Chimborazo, climb to 5200m above the huts and trekking from Urbina Lodge
We set out in our mountain-going bus as planned stopping first at Latacunga to watch the great plumes of ash cloud rising from the volcano Tunguarahua. It has been errupting more or less continuously since 1999 and there is a red alert meaning the villages should be evacuated, but the people go back anyway at their own risk. One threatened town, Banos, is quite large. A few days later an article appeared in a Swiss newspaper about a larger erruption of Tungurahua in Ecuador saying that 3000 villagers had been evacuated. The next town, Ambato, is known for its guinea-pigs (Cuy), which we had for lunch. It is crispy like suckling pig but the size is of course more like a small rabbit. We carried on to Chimborazo but on reaching the turn off from the highest paved road in Ecuador (4300m.) there was thick mist and heavy rain, so camping was postponed and we carried on driving round the mountain to the hut planned originally for two days later. The logic of this is that if you go high enough you can get above the clouds. However there was still cloud and a little sleet when we arrived at the Refugio Carrel at 4800m, but this did not prevent us walking up to the Wympher Hut and a bit beyond in order to reach 5000m.
The next morning we saw that our plan had worked; the sun was shining above – but clouds below and rising. We set out in the fresh snow and made a circular walk to a lookout point and stopped at a small tarn. We had good views of the second highest summit of Chimborazo (it has five) but no other mountains can be seen from that side, nor can the main summit, a similar situation to that on Kilimanjaro. After lunch in the hut, which was quite primitive and cold in the night, we drove down again seeing some vicunas by the road in the thick mist on the way. A suggestion by the guide to go to another high hut on the other side of the mountain was rejected by all and we settled to stay at Urbina, a so called lodge, actually originally a railway station, where Reinhold Messner once stayed at 3640m.
The next day we drove again for one hour in our mountaineering bus to this other hut at 4300m. The fifth highest summit of Chimborazo was visible against a milky sky and stayed so whilst we walked across the mountainside for several hours – no rain. Some vicunas were spotted higher up but despite strenuous attempts we could not get closer to them. The terrain is very boggy and full of all sorts of strange plants. I saw a large humming bird very close to but could not get a picture. We returned to the hut by 16.00 but no sign of the bus. Attempts with a mobile phone to reach the driver produced no results and we had to walk down for another 3 hours. Total walking time 9 hours. It was quite dark when we arrived back at Urbina at 19.15pm.
I was still hoping to see the full range of Chimborazo’s summits the morning before our departure, but again cloud and rain so we never saw them. We drove direct to Riobamba and after lunch in a smart restaurant in an enclosed secure area, where we exchanged our bus for a jeep, we continued to Cuenca. Water is not in short supply here. I don’t think I have ever seen so much. It is on the ground, in the ground, in the sky and on the roads. We had a nearly five hour drive from Chimborazo to Cuenca, much of it through mud and potholes along roads which were partly washed away by landslides. Fallen rocks on the road were common as I think is the weather. When we finally arrived the Hotel Santa Lucia proved to be a fine old colonial building of which there are many in Cuenca. Fred and I went out to eat in another interesting place where there was music. It has been carnival time here for the last four days, but we have not seen much of it except that the shops are closed and they throw water bombs at each other.
Our last walk in mainland Ecuador took place on the edge of the Caja National Park to a small lake and back along the same route, a total of about 3 hours. It was mostly dry despite rain before and after, which continued as we returned to Cuenca. There was still time to visit a Panama hat factory for which Cuenca is famous. Panama hats are made in Ecuador and have that name because they were worn by workers building the Panama Canal to protect them from the sun. I bought a fine one for my brother as his 60th.birthday present and had it sent direct to him in England. In the evening we had a farewell meal with our guide in a typical Ecuadorian restaurant. He was to drive back to Quito the next morning whilst we would be flying back.