The Avenue of the Volcanoes has been well named. Anna Hyman and Jackie Marriott joined the mountainous route close to Quito the capital of Ecuador and followed it to Riobamba marvelling at its snow-capped volcano summits, stunning valley scenery, the Devils Nose railway, small towns with lively markets, friendly people and their interesting way of life.
The magnificent Cotopaxi Volcano
The weather had been kind to us during our stay in Quito treating us to several glimpses of the Cotopaxi Volcano standing proud on the skyline some 40 miles away. This snow-capped giant of a volcano stands at well over 19,000’ and is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. It was, thank goodness, peaceful the day that our guide Raúl Carrión collected us from our Quito hotel to take us on the next leg of our journey along the Avenue of the Volcanoes towards Baños and Riobamba.
Our route from Quito included parts of the busy Pan-American Highway with American-style road signs and gas stations reminding me so much of highways in North America, whilst either side of the road were fields where cows grazed or potatoes grew.
Cotopaxi National Park
Before not too long, Raúl turned the car into the Cotopaxi National Park destined to become one of my favourite parks. Visitors to the park have to be accompanied by a local guide, but we didn’t need a local guide –Raúl had all the necessary qualifications.
Towering over the park which is home to the likes of deer, rabbits, lamas, foxes, puma and some 90 species of birds, to say nothing of lovely mountain flowers, stands the magnificent and awe-inspiring symmetrical cone of the Cotopaxi volcano itself.
Introduction to the flora and fauna
In the park we came across the Centro de Interpretación Mariscal Sucre which gave us an easy to understand introduction to the geology of the region and its flora and fauna.
However, it was Raúl who explained that the dense pine tree forests of the lower slopes that we had driven through were not indigenous having been introduced as recently as the mid-19th century.
It takes about an hour to walk around the lake
On a high plateau lies a small, shallow lake fed by mountain streams – Laguna de Limpiopungo. It takes about an hour to walk round it but it took me somewhat longer as I kept stopping to take pictures of the snow-capped volcano emerging through the clouds, the lake, its streams and the wild flowers.
The others had gone way ahead of me and I walked in silence on my own with only the sound of the wind and bird song for company, a black chested buzzard-eagle soaring overhead. It was idyllic.
Coca tea and lunch
The air is thin at this height so Raúl had advised us to take things slowly to avoid altitude sickness. He suggested we tried some of the local coca tea, traditionally believed to help prevent the sickness.
In the small mountain refuge we sipped our cups of coca tea (about US $1.50) and also enjoyed great value stews (limited choice) for US$3.
Ambato and Salasaca
Later back on the Pan American highway, and at a much more comfortable altitude, we headed towards Ambato, the principal city of the region.
It’s not the most attractive of cities as it was almost totally destroyed in the massive 1949 earthquake, but it is a thriving commercial city and a bustling transportation hub, making it a good centre from which to explore the surrounding area. It also has three weekly markets – great for both locals and tourists alike.
We lingered long enough for a tour of one of the markets both to stretch our legs and for a quick coffee before heading off to Salasaca where we discretely observed the indigenous men wearing their unusual, for such a colour loving country, black ponchos, big brimmed white hats, white shirts and trousers either selling their local produce, including luxuriantly soft ponchos and colourful tapestries, or else sitting in the town square waiting for their turn to consult a visiting doctor.
…and Pelileo for blue jeans
Further down the highway we reached Pelileo, the blue jean capital of Ecuador – good quality I was assured. Certainly, I have never seen so many jeans for sale. Not that we saw any of it in Pelileo but we were also intrigued by the highly imaginative topiary that we came across in so many of the towns.
Baños de Agua Santa and paintings of miracles
Back on the road the next day we took a more scenic route to Baños. Even with my shaky Spanish I realised that with a name like Baños the town probably had connections with ‘water’: it’s also known as Baños de Agua Santa: – Baths of Holy Water.
Its main church is adorned with paintings of miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary and we popped in on our last morning. Its rather dreary external appearance is more than compensated for by the paintings – chiefly of natural disasters including erupting volcanos and earthquakes and people being dramatically rescued by the Virgin.
Great opportunities for adrenaline junkies
Tourism arrived in Baños big time in the 1970s, give or take a year or two, with the arrival of backpackers and adrenalin junkies eager to explore the surrounding dramatic countryside and cascading waterfalls whilst also participating in the excellent white-water rafting, canyoning and zip-wiring facilities.
Those less energetic can take a dip in the thermal baths, don’t be put off by the rather utilitarian buildings, or the colour of the water – brown with minerals. Get there early in the morning before they get crowded.
Throat of Fire
Towering over the city is the Tungurahua volcano, its last major eruption was in 1999 – but it is still dramatically active regularly pushing out smoke, ash, rocks and flames – living up to its name of ‘throat of fire’.
Baños is not perhaps the most stimulating of towns, but with its subtropical climate and glorious countryside it proved a welcome two-night stop-over for us.
We enjoyed wandering round the streets looking into the souvenir shops and watching sugar being pulled and turned into the popular sugar-candy sweets (Melcocha), or stopping at a bar for a drink to watch the passers-by and the taxis – driver and passengers in the front, animals in the carrier at the rear.
Evenings spent in the Pousada del Arte
Both evenings found us a few minutes’ walk away from our B&B hotel close to the thermal baths, having a meal or a drink at the welcoming and colourful Pousada del Arte with its fascinating artwork.
The food was excellent, the wine and bar good, our waiter Christian delightful and after our meal we moved over to the little sitting area with its welcoming fire, couple of dozing cats, and its two charming owners, American-born Jim and Marshia to learn about their lives and philosophies, the hotel, the local gossip and to generally put the world to rights.
We agreed that if we return to Baños we will stay at the Pousada del Arte – certainly if Jim and Marshia are still the owners there.
Bungee jumpers and zip-liners
One of the paintings in the church depicts a man falling off a bridge into the deep ravine and being saved thanks to the intervention of the Virgin. As Raúl drove us to the top of the ravine to admire the views and in particular the waterfalls, we noticed several tourists throwing themselves into the ravine. However, they were in no danger: they were bungee jumping; or zip-lining in their haste to reach the other side.
Silvia crushes sugar cane
A little further along the road from Baños we came across Silvia at her roadside stall selling candies and freshly crushed sugar cane juice. The old machine she used to crush the canes looked dangerously lethal, but she had all her fingers.
We watched fascinated as she pushed the cane time and time again through the crushers whilst also adding oranges to give the juice some extra flavour. I am notorious at not liking sweet things but I loved the sugar cane juice – both with and without the addition of a little of the local liqueur made from evaporated and distilled sugar cane juice – aguardiente.
She wouldn’t let us leave before she had given us a little present of the jelly-like sweets made from cooked and reduced juice poured into moulds and left to set which traditionally workers would take with them into the fields. I hope shy, generous Silvia is well and that she and her family have not been affected by Covid-19.
Raul introduces us to roadside cafes…
We followed the road along the spectacular Patate valley pausing to stop at roadside cafes for a drink or a meal.
…and to guinea pig
At one of the cafes in Mocha we ordered one of the local specialities – guinea pig. It fed three of us handsomely and tastily, though exceedingly messily – it was rather greasy.
We tried a glass of the local wine – rather pricey – the climate is so warm that the grapes have to be artificially chilled. Because of its climactic conditions the valley is also renowned for the wide variety of fruit and vegetables that grow there.
The closest summit to the sun!
The road we were following was taking us ever higher and closer to the snow-capped dormant summit of the Chimborazo volcano, unfortunately shrouded in heavy cloud that day.
At some 6310 metres it is the highest mountain in Ecuador and because of its location so close to the Equator (where the bulge of the earth is at its greatest) it is the highest point above the centre of the earth, higher even than Everest which is measured from sea level.
Are they llamas or alpacas?
I wondered why Raúl parked the car beside Urbina’s railway station (3600 metres above sea level), there seemed little of interest other than a few alpacas (or were they llamas – I can never tell the difference) tethered on the side of the road and a small hotel.
Heritage centre at Posada la Estación
We crossed the rail track and road stopping briefly to take photos of the alpacas/llamas before heading for the Posada la Estación which offers not only accommodation but at the rear a small heritage exhibition area.
There we found labelled examples of the native plants plus reconstructions of the small huts that the indigenous peoples would have called home, not only for themselves but also for any livestock including guinea pigs and rabbits, whose very well cared for descendants were much in evidence.
The Paper Tree and vegetable ivory
It was the Polylepis /Paper Trees that particularly fascinated me. Capable of growing at high altitudes they would once upon a time have covered the slopes of the Andes in a dense forest. Polyepis means many scales, and indeed their bark is just that layers, upon layers of scaley, red, papery bark fluttering untidily in the wind.
Inside one of the buildings handicrafts are for sale, including something that looked very much like objects carved from ivory. They were actually tagua seeds/nuts, from the tall palm-like trees. Remove their dark brown outer skin and a shiny coloured edible nut is revealed, which when dried is hard enough to carve and looks remarkably like ivory.
The last of the icemen
There was also an interesting display of old postcards and one in particular had a special story to tell. It carries a picture of a man bent double under the weight of brushwood – one of the ice men –possibly Baltazar Ushca – who was the last of the ice men.
He and his colleagues would go up into the mountains and carve out ice and carry the blocks back down the mountain to Riobamba to be made into the traditional fruit juices and ice creams of the region.
A trip on the legendary G-Q Railway
Early the next day we set off for the town of Alausi to catch the 11am departure of the train to take us the 12 kms to Sibambe passing the Devil’s Nose on Condor Mountain, part of the legendary Guayquil-Quito Railway.
The track is recognised as one of the greatest feats of railway engineering. The only way it could be built was to carve out a long series of zigzags from the mountain, allowing the train to slowly make its way through the mountains passing the Devils Nose by going, in effect, backwards and forwards for some 800m. The views are spectacular.
But we avoided the traditional dancing and so to Riobamba!
I am afraid we did our best to avoid the display of traditional dancing, which involved at times a little audience participation, but we popped our heads into the little museum and gift shop and had a coffee in the café before boarding the train for the return run to Alausi where Raúl was waiting for us to take us on to Riobamba and the final leg of our Ecuadorian journey.
Please note our visit to Ecuador took place prior to Covid 19.
Visit organised by: Holiday Architects – multi-award-winning tailor-made tour operator. holidayarchitects.co.uk
Our Ecuador Guide: Raúl Carrión. email: firstname.lastname@example.org; tel: (+593)995157913