Ecuador 3 – The Central Highlands – Riobamba, Parque Nacional Sangay, Banos, Ambato and Reserva Faunistica Chimborazo.

9th September – In Riobamba, Hostal Oasis allows us secure parking in their garden area but not camping, so we take a room.

We drive to Parque Nacional Sangay, another wonderful, remote wilderness containing 3 of Ecuador’s mighty volcanoes – Sangay (still active), Tungurahua (occasionally active) and the extinct El Altar, which may have been one of the world’s highest mountains before the collapse of the western slope of its crater.  We are really hoping to have a view of Volcan Sangay but we learn later, that a 3 day trek with a guide is necessary to achieve this.

It’s a beautiful park however, with thickly forested slopes, green valleys, winding rivers and waterfalls, home to a variety of plants, birds and mammals.

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Rainfall is heavy here and today is no different, with many of the hills covered in low cloud.  We wait for gauchos on horseback to pass, herding cattle…….

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…….and continue driving well into the park, along a track which we suspect is perhaps also only for cattle and horses.   We eventually have to turn around whilst we can, as it becomes increasingly narrow.

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10th – 12th September – We leave Riobamba for Banos on the road via Penipe and are shocked at the scarring amongst the green and forested hillsides from quarrying.  Huge trucks and diggers are high up on the slopes like matchbox toys but as a result of the digging, massive landslides have left sheer, bare slopes like enormous sand dunes, clouds of fine dust blowing in the wind.

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Away from here, the hillsides drop steeply to the valley, with rich, dark soil, fields full of crops spreading almost vertically up the slopes and waterfalls gushing from great heights.

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We have a long descent into Banos, located at the foot of the unpredictable Volcan Tungurahua (5016m) and stop for an excellent, late lunch at The Swiss Bistro, recommended by our guide book.  In fact all our meals out in this town are excellent and The Stray Dog Pub also deserves a special mention.

Camping is at Pequeno Paraiso just outside of Banos itself and owners Marc (Australian) and Sue (Brazilian) make us feel very much at home parked in their tropical   garden amongst the cloud forests that spread high on each side.  Luxuries are hot showers and a kitchen leading into a large communal sitting area.  Debbie and Marius from South Africa are also there, waiting for a half-shaft for their Toyota.  We can understand how they feel after our long wait in La Paz for our clutch part.  Am sure their wheels will be turning again soon and a big thank you for all your travel information, which we know will be useful as we head further north.

The garden here is a pleasure to walk round, full of interesting plants, trees and birds………..

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We have our first sighting of the brilliantly coloured, male Cock of the Rock  in one of the trees.

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We take the road up to Luna Runtun – a luxury SPA resort in the hills above Banos, where we park and then take a path that climbs steeply to the Mirador de Volcan.  Although the views are spectacular, especially looking down toward Banos, Tungurahua however, stubbornly remains hidden by cloud.

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We try again another day by climbing up to the Casa de Arbol (another viewing point for Tungurahua), with a tree house and a swing to gaze out over the volcano if you are lucky.  Once again however, it is covered in thick cloud.

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Tungurahua (‘throat of fire’), supplies the hot springs that have helped to make Banos famous. Its eruptions have caused many alerts in the town over the years.  The latest eruption was in 2010 when the high ash cloud even reached as far as Guayaquil.  Fortunately for the people of Banos, Tungurahua’s crater, is on the opposite side to the town and as a result, it has been spared severe damage.  We have been shown amazing photos of Tungurahua’s incredible eruptions but unless the cloud clears, we are not going to see this tantalising volcano!

Banos has a pleasant climate and is a favourite stopping off place for many national and international tourists.  Its streets are full of craft shops and stalls, restaurants and cafes and tour companies, all offering a variety of activities.  The town’s Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Agua Santa, is dedicated to the Virgin of the Holy Water.  She is credited with many miracles and the interior of the church has a number of paintings showing how she was able to save many people from disastrous situations.

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The adjoining museum built around a beautiful courtyard also has some interesting rooms and exhibits.

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13th September – Today we leave for Ambato to renew our vehicle insurance for another month.  Many travellers we have discovered, don’t seem to take out insurance for South America.  However, in Peru, no sooner had we bought it, than we were asked for the papers at a number of police checks.  For the sake of $5 we would rather take it out here also but are unable to find anywhere in Banos that will do it for only a period of a month.

Ambato has an attractive central plaza – the Parque Juan Montalvo, dominated by its new, white cathedral, the old one having been destroyed along with the rest of the city, in a huge earthquake in 1947.  My guide book draws me inside by mentioning the murals depicting the Avenue of Volcanoes, that artist David Moscoso had painted in 2007.  I am disappointed however, to find that they are no longer there.  I thought the clean, modern lines of the interior to be very attractive, although many people apparently consider it to be too modern in comparison to Ecuador’s old and very ornate churches.

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From Ambato, we continue into the Reserva Faunistica Chimborazo, home to many alpaca and vicuna (a wild relative of the llama), that graze in the remote and desolate area of the Rio Mocha Valley, that separates Volcan Chimborazo and its lower and craggier neighbour – Volcan Carihuairazo.

Volcan Chimborazo (now extinct), is called ‘Taita’ (Father) by the indigenous people in the area.  It is Ecuador’s tallest mountain at 6310m but it also holds another record.  It was interesting to discover, that the Ecuadorian Andes, are the only place on our planet, where the Equatorial Line crosses over highlands and passes through glaciers. Due to the earth’s Equatorial bulge, if measured from the centre of the Earth, the peak of Chimborazo is the furthest point on the planet’s surface.  Its summit is the closest point on Earth to the sun.  Chimborazo also has Ecuador’s highest refuge at 5000m – Refuge Whymper, named after Edward Whymper, a British climber who made the first ascent in 1880.

Alexander von Humboldt explored the Ecuadorian Andes and their valleys in 1802.  He named them ‘The Avenue of the Volcanoes’.

All these interesting facts, give us all the more reason for camping overnight in the reserve in the hope of seeing Chimborazo in the early morning before the cloud descends……..we are not particularly looking forward however, to the high altitude and the cold!

The reserve is also home to a few indigenous communities, many still preserving their way of life, dress, food and traditions.

The dirt track through the reserve ends close to Chimborazo at 4268m at the deserted Cabanas  Mechahuazco and the buildings give us some shelter for camping.

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In front of us, Chimborazo is under cloud, but climbing the hill behind the cabanas,  gives spectacular views of Volcan Carihuairazo (5020m) and the surrounding area in the late afternoon sun.  The tufted, dry grass changes to a brown-gold and a distant line of volcanoes appear as silhouettes against the sky.

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In the shadow of Chimborazo, alpaca make a strange warning signal and move off into this remote landscape.

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We have a wonderful sunset right in front of us but once the sun has disappeared, it is bitterly cold.  Huge, black clouds surround us later in the evening, but before we go to sleep, they have disappeared and we can see Chimborazo’s glacier and snowy sides in the moonlight.  The sky is so clear and full of stars….fingers crossed that it will also be clear in the morning!

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14th September – 6.30am and bitterly cold but we are up to see a wonderful view of Chimborazo and its glaciers against a brilliant blue sky!  Our uncomfortable night has been worth it!

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A local guy soon appears with a bag of things to sell (we had not arrived unnoticed of course) and we hope our purchases will help the local community. Not sure if our money is good enough however……..he inspects it very carefully!  He shows us the room where the women do weaving using alpaca wool, which is interesting.

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And we continue to have wonderful views of Chimborazo.  Cloud is drifting across its peak and the sun is spreading across the valley floor and warming our camping place at last.

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We make our way back to the main road, giant Chimborazo dominating the landscape.  We plan to return to Banos and Pequeno Paraiso for a few days before heading further north.

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