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Riobamba - The City at the Feet of the Giant

By Juan Francisco Carrasco

It is no secret that one of the most important natural icons that Ecuador possesses is the Chimborazo. This volcano that imposingly rises 6,263 meters above the sea level has become a national icon creating admiration in tourists, photographers and climbers all around the world, remaining as the highest point on Earth and the nearest one to the sun when measured from the center of the planet. Beside this colossal volcano, you can find the city of Riobamba, also called the Sultan of the Andes, because this beautiful city is not only next to the Chimborazo but is also surrounded by the volcanoes Carihuairazo, Altar and Tungurahua, giving the Ciudad Bonita a privileged location in between beautiful snowy mountains.


Since it is the capital of the Chimborazo province, Riobamba is full of history, culture and traditions. Riobamba means “wide plain” and gives tribute to the huge esplanade where it was settled in the middle of enormous mountains. What we now know as Ecuadorian society was first established in Riobamba. Not only was the first Catholic Church and Olympic stadium founded here, but also the first constituent assembly took place in this city. Contrary to popular belief, the capital city of San Francisco de Quito wasn’t originally founded where it is located nowadays, but near the Colta Lagoon which is just 40 minutes away from Riobamba by car. Also, Riobamba played a critical role in the economic growth of the country due to the commerce it allowed by train between the coast and the mountains, thanks to its perfect location in the middle of the country, which also granted it the title of the Railway Capital of Ecuador.


I personally love traveling by train, and riding one is a mandatory activity for me when going to the province of Chimborazo, where not only Riobamba, but other cities as well offer incredible tours and adventures by train. Sadly, the entire railway system in Ecuador has shut down but I hope it will be restarted soon by the authorities who are already working on it. My favorite tour departed from the lovely city of Alausí, which is only two and a half hours from Riobamba by car. Since I can remember, my family has always designated one of the days of our visits to Chimborazo to going to Alausí where colonial houses and a scenic landscape govern the little town amidst the mountains.


There, the main attraction is the trip to the Nariz del Diablo, an amazing path that navigates through the Andes mountains that will take you through sinuous rails next to hills and valleys on board a totally restored wagon that dates back to the middle of the past century. This route covers just a short section of the ruta transandina, a route that once connected Quito and Guayaquil, and that has been recognized as the most difficult railway in the world due to its devious construction on the cliff of the mountains. The final destination is the station of Sibambe where you will take a short rest watching a sample of the life of the Andes, where people are dressed traditionally and there are songs, dances, food and objects that share the immense culture of our country. Finally, the train will take you back to Alausí where its unique heritage center will offer you delicious food and a great place to rest.


If you already find yourself in Alausí, you can’t leave before visiting the Hacienda Abraspungo. This farm has beautiful gardens all over the place where you will find polylepis trees, found only in the high Andes that seem to be made of pieces of paper that are falling off. Inside the farm house there is an exhibition of objects and art pieces from the past century and the colonial, not to mention the famous horse saddles called “galápagos”, which gave the name to the famous turtles and the islands.


Apart from the railways, Riobamba also offers many experiences within the city. One of my favorites is going to the market La Marced. There you will find lots of little shops that not only offer Riobamba’s signature dish, hornado, but also llapingachos, and the famous rompenucas juices which are made with ice extracted from the Chimborazo by the hands of Baltazar Ushca, the last ice-maker of the Chimborazo who carries all the history and knowledge of the now extinct craft. Buying in La Merced is not like buying anywhere else. Here the sellers yell piropos and all kinds of names like, mi rey, guapo and lindo, just so you will buy in their specific tent. Last time I went there with my family, all the sellers thought my father wasn’t Ecuadorian and different sellers started talking to him in English in order to convince him to buy their hornado. That made our hornado unforgettable aside from delicious.


Moving away from the city and more into nature, the province of Chimborazo has two main protected areas, the Sangay National Park and the Chimborazo Fauna Production Reserve. These two areas have amazing biodiversity that shows both the paramo andino and the transition from the mountains to the coast. The Sangay National Park is highly invested in the conservation of different ecosystems such as the paramo, the subtropical forest, and the andino high forest, which the UNESCO recognized as a Natural Heritage of Humanity in 1983, making it one of the two natural heritages found in Ecuador, the first one being the Galápagos Islands. In the high mountains of this park you can find the successors of the Shuar people, giving it an immeasurable value for Ecuadorian culture. Additionally, the reserve of fauna production in Chimborazo works for the preservation of many native animals such as rabbits, wolves, deer, pumas, llamas, alpacas and even vicuñas, who were introduced only in this part of Ecuador and now have a big and stable population. This vast reserve that occupies the lands of three provinces and includes within its limits the volcanoes Chimborazo and Charihuayrazo is the one you should enter to climb or visit the famous volcano.


Finally, the province of Chimborazo is a must-go for everyone that lives here, the astounding landscapes ruled by mountains, railways, valleys and beautiful cities at the feet of Ecuador's highest volcano and the earth's highest point is an opportunity you should not miss.







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