Physically speaking, we’re doing some ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ in Ecuador. We enter from Peru across miles and miles of banana low-land. Then we climb up-high. We get lots of cheese and chocolate, and spend a night closest to the moon. After that, we do a quick swing off a cliff (as you do) then it’s back down-low on the other side of the Andes, to the Amazon (again!).
Cheese and Chocolate
After entering Ecuador along the coast from Peru, the pancake-flat banana-land seems to go on for ever. It’s not the most fascinating of vistas (that Dole banana you last ate… probably came from here) but it’s an easy drive. An easy drive until, that is, you turn right. A right turn off the north-bound highway takes us to a steep climb back into the Andes. Hmmm… we’ve done this ‘altitude’ stuff before… not good to go from ‘low’ to ‘high’ too quickly. So on the way up we find a camp-spot to spend our first night at around 2,000m/6,500ft for acclimatisation.
Day 2 ‘up high’ is spent in the small village of Salinas. Until the early 1970s Salinas was unremarkable; villagers eked a living from llama and sheep milk and wool. In 1971 a certain Italian, Antonio Polo moseyed into town and spotted some potential. He helped them set up co-operatives to buy equipment and training to make high quality produce, particularly cheeses and chocolates. They done good with this, and it’s all still going on today.
We visit the main dairy and find them making not only the traditional Andean cheeses (a similar type is produced all the way up the Andes – creamy, but if we’re honest, rather bland!) but delicious European Gouda, Gruyere and others. Goes without saying, we have to try their chocolate too… Wow! Marcus is particularly taken with the mint-infused whilst I love the chilli-chip choccies. After a great roast-rib lunch, we eventually rumble out of town with Cuthbert carrying the extra weight of cheeses and chocolates to last us for several weeks 😊
Chimborazo – Closest to the Moon
Everyone knows that Everest is the highest peak above sea-level on the planet. So, should you ever be crazy enough to make it up to that dizzy height, you’d be at the point farthest from the centre of the earth and the point closest to the moon, right? Well actually, no.
As it turns out… planet earth isn’t a perfect sphere. Like many of her inhabitants, Mrs Earth has a bit of a paunch around her middle; she bulges significantly around the equator. The result, is that mountain-tops on the equator are much further from the centre of the earth than those sitting far into the northern or southern hemispheres. And so it comes to be that Ecuador’s Volcan Chimborazo (at a mere 6300m/20,600ft above sea-level but sitting almost on the equator) is the point on earth closest to the moon. It is in fact, over 2,000m/6,500ft closer to the moon than the peak of Everest!
As we happen to be driving past the base of Chimborazo, we decide to see how close we can get to the moon! There is a drivable track up to 4,860m/15,950ft where we park-up. From here it’s a hike to a refuge. After that, it’s a serious climb to the top: technical gear, ice-axes, expertise etc required. Errr no…. don’t worry Mums, we’re not tackling the summit, but we do want to take the path to the refuge.
As we arrive at the end of the track, it’s mid-afternoon and shrouded in thick cloud. By the time the cloud eventually lifts, it’s starting to get dark but there’s a lovely sunset. Despite the altitude and this being only our second night ‘up high’, we both feel fine. No altitude sickness… we decide to stay put at almost 16,000ft for the night, looking forward to setting out at first light. The cloud is clearing nicely into a beautiful starry night.
On goes Cuthbert’s central heating and we settle down for the night… or at least we try! As evening wears into night, we both start to get headaches… the typical general malaise of altitude sickness. This is one of the factors that keeps us awake all night.
The other factor that keeps us awake is the mesmerising view out of the window from our bed. As the moon comes-up in the clear night sky, it drenches the snow-capped Chimborazo in moonlight. From our position, just below the earth’s point that is closest to the moon, it looks so close we can almost reach out and touch it. It’s spell-binding, but the insomnia goes on…. By dawn, we haven’t slept a wink and we both feel terrible. Neither of us have any strength. We try all the usual remedies, but the altitude sickness is continuing and we reluctantly decide that it wouldn’t be wise to set-out on even a short hike. It’s no good, we’ll have to descend ☹
Since we’ve been in South America we’ve spent many weeks at high altitudes and never suffered anywhere near as much as we did here. As we descend, we’re surprised how badly it hit us both. Last year we hiked to Rainbow Mountain in Peru at almost 5,000m with no effects. Maybe the difference this time is that we did only one acclimatisation night on the way up? Probably not enough. With altitude sickness, you never know for sure.
So we’ve had a night of mixed feelings with Chimborazo: weakened by the altitude and lack of sleep; disappointed that we didn’t feel we could do the hike; but delighted that we got to be so close to the peak for hours in the moonlight. We’ve no plans to ever tackle Everest, but in our insomnia we calculate that we’re already parked at a height much closer to the moon than the Everest peak. So that’s something to take away with us… 😊
Swing at the End of the World
As we head down the eastern side of the Andes, we stop in the very touristy little town of Baños. ‘Baños’ means ‘bath’, so it’s no surprise to learn that it’s a spring town with many popular thermal baths to which visitors from the region flock at weekends. The town sits at the base of Volcán Tungurahua which has been kicking-off a bit over the last year. All seems pretty quiet at the moment though (fingers crossed 😊).
Another thing Baños is known for, is its spectacular tree swing. In travel-journalism dramatic fashion, it has been reported internationally as the ‘Swing at the End of the World’. Locally it’s known as ‘La Casa del Arból’ due to the small tree-house under which the swing hangs. The critical bit to note is that the tree sits on the edge of a steep drop-off and (when the view is clear of clouds) right in front of Volcán Tungurahua. The result is that when you swing out from under the tree, you appear to be launching off the ‘end of the world’ into a volcano. The swing has become so popular that it no longer hangs from the actual tree-branch; they’ve had to erect a metal branch-structure to take the strain of the usage. Nevertheless… worth a look, me thinks!
Avoiding the Sunday crowds, we head to La Casa del Arból early on Monday morning. It’s a beautiful location outside town, the weather and views are glorious and we have the place all to ourselves! We spend a silly half hour, playing like kids on the swings and taking photos of each other launching ‘into’ the volcano. Happy days 😊
From Baños we’re off for a quick jaunt back down to the low-lands. Next blog, we’re briefly in the jungle again (as if we hadn’t already spent enough time in the Amazon this year 😊) and we see yet more volcanoes!!!
Link to next blog: Ecuador Volcanos: Just a puff of smoke?
Link to full South America Blog