Friday, 24 April 2015
Believe it or not, we have come to our last volcano on the Ecuadorean list. And we have saved the best until last - Chimborazo, the furthest place on Earth from its exact centre and the closest place on the planet to the stars.
Riobamba, the city nestled in its lowlands was, after a devastating earthquake in 1797, rebuilt specifically to align towards Chimborazo to enable locals to enjoy the scenery during day-to-day life. From here we loaded up our 4x4 and began the climb to the base camp, called Whymper Hut after Englishman Edward Whymper who made the first ascent in 1880. From here, the last part of our trek was only 900m in distance and 200m in elevation but took over 40 minutes due to the altitude as by now we were over 5000m, higher than Mount Blanc, the Alps' highest peak. Sadly reaching the second camp gave us no better views as the weather had closed in, covering the landscape with thick fog and a smattering of falling snow. Back down to Whymper Hut and it was time to mountain bike! Volcanic rock and debris under the tyres along with 20% visibility, biting cold and sheer drops either side of the path made the first part difficult and treacherous. Our route would be half on tarmac, half in the wilderness so after a couple of kilometres we were rewarded with a short cycle on smooth road.
However back on the trail and the terrain had changed completely. Scrubland had taken over and huge mounds of moss-covered sharp rocks took up the paths cut out by melting glacier water. All the while traversing these rocky conditions, the steep descent means gravity takes over so you find your frozen hands gripping the brakes as if your life depending on it (ironic really). After a particularly rough section, I came off the bike and was thrown down a hill which marked the end of my short-lived mountain biking career. But the fun didn't stop there. Our tour guide turned into a off-road champion so as the others pedalled on we were hurling across the moonscape, whizzing by curious Vicuña, a protected species related to the llama/alpaca family. Their wool is so highly coveted that one kilo can fetch $800! For lunch we stopped in a ravine likened to scenes from 'The Lord of the Rings' and watched local women herding cattle, sheep and alpacas around ancient Inca ruins, all the whilst sat on an embankment soaking up the late afternoon sun.