Day 3: Ecuador & Galapagos – Quito to Riobamba

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Travel / South America, World Travel / Day 3: Ecuador & Galapagos – Quito to Riobamba

Begin the drive down the Pan American Highway from Quito to Riobamba through the Avenue of Volcanoes.

Filed Under: South America, World Travel by admin June 30, 2012, 11:40 pm

According to the Guinness World Records, the Pan American Highway is the world’s longest “motorable road”. Starting from Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska, the route snakes its way over 23 countries to Ushuaia in Argentina – the southernmost city in the world. This is a butt-numbing distance of 29,800 miles (47,958 km) over the length of two continents. Except for a 54 mile (87 km) patch of undeveloped swampland in Panama and northern Columbia known as the Darien Gap, one could effectively drive along this entire route. I’m not sure why it’s called a Gap as gaps are usually pretty easy to pass through. I would have chosen something a bit more colorful and descriptive – like the Darien Impenetrable Jungle or the Darien Fortress of Solitude or something along those lines.

The road from Quito down to Cuenca lies along the Pan American Highway, and this is the route we took as we made our way to our final destination for this day – Riobamba, the capital of the Chimborazo province located in the Chambo River Valley of the Andes.

Unfortunately, we got off to a later start than what I would have liked. We finished breakfast and took the taxi back to the airport by 10 AM to pick up the rental car I had reserved from Avis. By this point, I was pretty tired of seeing this airport. Unfortunately, we weren’t on the road till just after 12 PM. Two hours to pick up a vehicle that I had already reserved! At least they gave us a nice upgrade to a fully enclosed SUV instead of an open truck bed. This would be less of a hassle for us since we wouldn’t have to move our bags inside the cabin every time we stopped to look around. Nevertheless, two hours to pick up a rental car! Inconceivable!

In spite of the haphazard driving habits of the Ecuadorians, I was pretty amazed at how well I was actually able to navigate through the streets of Quito and onto the Pan American. And despite the research I did while contemplating on the car rental, the roads of Ecuador were in much better shape than I would have imagined. The Pan American was just as good as some of the freeways back home in California and the much feared “potholes the size of tires” that I had read about turned out to be completely baseless.

Lunch was held at the Café de la Vaca Restaurant about 2.5 miles (4 km) south of the small town of Machachi. It is right next to the highway and is easy to find, but not easy to get to if traveling in a southerly direction. We had to pass up the restaurant and make a U-turn at an appropriate area and then head back. Stopping here was well worth it, especially good were the locally raised beef and the fresh fruit drinks. I tried a drink called the guanábana. In English, it is referred to as the soursop. It is a long, prickly, green fruit grown in Central and South America, and has a flavor that combines strawberry, pineapple and citrus. Wow, was that a great drink! As always, a side serving of plantains are served with a spicy tomato based sauce called Aji Serrano, which really helps to add a nice kick to just about anything.

Mount Cotopaxia from Pan American Highway.

Once outside of the city limits of Quito, the first real site to see is the incredibly dramatic and symmetrical stratovolcano, Mount Cotopaxi – Ecuador’s second highest mountain at a height of 19,347 feet (5,897 meters). The summit of Cotopaxi is only 6 feet higher than that of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a peak that my college friend and I climbed back in 2001. Unlike Kilimanjaro, however, Cotopaxi is perpetually covered in glacier and snow above the 14,750 feet (4,500 meter) elevation. Furthermore, Cotopaxi is an active volcano, while Kilimanjaro has not erupted since time immemorial. In fact, Cotopaxi has erupted no less than 50 times since 1738. Its most violent recorded eruption occurred in 1877, when its pyroclastic flows descended on all sides of the mountain and the mudflows (lahars) travelled over 60 miles (100 km) in either direction to the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Amazon basin to the east. Over 1,000 lives were lost and the current inhabitants around Cotopaxi have been living under the threat of another possible eruption.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the national park that surrounds the volcano. Due to the time crunch of the next three days and the distance to cover, we stopped for a few shots and kept heading south. What I will say, however, is that the reality of Cotopaxi comes closer to my imagination of a volcano than any other mountain I have ever seen. It really is quite a flawless looking cone.

Moving south, the Pan American weaves through the parallel chain of snow-capped mountains that form the central Andes. We were very lucky that it was a clear and sunny day. As the miles wore on, and mountain after mountain came into view, we were able to see clear up to the summit on most peaks. The landscape was striking. A patchwork of dense grassy fields and farming tracks of barley, potatoes, maize and the quinoa cereal surround the volcanoes and slope up the mountains up to the snow lines.

While this stretch of road is sparse, it is not completely deserted. Being that that Pan American is the main artery of transportation through the central Sierra, the route is sprinkled with towns of both small and medium size with a few hundred to a couple of thousand inhabitants. It is in this region that the indigenous population of Ecuador is concentrated, relying heavily on the centuries-old Quechua languages that were used by the Incans prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

About 90 miles south of Quito, we came across the neighboring volcanoes of Carihuairazo and Chimborazo located in the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes. As the highest mountain in Ecuador with a peak of 20,702 feet (6,310 meters), Chimborazo’s summit also has the distinction of being the point furthest away from the center of the Earth* (see below). To its east, Carihuairazo’s crest is much lower and its 1 mile wide caldera tops off at 16,463 feet (5,018 meters). It is speculated that Carihuairazo must have been a taller mountain much like its famous neighbor, but that much of the peak had been blown off by eruptions during its last period of activity. To further aggravate the issue, ’s glacier has lost most of its mass over the past decade and is expected to completely disappear sometime between 2020 and 2030 – another casualty of global warming.

Cloud-covered summit of Mount Chimborazo

From here, it was a fairly short drive to today’s destination – Riobamba. We arrived about 30 minutes before sunset and drove around the center part of the city until we found a hostel that we could stay at. We ended up picking the Riobamba Inn that was recommended in my Rough Guides book mainly because it has a garage to park our rental vehicle. Once we checked in and dropped off our stuff, it was time to walk around and get acquainted.

Riobamba is a lively city and has self-proclaimed itself to be the “Sultan of the Andes”. As the capital of the Chimborazo province and Ecuador’s 10th largest city overall by population, it attracts a mix of city dwellers and indigenous traders from the countryside. This is especially true on Saturdays when Riobamba has its main market day when the city overflows with merchants hawking everything from chickens to cowboy boots to studded jewelry. While we did arrive on a Saturday, we missed the market. However, the evening streets were still alive with young and old alike spilling out of restaurants and bars. A nearby municipal park was packed with crowds enjoying a concert under the stars while frequenting food carts to satiate their appetites.

There was a lot to take in. We walked around for at least a couple of hours enjoying the urban landscape of central Riobamba. The city is going through a massive infrastructure improvement project. Entire roads through the center of town were dug up and torn out. Unlike the US where most of these high traffic area projects are fenced off to pedestrians, that wasn’t the case here. If one is not careful, it’s pretty easy to find yourself at the bottom of a 10 foot (3 meter) ditch.

After considering over a dozen choices, we finally decided on a Mexican restaurant for dinner. The “Mexican” food tasted just like the Ecuadorian food I had been eating for the past few days, but I’m obviously not a food connoisseur. My travel buddies thought it was a fantastic local dish. From there, we headed back to our rooms. This particular place was not as nice as the Boutique Hotel Plaza Sucre in Quito, but for $35/night with an inclusive breakfast and private baths, we could have done worse.

At this point, I was really looking forward to the next afternoon when we would arrive to Cuenca – regarded as the most beautiful city in Ecuador.

* Refer to my Day 1 post here for more information on this geographic peculiarity.

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I've always felt that a life full of experiences is far more valuable than a life full of material goods. I have yet to come out of one of these experiences poorer than when I first went into it.

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