Ecuador in September: Part 4 - A Picture of Ecuador
06:30 When I woke up this morning, I didn’t really know what to do. Instead of being able to hear whether or not someone else was awake, I was going to have to either wait it out or venture downstairs by myself. I laid in the bed for a few minutes scrolling mindlessly through my phone until I heard Shane talking to someone downstairs. This was my cue that it was time to get up. Again, we were the only two awake.
Walking out of the door, I look around the hotel, only just now seeing what the place really looks like. It’s a two-story building with a lobby in the center and rooms on all sides. The front desk is built like its own little shack with a tiled roof and blue walls. The clerk’s window is decorated with tourist stickers from around the world. The main walls of the building are painted white, and there are blue columns extending from floor to ceiling every ten feet around its perimeter. The second floor is made to look like a balcony with a black wrought iron fence and a short, tiled awning extending from the bottom—potted flowering plants on each column. Every hotel room has a door that is multiple shades of blue with gold trim, and each window has a plant hanging from the sill. The ceiling is a massive skylight with an antique chandelier hanging from the middle. The lobby and corridors are decorated with candelabras, plants, traditional Ecuadorian artwork, and beautiful antique furniture. One of the hallways leads out to a courtyard with green grass, lime trees, and stone paths. Someone has put a tremendous amount of thought into this building. It’s simply extraordinary.
Once I get downstairs, Shane brews me a cup of coffee, and we sit on the lobby couch planning out the day—checking the distance between places we needed to go to ensure we’d have time to get to Mt. Chimborazo and back before the bus left for Tandapi. This is the moment when we also decide to start featuring the cities, regions, and tourist destinations we visit on our website…now found under the “Ecuador” tab.
07:30 After about an hour of coffee and conversation, Shane decides that we should take a walk around Riobamba to get pictures for the website. Even though this city was merely a checkpoint along the way, it’s a feature of our travels in Ecuador that should be just as celebrated as any other. I go to wake Max and grab my camera as Shane goes to let Doc know where we’ll be and when we will be back to meet for breakfast.
07:45 Back downstairs, Shane works with the desk clerk to arrange for a taxi to meet us out front at 10:00 and take us to Mt. Chimborazo. As we walk outside, it dawns on the three of us that not only is it very cold, it is also raining. We walk on.
The city immediately seems to be more traditional than other cities we’d visited. The architecture along the streets is not as varied between old and new—it’s almost entirely ornate. Every window has either a small balcony with an intricate iron fence or is paned in non-rectangular shapes. Every main entryway has an arch. Every door is inlaid with delicate or colorful designs. The roads are stone tiles or brick. There are statues and mosaics of Catholic saints everywhere, and the cathedral in the city-center is reminiscent of Notre-Dame. It’s a beautiful and centuries-old architectural style not found in many places in the States. Situated between the cathedral and the city’s government building, there is a large fountain with a Poseidon-like figure in the center, surrounded by cherubs and fish. Tall palm trees and tree-shaded black iron benches make up the town square’s perimeter.
As we make our way back to the hotel, I notice another more traditional characteristic of the city. A majority of the people walking around are donned in dark wool ponchos with red and green accents, wearing weather-worn, black felt hats. I’ve since discovered that Riobamba’s population, due in part to its position in the Andean highlands, is still largely indigenous compared to other cities with the same Spanish influence. Many of its citizens even still speak the Quechua language. For the rest of our time in this region of Ecuador, this would be a common theme, and I was again struck by how segmented the country is due to its topography.
08:45 After our walk, we meet Doc at the café below the hotel where we get pancakes, eggs, coffee, fruit, and bacon. There are several tourist families eating as well. Much like in Vilcabamba, a majority of them seem to be from Germany. As we eat, we tell Doc about our walk, discuss the day ahead, and recount the days passed.
09:50 The taxi driver meets us outside of the hotel, and we find ourselves once again cramming into the back. I’m utterly squished.
In this stretch of the country, the roads aren’t such that they work together with the landscape, meandering down steep slopes and cutting off in breakneck twists and turns. These roads are more similar to what we’d be used to seeing back home due to the flatness of the terrain. We seem to be in a hilly valley for the majority of our approach to Chimborazo, even though we are, in fact, well over 9,000 feet above sea level. This area is also busier with more freight trucks and billboards to be seen than elsewhere—not densely populated, just heavy on the traffic side.
The homes are situated off the road, surrounded by farmland. We pass herders periodically who are walking along the road with small flocks of sheep and pigs. The animals have braided ropes of grass and twine tied to their feet to keep them on track, and the herders are mostly women wearing burgundy wool ponchos and gingham skirts.
10:40 We start climbing. Max eagerly reads out the elevation to us the higher we go. Driving up the mountain, we can see the sedimentary layers of rock and ash from years past when the volcano was still active. Vicuñas, small, alpaca-like creatures, run across the open, desolate landscape. Chimborazo is somewhere in front of us, but we cannot see it. There’s nothing but clouds.
Our very kind taxi driver keeps assuring us that as we get higher, the clouds will clear. He tells us stories of summiting the mountain on several occasions, showing us pictures of him smiling at the peak, of his son congratulating him. We keep climbing. 11,000ft—clouds. 14,000ft. 17,000ft. We reach the highest checkpoint that we can get to without needing certification or a guide and pay our driver to wait for two hours while we explore.
Still, no mountain.
For 105 minutes, we visit the small café at the checkpoint, speak to other tourists, and walk around—hoping for the moment the clouds will clear and we'll see the mountain. This was our only chance. At the café, Max and I both buy hand-crocheted beanies made from some of the thickest and softest wool I’ve ever felt. Outside, there is a group of Ecuadorian women sitting with their crochet needles making scarves, sweaters, and beanies. They wore vibrant ponchos, white fedoras, and pink head scarves to block the wind and tie their hats down.
Further up the mountain, there’s a group of horses with thick winter coats, draped with red-fringed saddle blankets and fur-lined saddles. We walk up to a large stone monument that’s surrounded by memorial headstones with the names of those who attempted the summit and did not make it back. Several of them are decorated with red flowers and buttons. Scattered around all of this are several small, dark green shrubs topped with even smaller orange flowers—the only vegetation in view at this height. Everything that isn’t covered in snow is rock and dust, shaded in red, black, brown, and gray.
Walking back down the mountain, I hear a man’s voice, “Does that shirt say Mercer?” I turn around and smile. “We’re from Atlanta!” There’s a group of four other Americans that walk over to meet us. I tell them about how we have all been a part of Mercer in one way or another, us as students and Doc as a professor, and Shane explains to them why we’re in Ecuador—what Z Beans is and does. The woman in the group offers to take a picture of all four of us; it’s one of the very few pictures we got as an entire group.
12:20 With twenty minutes left on the clock, we had to be respectful of our driver's time. So, we begin walking back down the slope—freezing and disappointed. Shane’s pushed through altitude sickness, and I have a small blood vessel that’s ruptured in my eye. Nonetheless, we truly have had a good time. The disappointment does not overshadow that.
However, as we walk back into the parking lot, our driver in view, it finally happens: the clouds clear. It is one of the most incredible things any of us has ever seen. We start taking pictures, running back to the checkpoint, shouting and laughing.
The rest of Chimborazo, even though we’re already 17,000 feet up, is still absolutely massive. It looks almost fake—wisps of fallen snow swirling down the front, red-brown and black rock showing through. There’s a steep ridge near the top with visible layers of sediment in shades of black, gray, brown, red, and orange. It exists just below an equally steep ice shelf that also seems to consist of layers, icy blue and white horizontal lines, interrupted occasionally by huge icicles the size of stalactites.
12:45 When the clouds reappear and the sun hides its face once more, we get back in the taxi and begin our journey back to Riobamba to the bus station. The drive seems somehow shorter this time.
14:00 Shane asks our driver to drop us off in an area within walking distance from the bus station that also has food. Our eyes land on a Chinese restaurant. Bingo. When we get our food, they’re easily the biggest portion sizes I have ever seen. At the risk of sounding repetitive, since this is not the first time on the trip I’ve been served too much food, I will clarify: these are literally the biggest portion sizes I have ever seen. Not too much food by accident or too much food due to the number of items ordered. Literally just an enormous plate of food. I ate half of mine, and what was left could’ve been split into three more servings. I didn’t eat a full meal again for the rest of the day.
15:00 After we finish eating, we walk back to the bus station. Because we’re not late this go around, I get the full Ecuadorian bus station experience. Waiting in the main seating areas, all around you are desk clerks yelling out city names…over and over and over. They’re essentially competing to fill seats on their buses in an attempt to meet quotas. A woman calls out with the cadence of a mockingbird, “Cuenca, Cuenca, Cuenca.” A man on the other side of the building starts high to low, elongating the last syllable of each word, “Guayaquil, Guayaquil, Guayaquil.” Another man, sounding like a farmer calling in his chickens to feed, yells in a nasally voice, “Quito, Quito, Quito, Quito.” Doc turns to me and says, “It sounds like we’re in a bird cage.” For the remainder of the trip, I mimicked each of these, and to this day, I occasionally catch myself doing it.
16:50 Looking out the window of the bus, the landscape is, again, very different, with some areas looking almost prairie-like—no trees—with the occasional small but steep hill jutting up out of the mountain. Other stretches are extremely steep and hilly with various patches of crops creating multicolored grids that go on for miles. It looks as though someone has draped a quilt over the mountainside. There’s the occasional terrace farm, lots of cows, and very few houses scattered throughout. I smile each time I see a calf wearing a blanket or a cattle dog following after a farmer. Every few miles, we pass a portion of the mountain that forms a steep ridge; the face is bare, but the ridge is lined entirely with houses and buildings—whole neighborhoods stretching across in one precarious line. The towns we pass through are incredibly small, yet still arranged and decorated similarly to the bigger cities we’ve visited. There are vast areas of land that remind me of the solar panel fields in the States; however, instead of solar panels, there are numerous, absolutely massive greenhouses built in such a way that they seem to actually bend with the mountain.
20:30 Shane works with the bus driver to ensure that we can be let off at Juan Carlos’ restaurant, Mr. Rower’s. Once we arrive, we are welcomed by the server and seated at a long table covered in tourist stickers from all over the world: Hawai’i, China, Switzerland, Norway, Kenya… Shane, Max, and Doc each order food, and I pick at what they don’t eat: chicken, rice, fried plantains, and pice de gallo. Hands down the best chicken I’ve ever had.
21:30 We wait at the restaurant for Juan Carlos’ driver, Luis Jarrin. When he gets there, Luis is driving an open box truck that appears to have been originally intended for sheep, pigs, or cows. And this makes sense. Juan Carlos grows amazing coffee, but he’s best known in Ecuador for his multitudes of cattle; Shane has warned us of the many dogs that will be greeting us when we arrive. Shane and Max sit in the back with Luis’ son, Jostin. I sit up front in the cab with Doc and Luis. Luis tells Doc that we are going to Juan Carlos’ farmstead for the night and will be staying in one of the workers’ houses.
22:00 There are, indeed, several dogs. Most of them that have been left out are young and therefore don’t cause us any issues other than making the walk to the house slightly more precarious. The house we’re staying in has four rooms: a bathroom and three bedrooms. We settle in to sleep—or rather, we settle in and try to sleep. The dogs? They do not. It’s an incredibly long night.