Most people stay in Riobamba to take the train to the Nariz Del Diablo ( Devils Nose). As it wasn’t running as the track was being repaired, we decide to take bike ride down Ecuador’s highest volcano.
As we wander around the city exploring the markets and plazas we get tantalising glimpses of Volcan Chimborazo which, at 6300m is the highest mountain in Ecuador. The peak of which is allegedly a couple of metres higher than Everest when measured from the centre of the earth due to the bulge of the equator!
As the train wasn’t running we decided to ascend said volcano the easy way in a 4WD jeep and then descend by bike.
We arranged this outing with http://bikingspirit.com/2013/index.php/en/ . Edison, the owner and a dead ringer for Robert Downey Junior, picks us up in his 4WD at 8.00am sharp and off we go to Chimborazo. The drive there takes around 90 mins and we pass through the suburbs of Riobamba through the outlying villages and then up into the Paramo (moorlands) continuing ever upwards, passing into the altiplano where the only signs of life are the alpacas and vicuñas.
Eventually we reach the ranger station at he entrance to the Chiborazo NP, stop for a break, and then continue on upwards along gravel and sand tracks until finally we reach Hermanos Carrel refuge at 4800 m. Here we take a break for some coca tea to help with the altitude (illegal in Ecuador, they have to import it from Columbia).
After, our coca tea break we set off on foot to the Whymper refuge, which is where the mountaineers ascending to the peak spend the night before their final ascent. We chat with the man that looks after the refuge who tells us that he spends two weeks at a time here looking after the place before going back home for a week at a time. A lonely existence in the low season!
We set off on the climb to the Whymper refuge, named after the English mountaineer who first ascended to the peak. It is only 1 km away and a 200m increase in altitude to 5000m but it is hard going. Another group is making the ascent at the same time and some of them decide to turn back after a short distance with the altitude taking its toll. Edison tells us that it normally takes 45 mins for this ascent but it seems like forever. Eventually, we do make it to the refuge and Edison tells us we managed it in 38 mins which apparently is pretty good going. Either we are getting fitter or more used to the altitude, or both. Either way, it is and amazing feeling to have made it and the views are simply wonderful!
The journey back to the jeep takes a mere 15 minutes. Biking Spirit sensibly offers three options when it comes to routes back down the volcano depending upon experience and, I suppose, desire for an adrenaline rush. We choose the middle option of around 36 kms., of which 8kms. is on Tarmac the rest on dirt tracks. As we will find out later, not all is downhill!
Our only experience of mountain biking is around the gently rolling farmland around our home in England. Carolyn’s brother John is an adrenaline junkie and a very keen mountain biker so I am keen to see what all the fuss is about. It doesn’t take long to find out!
The first section of the route back is around 8kms back down to the NP entrance zig zagging down the dirt track which in places has been corrugated by the effects of the wind and feels what is perhaps best described as like siting on top of a pneumatic drill! We soon learn to avoid the worst patches when we can..
As the road winds back down the mountain the wind gets quite strong and blows sand into our faces which stings like hell and we now understand why we were told to bring sunglasses. After 20 mins or so we reach the park entrance and we have yet to actually pedal our bikes! . A huge thrill and I can now see why my brother in law is hooked.
The next section of the route is on nice smooth Tarmac and takes us down through the altiplano and paramo whizzing past the alpacas and vicuñas along the way. This is really smooth cycling and although we are going downhill, we still have to pedal away quite hard to keep going when the wind is against us. We stop briefly for some water at a big gorge part way down and just marvel at the wonderful scenery. We continue on down until we reach the point where we leave the road again to head uphill on a dirt track. We are still at high altitude, maybe 3000m at this point, so this is really, really hard work partly beacause of the altitude but also because we are trying to ride through volcanic sand (imagine trying to ride along a beach uphill and you will get a general idea!).
We dismount at times pushing our bikes through the worst bits but the views make it all worthwhile. Eventuall we come to the end of the uphill sections through the paramo and come to a crossroads from where it is all downhill through the villages. Edison warns us to go carefully through the villages, partly because the many dogs like to chase cyclists and partly because it is Sunday afternoon when most of the villagers will be busy getting drunk on Chicha ( a home brew made by chewing corn, spitting it into a bucket, topping up with water and leaving it to ferment – nice! It certainly didn’t look appetising!
We pass through a few of these villages managing to avoid the drunk pedestrians and eventually, 35kms later, we arrive back in a small village which is just packing up after its fiesta. For a small village they have clearly been doing a lot of celebrating!
We load the bikes back onto the 4WD and, completely exhausted, head back to Riobamba. A terrific day out.
Riobamba, Chimborazo, Ecuador
Sunday, June 16, 2013