Wandering in America del Sur

Ecuador-Travelogue  |  Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

Living the High Life

Well, the Lonely Planet guidebook talked about the wonders of the drive from Riobamba to Guaranda, but more than that, we were lured by the stories of chocolate and cheese. Apparently for lovers of these culinary delights, Guaranda and Salinas were the places to go and only a few hours from Riobamba and so we were off. Of course, on the bus, we were, once again, the only foreigner travellers, but that was fine by us. We had been wanting to get off the beaten track and see more of the real Ecuador.

The road, as promised, was striking as we wound our way through farmland of greens, but just as suddenly, my head began to tell me that we were climbing out of the valley and its greens to the cold, windy, and stark land of the altiplano with its high altitude. The pressure got worse and worse as we left Riobamba at about 2700m and inched up to 4300m where the vicunas (cousins of the llamas) roamed in the National Park and the beacon of the area, Volcano Chimborazo remained shrouded in cloud, barely peaking out a snow covered spire, to remind us that it was actually there.

Fortunately, what goes up, must come down and down we came through fog and mist to emerge to green, green fields with crops growing straight up the mountains creating a patchwork of different greens, looking even more lush after the treelessness of the high altitude. Landing in Guaranda, population 25,000, it seemed bigger than we were expecting and also more mountainous. It seemed as though every street was uphill, demanding some strenuous walks, but after finding a cute little hostel and leaving our bags and wandering the town for 2 hours, we had covered most of it, spread out as it was, and found that it was not all that big after all.

Surprising for such a small place, it had quite a few places to stay and also lots of pizza restaurants. The cheese was prolific and being sold everywhere including in the courtyard of the first restaurant/cafe where we ate lunch. We indulged in the local cheese as we loaded up on it with our first bite of our hot sandwich and never looked back. It was good, good, good. Continued to eat cheese as our dinner pizzas were overloaded with it, ditto for our breakfast eggs.

The streets were full of people out walking around, the contrast of the old and new evident as many older people appeared in their traditional dress, the women in braids, big skirts to their knees and their hats, but just as prevalent was the younger generation sporting labels such as Puma all over their very hip and clingy clothes. You had to wonder how much longer the old ways would survive as the cel phone had truly taken hold and more stores were selling surfer type wear than woven goods?

But it wasn't the impact of tourism here that was making a difference. Nary a tourist to be found on the streets and people stopped to stare at us, but also to say hello or good afternoon in a friendly, but also curious way. And it was fun to be alone in this quiet little town with its stunning setting, nestled in the mountains. And so we wandered through its narrow streets, past the cemetery with its stacks of graves and flowers up high to a viewpoint to see the entire city laid out in front of us and looking in the opposite direction, only tracks and fields of green.

On the way down we were greeted by small boys wondering where we came from and so we stopped to chat with them as they shook our hands and smiled as wide as they were high. And an older couple working in their field, paused, to wave hello as did a father and son, herding their cattle down the road, accompanying us back down to the city. And for once, we had time to just walk, sit and observe life, quiet as it was in this small town.

But it wasn't always quiet, in the morning as we had breakfast, we watched the local schoolkids yelling and screaming as they indulged in the local tradition of water fights in conjunction with Carnaval. And here they really took their waterfights seriously. Everyone got thrown in the fountain in the square while adults looked on and fondly remembered their childhood. Plastic bags, buckets, water bottles, water guns, all were the weapons of choice as the boys chased the girls who really didn't protest and the entrepreneurial store owners sold pre-made water balloons! The air was filled with the sounds of splashing, giggling, screaming and riotous laughter after looking at themselves in their soaking wet clothes. The sidewalks looked like it had rained and the fountain in the square, well, a whole lot lower water level than days before!

We weren't sure if we'd make it back to our hostel unscathed and were afraid to bring out our cameras to take their pictures, but fortunately they didn't seem to be all that interested in picking on the tourists (remember this thought for later!)!

Headed to the bus reluctantly, wishing we could go further into the countryside to Salinas and its farms of cheese and chocolate and green hills, but instead, it was back to Riobamba with all the schoolkids who rode the bus back home - some of them for an hour. No wonder less than 25% of all children finish high school in Ecuador! And in this area, outside Guaranda, all was not well. Poverty was evident and life was tough as could be seen by the stalward faces of the 6 year olds, standing on the bus, resigned to their lives, looking much older than their years.

Wound our way back uphill through the mist to emerge with the mushroom cap of Chimboraza clear in the distance, the ambition of many a climber, but at such high altitude, many days away from being able to be climbed without taking the time to acclimizate. Time that we did not have so we were grateful for the chance to see it at all, in the land where the vicunas ran freely and the wind cried as it blew fiercely across the sparse, grasslands.

Looked back for as long as we could to see Chimboraza receding in the distance knowing that we might not see another volcano again on this trip, but knowing that we were lucky to see this one. And then down we came to the lower elevation of Riobamba where my head didn't pound and where we could breath easily to spend another night before our most epic bus ride ever.

The local way of travel, but usually even more packed than this

The local way of travel, but usually even more packed than this

cheesehead? Local Salinas cheese waiting for a buyer

cheesehead? Local Salinas cheese waiting for a buyer

the landscape around Guaranda

the landscape around Guaranda

More of the verdant green hills

More of the verdant green hills

On the balcony of our hostel room, Guaranda

On the balcony of our hostel room, Guaranda

cemetery, Guaranda

cemetery, Guaranda

Chimboraza in its 6000m + glory

Chimboraza in its 6000m + glory

hand painted truck

hand painted truck

Our hostel, not bad for $16

Our hostel, not bad for $16

Ice cream seller in his bright uniform

Ice cream seller in his bright uniform

More of the gorgeous landscape

More of the gorgeous landscape

Back on the bus, as usual, the only foreigners on board!

Back on the bus, as usual, the only foreigners on board!

© Allison Webb, 2005
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The trip
 
Description:
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Details:
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
Chile
Argentina
Uruguay
Ecuador
The Author
 
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 15 years.