Riobamba - Gateway to Ecuadorian Adventures
We returned to Latacunga for one night after hiking the Quilotoa Loop before heading further south to Riobamba, another hip Ecuadorian city. Whereas Baños is clearly a tourist town, Riobamba feels lived in with only a few tourists mingling with the locals. It is affordable (we spent ~$35 per person, per day for food and lodging while hanging out between hikes) with a seemingly young population. Locals are walking the streets at all hours, eating ice cream and crepes during the mid-day store closures, standing in line to get into the many bars and nightclubs in the evening, feasting on roasted pork at Sunday family lunch in the Mercado. We felt at home and relaxed in Riobamba.
It didn't hurt that we found an awesome, comfortable hotel - Casa 1881 - in the heart of the city. I asked Santiago, the owner, if he'd adopt me so I could eat his breakfast every morning. Who doesn't want pancakes with home made mora (blackberry) sorbet on a lazy Sunday?!? The only problem with his huge breakfasts: it was difficult to find room for the giant platter of Hornado (roasted pork), llapingachos (cheesy potato cakes), mote (hominy) and salad (piled high for $4), served with fresh mora juice ($1) for sale at the Mercado Del Merced. The scene is fantastic: you walk into the building and around the edges of the small room are 10-14 women each with her own booth and her own roasted pig sitting on her counter. They all immediately start yelling at you, holding out pieces of pig for you to taste. We would just make a bee-line for one (we ate here 3 times and chose a different chef each time), eat the proffered hunk of tasty pig, nod our heads yes, sit down at one of the communal picnic tables and wait for a giant plate of food to arrive. Everyone charges the same price, so no need to "shop around."
Although it sounds like we were in Riobamba to eat, we were actually there to hike and climb. Our ultimate goal was to climb Chimborazo. At 6263M, it is the highest peak in Ecuador. Due to its location at the equator where the earth bulges, the summit is the furthest spot from the center of the earth, even though it is 2000+M shorter than Mount Everest. We weren't sure we were ready for 6000M, plus I have never done any actual mountaineering, so we decided to climb Chimborazo's smaller neighbor first: Carihuairazo (5028M), which took us a week to figure out how to pronounce! On the (great!) advice of Santiago at Casa 1881, we booked a 2 day climb with Julio Verne Travel. We got outfitted the day prior for any gear we were missing - sturdy waterproof hiking boots, gators, crampons, ice axe, harness, balaclava, heavy mittens. We left Riobamba at 9:30am and drove for an hour and a half with Telmo, our awesome guide, to the refuge at 4200M. It was a sunny, clear day, so we had great views of both summits - Carihuairazo and Chimborazo - and herds of vicuña.
Telmo made us lunch and then we walked around the area for a few hours, acclimatizing to the altitude. When we returned to the refuge, we napped on the stoop in the wintry sun, imagining a picture perfect day for climbing. After an early dinner, we tucked in for a few hours of sleep before our 2:20am wake up call. For anyone who doesn't already think we have lost our minds, that should convince you otherwise! We rolled out of bed and "What the F?!" came out of Ruben's mouth shortly thereafter...yep, it was raining. And then it was snowing. I put on all of my layers and off we went, a short drive to the trail head and then at 4am with our headlamps on, we set out across a field before we started to ascend. About a half hour in, I made a rookie mistake. It was easy hiking, so I asked Telmo if he could walk a little faster. And then there was no turning back. Now I had to keep up, no matter the pace he set! It started snowing harder, but I was excited to be on my first mountaineering adventure. At 5:15am, we were able to turn off our headlamps, but visibility was poor. About 2 hours in, we reached the glacier and stopped to put on our equipment: crampons and ice axes at the ready, plus get tied in to Telmo for the ascent. I felt like someone was shooting ice pellets at my cheek with a BB gun and I got buffeted around in the wind. Telmo was a life savor, actually strapping my crampons on for me. Ruben's fingers got bitterly cold and painful. A short rest, another layer of clothes and he was ready to go. We walked slowly and steadily up the mountain, at times climbing over rocks. I was at the back of the rope. The guys would pull ahead and the rope would be taut, but I was still a step behind, and needed a moment to regain my balance. At last, the (almost) summit! There is a short, icy, dangerous climb to the true peak, but I was content with our 5000M ascent. The snow was still falling, visibility was negligible and there were no stunning views of Chimborazo. But I was still elated. The descent was fun with our crampons in the snow - it feels like a barely controlled fall down the mountain. We stopped at the bottom of the glacier and removed our gear for the final descent back to the trail head. Telmo still took my "can we go a little faster" comment to heart and we were almost running down the trail. Five and half hours later, we arrived back to the car. Mission accomplished!
So now the question was, are we ready for Chimborazo? We were tired and cold. We decided to sleep on it. The next day, the owner of Julio Verne called us to see if we wanted to book the trip. Telmo was available to guide us. We still weren't sure, so we planned an intermediary 2 day solo hike to El Altar. The climb to Chimborazo starts at 10:30pm, after a few hours of sleep at the refuge. It takes 10-12 hours round trip. It's almost 800M higher than we have ever been (looking at you, Kala Patthar - 5545M). Still, we decided to go for it and then canceled...twice. For now, summiting a 6000M peak is still a dream. Instead, we were off to Sangay National park to visit the base of El Altar and view the Laguna Amarillo.
El Altar (5329M) is, you guessed it, another (fortunately extinct) volcano in Sangay National Park. It is so named, because the collection of surrounding peaks look like 2 nuns and 4 friars sitting around an altar, listening to the bishop (El Altar). It is a technically difficult mountain to climb, so we were hiking in for the views and to see one of the beautiful lakes at its base.
The trek is fairly straightforward. It starts in the village of Candelaria (about 12 miles due west of Riobamba, but requires a slightly more circuitous route through the valley and across the river), past a lodge (Hacienda Releche) where you must check in, pay for the refuge for the night ($15 per person plus $5 for use of the kitchen) and pick up keys, and then along a MUDDY (I can't stress this word enough!) trail. First stop is the Refuge and then the trail continues through the valley and up to an overlook of the lake. The return trip is along the same route, unless of course, you follow Ruben and stroll through cow pastures...
The bus from Riobamba to Candelaria leaves at 6:30am and 10:15am. The early bus would cause us to miss breakfast at Casa 1881 ("No!" screamed my stomach) and the latter would get us to the trailhead later than we preferred so we asked Santiago about a taxi. For $15, we could leave whenever we wanted so we settled on 8am. After a 45 minute drive on a narrow winding road through the valley, our driver dropped us off in the center of the tiny town. There were men out working, laying stone for a new central square, and people working their land as we headed out of town in a light mist. The first 5K to the Hacienda is along a barely used paved road. More townspeople walking and a few cows, horses and donkeys shared the road with the one car we saw. We were greeted at the trail head by a beautiful puppy, paid for the night's lodging, picked up a set of keys and were on our way.
All reports of the trek talk about the sheer volume of mud on the trail, and yet somehow it was still a shock just HOW muddy it was! The trail climbs gently and steadily and we slipped and sunk and jumped over mud pits for the next few hours. We crossed a field with wild horses and met just 2 other people on the trail: 2 locals, one walking and one on a horse, corralling a stubborn cow back down. The valley was lush, though shrouded in fog and mist, with rolling hills on both sides. As we approached the refuge, El Altar was straight ahead rising above the valley, though barely visible.
The hike to the refuge took 4 1/2 hours, so it was almost 1:30pm when we arrived. There is a collection of buildings and we wandered around, trying our set of keys. There was no one around, but one of the buildings had been broken into and there was a pair of shoes on the floor. Kind of gave me the creeps. We found the one large building where the keys worked - a kitchen attached to a large room with tables and chairs, dirty couches, a fireplace and dirty breakfast dishes left on one of the tables, as if the group had left in a hurry. Again, creepy. Upstairs was a row of locked bedrooms with bunk beds and bathrooms. Our key opened the last one and we set up our sleeping bags side by side on a bottom bunk for warmth. We had peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and then had a decision to make: sit around the refuge for hours with not much to occupy our time and hike to the lake in the morning or just go for it and hike to the lake right then. We figured round trip was going to take us 3 hours. There was a chance we'd be hiking back in the dark. We decided to make sure everything was ready for our return in case we were cold, wet, hungry and in the dark. We found wooden boards in one of the other buildings and broke them up for firewood; we laid out the dinner fixings and confirmed that there was gas for the kitchen stove; we had our headlamps at the ready.
At 3pm, we set out through the valley towards El Altar. Visibility wasn't great, but all we needed to do was walk straight ahead and keep the river on our right. The trail runs flat through the valley towards a wall of rocks and then up to the viewpoint. As we were approaching the climb, it started to rain in earnest and then we were climbing up slick, slippery rocks. I kept checking the time. At 5pm, we had to turn around. No questions. We were near the top and all I kept thinking was "climbing back down these rocks is going to be terrifying" so I quietly said, "if this is a bad idea, we can turn around." Ruben looked at me and said "oh, this is a terrible idea, but we're almost there." So push on we did and were greeted with this view: El Altar in the clouds, but this pristine lake below.
We didn't linger, just headed back down the rocks, as terrifying as I imagined! We made it back to the refuge with the last lingering bits of daylight. Ruben started working on the fire and I cooked up a delicious (ha!) dinner of pasta, tomato sauce, sardines and dried mushrooms. Very romantic and creepy in the light from our headlamps, with the wind howling and rattling the wooden framed building. We were getting smoked out by the fire, but it was warm and it was successfully drying our rain soaked clothes!
The next day, we made a repeat of dinner for breakfast - who doesn't like pasta for breakfast?! Ruben made his surprisingly tasty cowboy coffee and we set out for the return trip to Candelaria. We knew there was a bus back to Riobamba at noon and 3pm, so we were shooting for the noon. The trail was even muddier than the day before and about half way down, Ruben thought it might be a good idea to walk through the fields instead of the trail. We found ourselves on a different trail, or more accurately, I found myself sliding down on my ass over and over. I was covered in mud - and probably some cow poop for good measure - from the waist down. The noon bus was looking doubtful. We made it back to the Refuge at 11:55am, thinking the bus stopped close by. We dropped off the keys and hightailed it out to the road, only to realize we had to walk the 5K back to town. The bus was long gone. We were cold and wet and hungry. Fortunately, the workers all need to eat lunch, so yes, there is one spot in Candelaria for a hot meal! A steaming bowl of soup, a plate of chicken and rice and a warm drink (I haven't a clue what it was - it looked like juice but was warm and pleasantly fruity) for $2.50 each helped warm me up, although I left a trail of mud everywhere I sat or walked. But now we still had an hour and a half to kill and the owner clearly wanted us out of her restaurant. Serendipity! One of the other patrons was driving back to Penipe, a larger town half way between Candelaria and Riobamba with more frequent buses. He was happy to give us a ride in his heated (yay!) work truck and didn't mind the mud. An $0.80 bus ride later, and we were back in Riobamba by 3pm. Santiago may not have been happy to see us covered in mud, but he certainly didn't let on!