Journey to the farthest point from the center of the earth: Ecuador’s Chimborazo Volcano
By Bob Itami
Chimborazo Volcano (‘Taita’ or father by the indigenous people of the area) is the highest mountain in Ecuador at 6268 meters (20,564 feet) and the summit is the furthest point from the center of the earth. Chimborazo is within the Reserva de Producción de Fauna, founded in 1986, and is the home of thousands of vicuña, one of the two wild South American camelids which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes, the other being the guanaco. Vicuña had gone extinct in Ecuador but in the 1980s they were reintroduced from Chile and Peru. You will also see llama and alpaca in the reserve.
Because of the high elevations, Chimborazo represents a challenge especially for day hikers and deserves respect. Temperatures at night reach freezing year-round, and weather can change suddenly with strong winds, dense fog, and snow any time of the year. If you have the luxury of time, its best to check the weather in Riobamba to see if the weather is clear for the next couple of days. Many visitors never see Chimborazo on arrival because it is shrouded in clouds.
From Cuenca, it is a 162 mile (260 kilometers) scenic drive by private transport. This is about a five-hour drive. See the section “Resources” at the end of this article for transport options. From Riobamba, Chimborazo is another 31 miles (50 km) or one hour to the control gate.
Be prepared. Bring several pairs of heavy wool socks. Wear a good pair of hiking boots, bring a base layer of long underwear (merino wool or lycra), rain pants, rain jacket, several layers of warm clothes, sunglasses, sunblock, a warm broad-brimmed hat, warm winter gloves, and a wool scarf or buff. Also bring a day pack to carry snacks, and at least a liter of water for every four hours of hiking and of course any medications you require. Hiking poles are recommended and don’t forget your camera! As a German hiker once told me “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
Even if you have lived in Cuenca for some time, it is wise to acclimatize yourself to high elevations before you visit Chimborazo. A good option is to do progressively higher hikes in the mountains around Cuenca and especially Cajas National Park. The goal is two-fold: to improve your physical fitness and gradually acclimatize to higher and higher elevations. If you have health issues, get advice from your doctor before attempting high elevation hikes. If you wish to summit Chimborazo it can take five months to acclimatize and gain the fitness and skills required for this challenge.
OK, now you’re in good shape and are comfortable hiking above 12,000 feet (3658 meters). You get to Chimborazo and are eager for your first hike. A good plan is to test yourself starting from the first refuge “Carrel Refugio” at 15,750 ft (4800 m). There you can park your car, have a hot drink and snack before walking to the second refuge “Whymper Refugio”, 16,404 ft (5000 m) and if you have the lung capacity you can walk to Condor Cocha a small alpine lake at 16,732 ft (5100 m) at the foot of Chimborazo. At these elevations, the advice is to take your time, go slow, rest when you need it, drink lots of water, and don’t be afraid to turn back if you are not feeling well. Headaches, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, shortness of breath nausea and mental confusion are signs of altitude sickness and should be taken seriously. If you or your party experience these symptoms, then the whole party should descend immediately. Do not leave someone suffering these symptoms alone. Click here for information about Chimborazo Refugios.
Aside from these warnings, the hike represents a personal achievement in an awe-inspiring landscape. Take time to enjoy your accomplishment, breath in the pure mountain air, and feel good about yourself. You have done something only a handful of people on earth get to experience!
The hike from Carrel Refuge to Condor Cocha is what most visitors to Chimborazo experience, it only takes a few hours, then they leave the refuge. However, now that you are acclimatized, its time to really test yourself. We chose the hike to Templo Machay.
Day hike from Chimborazo Lodge to Templo Machay
Our mountain guide Esteban Arévalo arranged to have us stay overnight in the fabulous Chimborazo Lodge. This lodge was established by the legendary Marco Cruz, one of Ecuador´s most accomplished and famous mountaineers. He first summited Chimborazo when he was only 13 years old. He has summited all the volcanoes in Ecuador and peaks in South America, Europe, and Asia. Click here, here, and here to learn more about Marco and his extraordinary life.
Chimborazo Lodge sits in a valley with outstanding views of Chimborazo. There is no phone service or internet service so unplug and enjoy the tranquillity and simplicity of an ecolodge which is a museum to mountaineering history and an example of sustainable ecotourism.
The accommodation is comfortable with heated rooms and hot showers to ensure a cozy stay against the freezing nighttime temperatures. It is easily the best place to stay near Chimborazo and a favorite place for climbers from around the world to prepare to summit Chimborazo. Marco still leads these parties and we were lucky and honored to meet this warm and generous man.
Marco advised us to walk from the Lodge to Templo Machay and then traverse the slopes of Chimborazo to Refugio Carrel where we could arrange to have a car take us back to the lodge.
We had a wonderful breakfast at the lodge and were rewarded with stunning views of Chimborazo.
The hike up the valley from the Lodge is a gentle ascent through the páramo (alpine moor) dotted with tussock grass and many wildflowers. There was a shepherd herding his alpaca up the valley and as we got higher we went through sand dunes as we ascended the foot of Chimborazo. After walking for four hours we reached Templo Machay. We explored the cave and stopped for a rest and some snacks and an opportunity to enjoy the magnificent scenery.
Templo Machay is a sacred volcanic cave on the southern flank of Chimborazo. It is a site of offerings of the Puruhá, Inca peoples and the inhabitants of the area. There is a steep scramble inside the cave to get to the back wall of the cave where you can see modern offerings left by visitors from around the world.
After leaving Templo Machay, we traversed the steep scree slopes to a series of ridgelines descending from Chimborazo. The landscape transitioned from páramo to rocky volcanic slopes until we reached Refugio Carrel. We were exhausted at the end of the hike after hiking for eight hours over 18 kilometers. However, we were feeling exhilarated from the experience of testing our fitness, our endurance and our acclimatization in one of the great mountain landscapes in the world.
We were fortunate to catch a taxi that had dropped off some climbers that had arrived from Quito. We returned to Chimborazo lodge to celebrate with beers, showers and a superb dinner at the lodge.
Thanks to our fantastic mountain guide Estéban Arevalo for acclimatizing us for this challenging and memorable trip.
Marco Cruz and his expedition company: Click here, here, and here
Excerpt from Lonely Planet about Chimborazo
Viator.com. Chimborazo Volcano Private Day Trip
Trip Advisor Chimborazo
Our Mountain guide: Esteban Arévalo: email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Itami is a retired environmental planner living in Cuenca.
He has had a 20-year academic career teaching at the graduate level at the University of Guelph, the University of Arizona and the University of Melbourne in Australia. As an environmental consultant, he developed visitor management systems with National Parks in Australia and the US. For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, he worked with scientific teams building computer simulation models of recreation behavior, vessel traffic and the effects of global climate warming on international shipping through the Bering Sea. He is a keen hiker and is enjoying exploring the landscapes and cultures of Latin America. Contact Bob for more information at email@example.com