Riobamba, Chimborazo, Montanita, y Mas

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Bjorn and I arrived in Riobamba mid-afternoon on Good Friday having narrowly escaped the throngs of people in Baños for Easter weekend. That said, I was a little concerned that I had missed out on a pretty unique cultural experience by leaving at the beginning of the festivities. Equador is, after all, one of the most religious countries in the world. Still, we found a really cheap hotel that the Lonely Planet describes as “in desperate need of a facelift” for $4 and found that, for a change, the authors were spot on. It could be a really cool character hostel, Ñuca Huasi, but it looks like the owners have decided to wait for it to be condemned instead. Still, you can’t complain for that price and the location was great or would have been, were anything open. We had learned before coming that the main tourist attraction, the train down the Devil’s Nose whose main feature is that you ride on the roof, was closed for maintenance until August (sorry, Grandpa), so our plan was to try to find a decently priced mountain bike excursion down the slopes of Chimborazo, the highest point from the centre of the Earth. After walking and walking in the rain, we could find nothing whatsoever open aside from internet cafes and a few pharmacies, so we amended the plan yet again to try to find someone to take us first thing in the morning Saturday. Then the hunt was on to find food... we grabbed some fruits at a local market for breakfast and I eventually spotted a few Chinese lanterns and we headed for those. Sure enough, it was open. The Chinese never rest.

Back in our room later that evening, a low din eventually became full out singing just outside our window. An Easter procession was passing by on the street below. We grabbed our cameras and ran down, following the procession as it passed various platforms where people re-enacted scenes from the crucifixion. Life in the town was resurrected briefly before falling back abruptly to still silence. There was little to do but grab a box of wine and have a few drinks back in the room. The next morning, after a couple hard boiled eggs (it was Easter after all) we were up and at the office of a company called Probici right at 9 AM. It’s an interesting office, tucked into the second floor of a textile factory, but in this case appearances were deceiving and the owner, Galo, was a consummate professional and took great care of us. We managed to organize a trip for 11:00 up to the lower refuge of Chimbarazo (4800m) with a couple pretty nice “old” mountain bikes that were in prime condition, down its slopes and into an indigenous valley where Incans still tend their livestock, smoke out rabbits, and carry on their traditions. Galo would follow us and/or meet up with us at various waypoints and where it was impossible for him to watch from the support vehicle he would supply us with two-way radios so we’d always be able to reach him.

We grabbed a quick breakfast and sandwich, a few snacks, and ran smack into another parade that morning – this time for the rodeo. Horse upon horse and float upon float went by our hotel as we wondered how Galo was going to pick us up in the pandemonium. Then a woman with a two-way arrived and walked us to where Galo, his truck, and our bikes were stuck in traffic. The man had a plan for everything. As we drove towards where Chimbarazo was supposed to be – it was shrouded in cloud that morning – he narrated the history of the area in what would have been excruciating detail were it not for his obvious love of his home. Soon, we were at the park entrance where we managed to get student rates for entry and then we were in the clouds at the refuge. The mountain was very busy for the holidays in spite of the weather and we asked a few Ecuadorians if they had climbed up to the second refuge, giving me the opportunity to practice my past tense. They had and there was nothing more to see but cloud so we skipped that outing, hopped on our bikes and started down. I won’t narrate the entire ride but we started out on the dirt road down towards the park gate and when we arrived there we took off along a dirt trail crossing ravines and other obstacles. We were clad in helmets, gloves, knee pads and elbow pads and I felt pretty safe considering the debacle the last time I was on a bike in Ometepe.

One of the items on the waiver we signed is dog bites, for which Galo takes no responsibility. We laughed about this at first but soon we reached a place where a few indigenous families were burning grass in hopes of smoking out some rabbits for dinner. Their dogs came right up to me quite peacefully and stood at my side but when Bjorn came down the mountain they were chasing at his heels. There were several encounters like this including one in which our roles were reversed and it was only my extreme speed down some of the hills that kept the dogs from catching up with me. Or so I like to believe. The weather improved throughout the day and to our good fortune we soon had clear views of Chimbarazo looming behind and beside us. The sunlight did wonders for the countryside as well, lighting up the canyons and green hills and eventually distant peaks around Riobamba in the distance too. I have to admit that we have been really blessed with great weather from Cotopaxi onward. After our 38km ride back down to some small town with a funky modern church Galo picked us up and drove us back to Riobamba. We talked about where we were headed next and here’s an example of how above and beyond Galo went with us – he took us to the bus station and waited outside for us for a very long time while the ticket salesman served anyone but us until even the woman behind us was getting annoyed. Then, with our tickets in hand for Guyaquil the coming Easter Sunday, he drove us back to our hotel, thanked us profusely, and wished us a happy trip. I wish I could send business his way but the fact is with Riobamba’s train out of commission until August, the town is just not on the tourist trail. Still, anyone going through there, I would HIGHLY recommend taking a day for a really fun and beautiful bike ride with Probici.

There wasn’t much left to do in Riobamba. We were back at our hotel for 6:00, making our outing a 7 hour one, and we grabbed dinner, walked around a bit, and called it a night ... after I finished my box of wine, that is. A $1 taxi to the bus terminal later, we were on our bus for Guyaquil. But it being Sunday – and Easter Sunday at that – we realized en route that there was not going to be much chance of booking anything for the Galapagos that day or for Monday and then we came up with a pretty inspired plan B. After our 5 hour bus to Guyaquil, we grabbed lunch and got on another bus for a small coastal town called Montañita. We arrived there three hours later, marking the first time I’ve been on the coast since arriving in South America. The town is great if a little pricey by Ecuadorian standards, full of life and with a nice strand of beach and a pretty steady amount of surf. In the days, restaurants and beach cafes are the main pastimes where in the evening, a whole street full of little bar stalls called cocktail alley comes alive with music, mojitos, and mixed drinks.

Had I not already spent more than twice the expected amount of time in Ecuador – and that’s not including Galapagos – Montanita is the sort of town I could hang out for some time. Cocktail alley and beach parties by night, surf, sun, and sandals by day. All I’d need was a good book and a hammock. The hostel we stayed at had the hammock, but the book was somewhat lacking. I won’t say it was a bad book, but The Other Hand definitely required turning the other cheek for the first several pages. Seriously, it takes about that long for the narrator to finish talking about what magic “a pound coin” can do in flowery, exaggerated prose. Yet with all that, she never mentions the one thing I’d just discovered it could do: induce nausea. Still, braving through that it turned out to be a believable and even difficult to put down tale of a refugee and an English woman’s twisted destinies. So that took some time, hanging out with some people from Botswana took some more, and the beach and sun ate the rest leaving me red when we left three days later. The plan now was to head to Guyaquil and try to suss out some Galapagos deals but when we arrived at 1:30 and swung by the airport we quickly discovered ourselves fast tracked for a 3:00 PM flight. Galapagos, here we come!

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