perfect backdrop to find what we came to see: Balbanera, the oldest Catholic Church built in Ecuador. The small and unpretentious temple is impressive in many ways: its historic value, as a true relic of the Spanish Conquest; the dramatic stone façade with a large arched doorway, supported by two columns and the unmistakable feeling of the ancient….

The church was built by the Spaniards in 1534, one year before the Spanish foundation of Quito, and stands there as a living testimony of those years and historic events.  Originally it was made of adobe and straw, and later “fortified” with the use of stone for the main structures.  The temple was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1797, but it was reconstructed shortly after the Independence wars, keeping its architectonic design, style and integrity.  In more recent years, Ecuador’s National Institute of Patrimony has done extensive restoration of the church, both on its façade and external structures, as well as on the interior, its walls, altars and ceilings.  As we quietly explore and look at every angle of the little church, we can certainly “feel” its historic value and yes, it was well worth coming all the way from Quito to see this architectonic, historic and religious relic.  A really pretty park, built by the local Municipality, serves now as the front entrance to Balbanera Church.  Just across the road, shining in the sunny mid-afternoon is the Lake of Colta, (Kulta Kocha in Kichwa language), meaning “Lake of the ducks”.  As the lagoon is unfortunately reducing its surface due to the uncontrolled growth of wild aquatic plants, the local inhabitants we meet tell us that it is still a place of pilgrimage to watch the mighty Chimborazo Volcano reflecting on its waters on very clear days, and to pray at the church, to ask the “Virgin Mary of Balbanera” to protect their crops.

The place is so placid and quiet, the scenery so amazing and the presence, in front of our eyes, of the lake on one side and the ancient church on the other side, as testimony of centuries of history, that we stay around until sunset, before we make our way back to the nearby city of Riobamba for overnight and fully satisfied with what we have seen and done on this new day exploring beautiful Ecuador……

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