Thursday, March 05, 2009


The guide book told us to ask the bus driver to stop at the turn off for Urbina. You get off the bus at the entrance to a dirt track and all you can see around you are a few scattered buildings in the distance. There is, however, a sign directing you up this road to the Posada La Estación. As we put on our rucksacks and were about to start walking a van carrying a group of tourists turned into the same road. I half hoped they would stop and give us a lift, but they sped off to the same place that we were heading for. Here it is. Those who look at this building and think railway station are not wrong, because that's what this building used to be.

The track from the railway that once ran most of the way along the Andean backbone of Ecuador is no longer in use in this area. I wondered why there would ever have been a station here anyway, there is no town or village. The explanation is that the trains used to climb up here from Riobamba with fewer carriages than they would then pull on the rest of their journey, the rest would be added here. The animals probably had to graze somewhere else in those days.

The road alongside the track also has some history, we were told that this was the original Panamerican "highway" constructed in Ecuador, now about a kilometre in distance from its modern equivalent.

So once we were settled in we took a walk down the old Panamerican. A few minutes down the road and around a corner our objective came into view.

Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador at 6268 metres and apparently because of its equatorial position the point on the earth's surface that is furthest from its core. The Posada mainly caters for those with an interest in exploring the mountain and surrounding area, it is simple but comfortable accommodation and full board is provided. Along with the two mountain refuges higher up on Chimborazo itself it is run by Rodrigo Donoso, from the Alta Montaña travel agency in Riobamba - some 15 kilometres away. To me this place has a special atmosphere, you really have the feeling of the highlands in this area, but then it is located at 3600 metres. That includes the feeling of being very cold at night, although the dining room of the Posada is kept warm in the evenings with a stove and a fire.

We organised two days of walking around Chimborazo with Rodrigo's agency. Day one took us to the less popular side of the mountain. The landscape in this area is distinctive, despite being at 4000+ metres there is still plenty of vegetation. This high mountain landscape is what is referred to in Ecuador as the páramo.

As we got higher up the vegetation became sparser, and despite having felt fine on Cotopaxi a few days earlier I was noticing the effects of the altitude. We walked to the base of the glacier that covers the upper part of the mountain, an impressive sight even though much of it was not visible through the mist.

On day two we left the Posada and travelled round to the other side of Chimborazo. On this side of the mountain, there are two refuges - the first of which is accessible by car and this is where we began our route. The second refuge is a couple of hundred metres further up, and it is here where those intending to go to the summit usually begin from. This refuge is named after an Englishman, Edward Whymper who claimed the first ascent of the mountain The day started very clear on this side, so we got a full view of Chimborazo.

The vegetation is much sparser on this side of the mountain, something which is apparently not helped by the presence of a growing number of vicuñas; the product of a repopulation programme that has been possibly too successful.

By the time we got up to the second refuge the clouds had already closed in and there was no possibility of seeing the higher parts of the mountain. Despite that there was still some dramatic high mountain scenery.

We set off up through the snow to reach an altitude around 5400 metres, higher than anywhere I've ever walked before. I was already trailing well behind and taking my time when I saw a rock that just stood out as the perfect place to sit and contemplate the scenery. I couldn't resist, I’d gone high enough.

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