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Published: June 22nd 2012
Since our wonderful ride to the source of the Río Magdalena in Colombia a month or so ago, we've been itching to get back into the saddle. A fantastic-sounding opportunity presented itself shortly after we arrived in Riobamba, a short distance south of Latacunga and sited in possibly one of the most impressive locations of the Avenida de los Volcanes
. Towering over the city is the huge, snowcapped peak of Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak and - strange but true - the closest spot on Earth to the Sun. Due to the planet's pronounced equatorial bulge, the peak of 6,310-metre Chimborazo is considerably further away from the centre of the Earth than Everest, a fact Ecuadorians are rather bizarrely proud of...although I suppose standing closest to the Sun is a nice idea. Towards other side of town looms Tungurahua, much smaller at just over 5,000 metres but more than making up for this with intense volcanic activity. Tungurahua burst back into life in 1999 and to this day emits unpredictable bursts of ash and occasionally lava.
To the east of Riobamba lies the sprawling expanse of Parque Nacional Sangay, over five thousand square kilometres of wilderness and home to spectacled bears,
tapirs and pumas - not to mention two volcanos. Tungurahua is one of them - the other, Sangay - is where we heading on a five-day ride deep into the heart of the park. It is - fortunately, I think - only after our return to Riobamba that we learn that Sangay is regarded as one of the world's ten most active...
Unlike in Colombia, where we rode light and spent nights in local farmhouses, here we will have to carry everything
we need for five days: food, cooking gas, stoves, tents, the whole shebang. When I say we
, of course, I don't mean we. The gear will be carried in and out by three pack-horses, and we'll be accompanied by a guide and a horseman. A total of sixteen pairs of legs will be heading into the park on this trip - the extra two belong to Loco, Juan's adorable pet dog, who will follow us for the entire five days. At the time of making the plans, neither of us realised quite what a substantial undertaking we were getting into!
We left Riobamba in the afternoon on a pickup truck loaded with everything from giant coolboxes
Schoolchildren in Guarguallá
I think the preparations for our departure, taking place just outside the classroom, somewhat interfered with the lesson on long division!
filled with food to a massive gas bottle. The destination was the tiny hamlet of Guarguallá, located south of Riobamba and right on the edge of the park. An hour after leaving town we left the main road at an unmarked turnoff and bumped along steep and winding dirt roads for another hour, making our way towards the head of a deep valley, its sides a patchwork of fields dotted here and there with alpacas and llamas. If even the trailhead was this tricky to get to, what on Earth would the journey to the volcano be like?
After spending a final night of relative comfort in Guarguallá - nice blankets, or even a proper roof, would not be seen again for five days - we rose early the next morning to get the five horses saddled up and ready right outside the local school. The lesson - long division, as it happened - was suspended as the children got up from their desks and peered out of the door to look at what the two gringos
were up to, eventually coming outside to call out "buenos días!"
a dozen or more times each. After over an hour of
positioning, repositioning, tying, untying and retying everything to the three pack-horses, it was finally time to set off. The trail started rather unceremoniously round the back of the school, but within a few minutes the village was out of sight - and very much out of mind, as cultivated hillsides quickly gave way to open pasture and then wilderness.
The first day's ride was a gruelling seven hours along a path which within an hour or two could barely be called that. As the landscape became progressively more broken and wild, so did the trail. The San Agustín trek, with its crazy steep slopes, quickly seemed like a piece of cake: horses up their bellies in mud, gullies so narrow we had to either get off or practically cross our legs on the saddles in front of us, downhill slopes so steep I had to lean back until my head was almost touching the horse's back (no - or little - exaggeration!). By the time we arrived at our first camp our legs had turned to jelly - if anyone thinks riding is just sitting on a horse, well...go to Sangay National Park!
All that day, and all
of the second - with even steeper gradients and with the path almost completely overgrown in places - there was still no sign of the famous Sangay, which at over 5,200 metres high should have been quite conspicuous. With low cloud clinging to the hillsides, we could barely see the path ahead, let alone the volcano. By the time we arrived at our second campsite, right at the foot of the completely shrouded and invisible Sangay, we were feeling rather dejected to say the least. Fabián, our guide, told us that on his last trip to the volcano with three Germans a few months ago (his last visit before that, we also found out, was six years before!), they didn't get to see the volcano. At all. In four days.
Imagine our delight, then, when on the morning of day three we gingerly opened our tent to the sight of Sangay spewing out an impressive cloud of ash into an almost clear sky. And, twenty minutes later, another. And another. And another. Our original plan had been to climb to the volcano's crater, but after Fabián all too nonchalantly informed us the volcano also regularly spews out large (and,
might I mention, incandescent
) rocks - these are encouragingly nicknamed "lava bombs", how nice - we decided a jaunt up the volcano's outer slopes, in fact the remains of the two previous Sangays which blew themselves apart hundreds of thousands of years ago, would do us just fine. That night, as we were tucking into another delicious dinner prepared for us by Fabián and Juan - think freshly-caught river trout, fried steak, home-made soup - we stepped outside just in time to see Sangay ejecting one of its famous lava bombs, which then rolled down the side of the volcano for what must have been many hundreds of metres. And, as the black streak in the snow the next morning attested all too well, not very far from where we'd climbed to. Any disappointment at not reaching Sangay's summit was very
rapidly swept away. During the night, deep, ominous rumbles reminded us that while we were sleeping (well, trying to - it was cold
) the volcano very much wasn't.
The final two days of the ride afforded us fantastic views of the volcano regularly emitting its plumes of dark grey ash, which sometimes barely had time to be blown
aside by the wind before another was spewed out. It was profoundly impressive. Despite its intense and unpredictable activity (there might be 5 eruptions in an hour, or none...some are small hiccups, anothers are accompanied by growls, rocks and lava bombs), Sangay is not considered a threat simply because it is so inaccessible. The trail we have followed from Guarguallá - through waterlogged páramo, up, along and over countless steep ridges, through overgrown bush and across dozens of streams - is the one and only way to get to the foot of Sangay.
The ride back is just, if not more, challenging than the one in. Some ridges are so steep that although you can ride down them (just about!) you have to use your own two legs to get back up. In two memorably steep, rocky and muddy sections, my horse decided to get badly stuck, performing a wild rodeo for about a quarter of a minute (believe me, that is a long
time if your horse is bucking, tripping and desperately trying to unstick itself underneath you) before finally freeing itself from the quagmire.
It was tough, tough, tough, and we loved (nearly) every minute of
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