Saturday, December 3, 2011

Quito - Riobamba

22 Nov 2011

Guess what?  Yep, another early start as we were due for a pick-up at 8.00 at the hotel.  Once again, we stored a couple of bags, just taking one small suitcase with us for the next few days.  We'd been told that it might be quite cold up in the mountains and we might get rain too, so we took fleeces and anoraks with us too.

Shortly after 8.00 a Mercedes 9-seater mini-bus turned up with Lois the tour guide and Lois the driver.  Lois 1 and Lois 2!  After loading our luggage and equipped with camera, video and binoculars we bagged the first row of seats.  We then continued to another hotel and picked up four more Brits, Ian and Carol and Brenda and Geoff, all from Yorkshire.

Getting out of Quito was fairly mad as it was rush-hour, but eventually, we started climbing a hill to the south of the city and stopped briefly for a photo-stop to look down on the capital.  The road we were to follow mainly for the next two days was the Pan-American Highway.  Clearly the Ecuadorian government is spending a lot of money trying to upgrade the road to dual carriageway for at least 100 miles from Quito.  It is clearly a challenge to local drivers to see just how quickly they can progress through the ongoing road-works, including driving on coned-off and indeed un-surfaced sections of the road.  It is also essential to overtake on blind bends and double white lines clearly mean you are invited to overtake at any time you like!

Nonetheless, the journey was fascinating and gave us an insight into Ecuadorian life not visible from an aeroplane.  After a couple of hours, we arrived at Latachunga, a large provincial capital and we stopped at the local market.  We were slightly concerned about this visit as often on holiday itineraries, 'local market' usually translates as 'Tourist' market where you are hassled to buy cheap souvenirs.  This, however, was very different and was a market for the local people and was selling fruit, vegetables, meat, baskets and other items for daily use.  There were also lots of food stalls.

We had been told that Ecuador is 'self-sufficient' and doesn't import any food and we could see fabulous fruit and vegetables for sale.  The food snack stalls, on the other hand, were selling food deep-fried in batter.  It seems that the local diet does not include all the amazing fruit and vegetables, but does include lots of high-fat meals.  Much of the fruit and vegetables are apparently rejects for the highly lucrative food export business.  Ecuador is a huge exporter of bananas, but only the highest quality and perfect-looking gets sent to places like UK. How sad, especially as prices are very low.

Latachunga Market

We discovered that you can't buy bananas, for instance by picking 2 or 3, but have to tell the stall-holder hour much you are prepared to pay.  We asked for 50 cents (35 pence) worth of fresh bananas and ended up with a couple of kilos!  We also bought 4 grenadines for 1 dollar.  None were wasted as we ate them over the next couple of days, they were delicious.

As we drove south we were following the Avenue of Volcanos, named by Alexander Humbolt.  Although it was cloudy, we did see Mt Cotopaxi and several other of the high peaks.  the snow-line in Ecuador is at 5000 metres all year round, so it is easy to gauge the height of the mountains.

Mount Cotopaxi

We continued on to Ambata a large city an hour further south and turned off to circumnavigate Mount Chimborazo, another snow-covered volcano about 6200 metres tall.  As we started to climb out of the fertile valley, already at 2800 metres above sea-level, the scenery started to change.  We slowly lost the trees and moved into the high altiplano or paraimo of scrub and near-desert conditions.  These are the conditions that LLama and Alpacas love and we started to see them roaming wild. 

As we climbed further we and vegetation started to get really sparce, we found wild Vicunyas, another sort of Llama.  These high-altitude animals had been hunted to extinction, but the government was now reintroducing them with animals bought from Argentina.

Vicunya - high on Chimborazo

Finally, high on the slopes of Mt Chimborazo, we turned off up a dirt track toward the Whymper Refuge.  This refuge, now mainly abandoned used to be the start point for mountaineers climbing Chimborazo and is named after Edward Whymper, a Brit, who was the first recored climber of the mountain.  We briefly parked at the refuge 4700 metres above sea-level and puffed our way up to monument.  One or two of our party were begining to feel the effects of altitude sickness, so we quickly got back in the bus and descended to the new Chimborazo Mountain Base-camp and a very late lunch.

Chimborazo - 4700metres above sea level - Whymper Refuge

Following lunch we carried on down the mountain to Riobamba where we were due to stay.  The hotel, a lodge called Abrospungo, was on the outskirts of town and was very peaceful.  Due to our late lunch, none us felt hungry, so didn't join the huge party of Germans who were also staying there.  Instead we had a beer and a sandwich before heading for bed.

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