Onto Banos and Riobamba – The Last Leg of Our Avenue of Volcanoes Drive

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Quilotoa Crater was our  first stop today.

The road conditions don’t warrant driving after dark, there are just to many ifs, so we departed early from Hostal Taita Cristobal, after wishing our table mates safe travels and adventures as they hoisted heavy backpacks to their shoulders. The Quilotoa Crater and Baños, the adventure capital of Ecuador, were our day’s destinations.  Really, Donna’s not going to go zip lining nor am I willing to try bungie jumping.  Still, we thought we could find an adventurous activity where one foot was required to be in contact with the ground occasionally. Experience has taught us to double the amount of time our GPS app suggests it will take to get from point A to B due to road conditions and the frequent stops for photo opps. As my wife says “if we continue to stop every 100 yard for pictures, we’ll never get there.”   The return drive back to the main road in Sigchos seemed to go very quickly.  We only stopped for photos around every other bend. Fortunately we were able to drive down the center of the road or hug the left side to avoid looking over the precipice most of the time. It was nerve racking when we had to get closer to the edge to make room for an oncoming truck to pass. We never thought the sight of a guardrail would bring as much joy as it did when we got back on the main road in Sigchos.  As our host had promised the road out of Sigchos was freshly paved. Along with a bright, yellow double line down the center it had shiny, heavenly guardrails around every curve!  Even with the new road there were still hazards.  There were numerous signs for falling rock or mudslide zones. We also shared it with folks herding sheep or cattle, donkeys carrying water barrels and folks selling things from motorcycles towing small trailers.  Suddenly around one curve, marked by only 2 piles of dirt as a warning, about one hundred feet of road had collapsed into a steep ravine.  There were no flagmen, orange cones or repair crews in the vicinity.  The hair on the back of our necks stood up.

The treed landscape slowly disappeared and was replaced with barren windswept vistas as we rose in altitude, the closer we got to Quilotoa. Gale force winds ripped around us on the ridge above the magnificant Quilotoa Crater (12,913ft), its turquoise waters calm a thousand feet below.  Local legend believes Quilotoa fell in love with the Cotopaxi volcano, and  the tears from her unrequited love filled the crater.  Teary-eyed from the wind chill and altitude, we sought out some restorative coca tea.

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A few miles down the road Canyon del Rio Toachi, a mini Grand Canyon, offered interesting photo opportunities from the parking area.  Further on small groups of men and women could be seen in the fields winnowing grain by throwing it into the air to separate the wheat from the chaff. Barns made from thatch lined the road for storage.In Zumbahua, with the hills green again, we picked up route E30, which connects the Pacific Coast region with the Amazon basin through Baños.  It is a slow cross country route that encounters numerous traffic lights as it passes through many towns along the way, but gives wonderful insight into how folks live along this corridor of commerce.  Shops of every variety lined both sides of the road with their doors and workshops literally on curb of the road.

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Baños is a well developed town of about 40 blocks that is know for its location under the towering, 16,575ft high and still active Volcan Tungurahua.  As recently as two years ago, the town had to be evacuated due to an eruption.  Mineral rich hot-springs, numerous waterfalls and the close proximity to the Amazon basin made this a must stop for two days.

The sight of a tall waterfall pouring down from a ridge above town greeted us a we turned down the street for Hostal Posada de Arte.  This small boutique hotel was as whimsical as its name suggests, with a colorful interior and excellent, locally created art decorating the walls.  If the wind blew just right, mist from the waterfall fell on the inn.  Breakfast and dinner at the hotel were delightful with a large fireplace warming the room.

On the central plaza several blocks away stood the Church of our Lady of Holy Water which has many large paintings depicting miracles granted by the Virgin Mary.  Most illustrate some mishaps centuries ago with the turbulent Rio Pastaza which rushes through town.

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Clouds hung below the mountain peaks as we hiked down to the El Pailon del Diablo, the Devil’s Waterfall. This met our criteria for keeping our feet on the ground.  It was an amazing descent along a cloud forest trail to a thundering waterfall. We weren’t planning on getting wet here, drenched is more like it; there is no way to avoid it, especially if you squirrel under the ledge to find the rabbit hole that leads to the highest viewing platform as we did!  And you haven’t experienced the fury of this cascade fully unless you do. There is a rest hut at the bottom of the trail, by the suspension bridge, with a fireplace where we relaxed and purchased some refreshments to energize ourselves before the trek back up.

The hike back to the parking area wasn’t as difficult as we had worried, nevertheless our muscles ached. So being in the land of holistic cures we tried a locally brewed craft beer by (no kidding) Shaman breweries.  It was so delicous, one of the best brews ever.  Sadly, we haven’t been able to find it since.

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The Swing at the End of the World was another matter. Hanging from a treehouse situated on the edge of a ravine, with Volcan Tungurahua rising dramatically to the sky across the way, you can get a thrilling swing or a swing with a twist as many times as you dare.  Cost of entry for the day – $1.00. Brave soul, Donna got airborne!

We took the first left out of Baños onto Rt. 490, the slow road, heading south to Riobamba.  Fortunately, the weather was with us as we began to climb out of the valley, rewarding us with tremendous views of Baños in the valley below and Volcan Tungurahua to the east. The route passed through many small villages and verdant farmland as it sinuously followed the Rio Pastaza which snaked through the valley several hundred feet below us.  With such steep terrain we were always amazed that every acre seemed to be cultivated by manual labor. Constantly battling the whims of nature, a hard living is extracted from the earth here. Mother nature rules in these mountains, as witnessed by the path of older, washed away bridges we viewed.

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The majestic Volcan Chimborazo came into view for the first time as we crested a small hill on the outskirts of Riobamba.  At 20,549ft it is the tallest mountain in Ecuador and the highest near the equator.  As the crow flies the mountain was only 15 miles away, but as the road curved it took us another two and a half hours to get to our night’s lodging at Hosteria La Andaluza in San Andres, which was very near the mountain on Rt. 35, the Pan-American Highway.  The mountain was hidden by afternoon clouds by the time we pulled into the hacienda’s driveway.

Seeing two exhausted travelers approaching, the staff came from behind the reception desk to take our bags and welcome us.  A woodstove in the corner warmed pots of their high altitude tea remedy Canelazo, a mixture of local herbs and fruit which also could be consumed with an optional splash of a sugarcane moonshine.  It definitely warmed our bones.  Red rose petals on the bed sheets greeted us as we opened the door to our guestroom.  The functioning radiator was a nice surprise. This was the first hotel in Ecuador that we stayed in that offered heat; normally it’s window open, window closed, blankets on or off or light the fireplace. Our room overlooked a fountain filled with rose petals and freshly ploughed fields in the distance.

The hacienda dates from 1555 and echoes with history, “Simon Bolivar slept here,” had a familiar ring to it.  Ornate, antique furnishings highlighting the craftsmanship of an earlier era filled the common areas.  As we wandered about the grounds we were delighted to discover one courtyard  had a family of domestic rabbits scurrying about it. A large basket of carrots was left off to the side, so guests could feed them.  Two peacocks also strutted about fanning their elegant feathers. That evening chandeliers and candlelit tables created a romantic setting as the filet mignon we ordered was threactically flambéed at our table.

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The majestic Volcan Chimborazo.

Chimborazo gleamed brilliantly in the morning sun and filled the horizon across the road from the inn.  It seemed almost close enough to touch, but it was only an illusion.  To the north just a tiny wedge of Volcan Carihuairazo appeared in the distance. We spent a good part of the day driving through the surrounding farmlands trying to get as close as we could to these beautiful peaks.

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Volcan Carihuairazo

On mountain overload, later that afternoon we headed into the historic heart of Riobamba just to get a feel for the city and a change of pace. We had a difficult time figuring out the on-street parking rules, but fortunately after circling several blocks we spotted a parking attendant who issued us a ticket to park for fifty cents. Parque Maldonado centers the historic district with a monument dedicated to Pedro Vicente Maldonado, a multi-disciplined Ecuadorian scientist known for his work with the French Geodesic Mission.  He also had responsibilities as Mayor of the City, Lieutenant Magistrate Governor of the Emerald Province, Horseman of the Golden Key and Gentleman of the Camera.  Obviously a renaissance man; we weren’t sure if the statue was tall enough.  Bordering the plaza, La Catedral de San Pedro’s baroque façade is all that remains of the original structure, one of Riobamba’s earliest, after a 1797 earthquake estimated at a 8.3 magnitude shook the region for three minutes and left thousands dead.

A short walk away, Mercado de San Alfonso filled a city block with terraced displays of flowers and exotic fruits (oh, the creative possibilities – truly a smoothie lover’s paradise), seldom seen in  North American markets. Numerous varieties of potatoes in every color and size filled sacks aligned neatly down the aisles.

The next morning we left the wonderful hospitality of Hosteria La Andaluza for Cuenca, our final destination and home for the next five weeks.  Fields of quinoa hugged the steep slopes as we continued south on Rt. E35.  In one small village we passed parade floats and camionetas, shared pick-up truck taxis, filled with costumed revelers leaving town after what looked like a lively celebration.  If we had only arrived a little sooner.  These are the unexpected things you happen across when you travel the backroads.  Places and events that are too small to be included in the popular tour guides, but entertaining, interesting and eye-opening nevertheless.

Safe travels.

Craig & Donna

 

 

Cotopaxi to the Quilotoa Loop

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As we left the highway in Sangolqui, grilled Cuy, (guinea pig, the national dish) impaled on tall sticks lined both sides of the road, to entice us to stop for a taste.  We drove on, unable to consume a pet animal yet.  Not sure what side of the omen scale this greeting fell on. We continued for several hours, driving along the route we had chosen through green farmland, before entering the higher regions that encompass Cotopaxi National Park.  The relatively smooth cobbled road soon transitioned to dirt as it began to follow a narrow ridgeline that wove between small villages.  The views of the lush valleys on both sides of the road were fantastic; just finding the appropriate place to stop hindered us from taking as many pictures as we wanted to.  Occasionally we were passed by a speeding tanker truck hurrying from dairy farm to dairy farm to collect the day’s fresh milk.

Slowly the terrain changed and slopes of eucalyptus trees towered over the road.  Our route brought us through the eastern side of Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pasochoa, a wildlife and habitat preserve of 33,000 acres.  Signs for waterfalls began to appear, tempting us to stop at the Rumipamba Falls trailhead to stretch our legs.  We followed the trail until a small suspension footbridge and a glance at the time turned us back.

Forest turned to shrubland as we rose in elevation and neared Cotopaxi National Park.  Having not seen a car or truck for awhile now, we were surprised when all of a sudden five vehicles were parked, a little ways from each other, in the middle of nowhere.  Not a person in sight.  Was this a local lovers lane?  Further along more cars.  Thursday afternoon, what an amorous society we thought – “obtener una habitacion” –  get a room!, seems to have lost something in translation.  Later we spotted folks carrying baskets full of small blue berries, Mortiños or Andean Blueberries as it turned out, which are highly sought after.  Around a bend the cloud covered dome of Cotopaxi (19,347ft) appeared for the first time.

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Surprised by our appearance, a “how did you arrive here?” greeted us as we checked in.  A large cloud of dust behind an SUV, driven by a professional driver, usually announces guests about to check in, we were told.  Our humble vehicle was lost behind tall blueberry bushes in the parking area.  Being surrounded by thousands of acres Andean Blueberry bushes, Hacienda Los Mortiños, is appropriately named. Located just outside the northern entrance to Cotopaxi National Park, (which encompasses 82,500 acres and three other volcanoes , Ruminahui, Sincholaqua and Morurco within its boundary) it offers inspiring views of the surrounding landscape from every window.  If you aren’t into mountain biking, horseback riding or hiking, just sitting next to the fireplace in the restaurant, watching the weather change with clouds building then dissipating suddenly to reveal the shy summit of Cotopaxi is a mesmerizing and relaxing way to spend any day.

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Towards sunset, wild llamas grazed near the main building.  We snapped away while the dominant male approached closer than the rest, as if to announce that he was the protector of his harem.  It was a postcard perfect moment with Cotopaxi as the backdrop.  The temperature drops quickly at these altitudes once the sun is low in the sky.  Towards sunset a housekeeper lite the woodstove in our room to keep the night chill away.

It was not as easy getting onto a horse as it was a few years ago, but I decided to go for a three hour ride with Jorge, a guide from Los Mortiños.  Pull back on the reigns and say “Soa,” sounds like whoa, when you want to stop were my instructions in Spanish.   I am not a very seasoned rider, but I’ve gotten my limited experience on steep trails in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and know enough to realize that the horse is smarter than me in keeping us both safe in difficult terrain. The horse leads, “you’re just baggage” a wrangler once told me.  In a stiff cold wind we saddled up, “Vamamos amigo” and we were off.  Just outside the reserve, cattle grazed in the wind swept grassland and llamas could be seen in the distance.

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As we entered the park and rode along a deep gully I got my first chance to yell “Soa,” at least I hope I was yelling the right phrase, when a unseen bull violently exploded from the earth and spooked our horses into a sudden gallop!  That was more than enough excitement for me. We were miles away from the base of Cotopaxi, but the high plains landscape had a raw natural beauty to it.  Each turn of the trail and every hill crested brought wonderful vistas.  The only sound was the constant wind. Later we would flush Andean quail and ride through several herds of wild horses.  The ride was exhilarating!

I’m not sure which road was bumpier, the one leading to Hacienda Los Mortiños or the one heading away, but we were relieved to be back on the Pan American highway for awhile, as we headed to three days of very inexpensive R&R at a hostel in Isinlivi on the Quilotoa Loop. Not sure what to expect at the hostel, (we are not exactly the demographic you would find there,) we decided to fortify  ourselves with lunch at the historic Hacienda La Cienega which dates from 1695.  As we pulled into the stately drive that led to the hacienda we wondered if there would be sticker shock when we saw the lunch menu.  The elegant dining room overlooked  a beautifully landscaped courtyard and bubbling fountain, where an  extended family was posing for a group photo. Simultaneously, a rock band was filming a music video on the steps of the hacienda’s ancient, private chapel.  Surprisingly there were many reasonably priced entrees offered for lunch.  Hacienda La Cienega is just a short detour off the highway in Tanicuchi, but well worth it.  It’s a great destination to experience the grandeur of a forgotten way of life.

The Quilotoa Loop is primarily known as a mountainous hiking trail that links remote, isolated villages where indigenous Kichwa is the native language, via a series of footpaths that have been followed for several thousand years.

The elevations of the villages range from 9200ft at Isinlivi to 12,500ft at the Quilotoa Crater.  Fortunately Hostal Taita Cristobal, our base for three days, was the in the village of Isinlivi.  Why here? We had been moving almost continuously since returning from our Galapagos trip, so it was time to recharge our batteries and just chill for a couple of days.  Also we wanted to experience something more remote and less expensive. So for under $40.00 per night Hostal Taita Cristobal provided a beautiful setting, a nice private room with en-suite bath with hot water along with two hearty and delicous meals per day. Plus they had llamas on the property!

Getting there was there harrowing part.  Outside of Tanicuchi the road turned to dirt and the low hills became worthy of the Alps with footpaths and stairs cut into steep slopes  leading to places unseen.  We glimpsed the twin peaks of Mt. Iliniza Sur (17,300ft) and Iliniza Norte (16,900ft).  The GPS showed a sinuous route that wound on and on forever.  We quickly developed a system to navigate the numerous blind S curves we were encountering.  I would lean on the horn for 3 long blasts as we were entered a curve and Donna would try to see as far around the corner as possible and give a thumbs if all was clear as we inched uphill in second or first gear.  Once you are off the highway guardrails are non-existent!!! Several times the hair was raised on the back of our necks and Donna grabbed the “Oh Jesus!” strap above the passenger door. We often faced buses barreling downhill at us in a cloud of dust and we tried to navigate the switch-back turns, clinging as tightly to the corner as possible.  We passed many sobering roadside memorials to those less lucky.  Many miles were traveled in second gear with a top speed of twenty miles an hour or so.  Every now and then we would stop and check the road when we heard a loud metallic ping come from the undercarriage, fearing that we lost part of the car.  Fortunately  our wheels stayed intact.  Occasionally we drove through clouds of smoke, billowing up from fields farmers had set afire to burn off the stubble left from the harvest. We saw one partially hidden directional sign for our inn, which contradicted all three GPS mapping apps we were using. Despite no mention of miles to go, trustingly we followed it.  At times we were driving above the clouds.

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For the next three days and nights we shared wonderful meals around a communal table with hikers from the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Siberia.  Stories told, plans and information shared, we learned about maps.me, which turned out to be quite helpful later on, and as citizens of the world how much we share in common.  After midnight the wind blew so fiercely, for several hours, we thought the roof might fly off. Over the several days spent there, we turned out to be the only guests crazy enough to drive ourselves into this remote region. At tea time every afternoon the owner brought the llamas, 2 adults and a three month old, home from grazing and staked them out behind the inn for the night, to the delight of the guests.  Just watching the little one playfully scamper around the yard was worth the effort to get there.  We strolled around Isinlivi that Sunday just as church was letting out and villagers from outlying hamlets were sitting down on the curb to catch up on local news.  Around the corner sheep grazed in the school yard, and a large hog was reluctantly led uphill through town by a woman and her daughter.  Weary backpackers, dusty from the trail, inquired about lodging.

Discussing our driving plans over a map with one of the tour guides one morning, the inn keeper interjected that you can’t go that way, “YOU REALLY DO NEED A FOUR WHEEL DRIVE” for that route. “You must return the way you came, the road gets better as you leave Sigchos, it was just redone.”

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I never thought I would be so happy to see a guardrail!

Till later, Craig & Donna