Ecuador’s highest mountain is a beast. Locals refer to Chimborazo as an old man. This Godzilla of a mountain has always been around, and does indeed seem to watch over the surrounding landscape.
Chimborazo can be easily reached from Ecuador’s third largest city, Riobamba. Even there, the silent silhouette of the mountain is an imposing sight.
From Riobamba’s main bus terminal, just grab a bus heading to the town of Guaranda, and ask the driver to let you off at the Chimborazo entrance.
Get a window seat, no negotiation. Over the course of the hour long trip, the concrete outskirts of Riobamba give way to shimmering green farmlands, where ponchos and gumboots are always in fashion. Adding to the palette are purple fields of quinoa, and the occasional herd of puffy sheep.
You’ll know you’re getting close to Chimborazo when the bus starts to climb onto the high plains. As the engine lurches, the orchestra of colours outside the window gives way to red and grey rock. The grasses wither away, and the wind starts howling.
From the entrance on the main road, it’s a few hours by foot to the first refuge, and another half hour to the second. Bank enough time to be back at the entrance well before 1800 – when the last bus back to Riobamba passes by.
The road to the refuges is very easy to follow. It’s possible to hitch a ride – I did so with a military engineer heading out to make some repairs to the first refuge. The park rangers can also give you a lift, but for a hefty $10. If you plan on walking, bring something to use as a balaclava. When I arrived, the wind was brutal. There was a lot of dust, and the temperature oscillated between frosty and dry/hot. One of the rangers told me not to expect the wind to die down…ever.
Along the way, keep an eye out for Vicuna – they look like llamas with longer necks. A local mountaineer told me there used to be tens of thousands of Vicuna in the area, but they were hunted to the brink of extinction for their fine wool. Apparently, the wool is light, soft and warmer than anything you’ve ever worn. The mountaineer explained some locals still have blankets and clothes made from Vicuna wool from the days when the animals were still plentiful, but don’t expect to get your hands on the stuff. Today, hunting the animals is punishable by two years imprisonment. In recent years, herds of Vicuna have been reintroduced to the national park around Chimborazo, but are under strict protection.
From the second refuge, you have two options. To the left (when facing Chimborazo) is a path that leads up to a nice viewpoint. You get a great shot of the glacier; and when the dust dies down, a nice panorama of the Martian plains below.
To the right of the second refuge is a steep path heading up to the glacier itself. The path is littered with volcanic rock, which can be very loose. Tread lightly to avoid causing a rockslide. Expect some scrambling, and plenty more dust. Once you reach the glacier base, you can’t safely go any further without gear and a guide.
If you aren’t kitted out for the summit, take comfort in the stunning view below. From the base of the glacier, you get a bird’s eye view that eases even the most weary of muscles. Soak it up.