The Vicuña Trek

A Fantastic Trek Through The Avenue Of The Volcanoes

 

The Páramo – Evolutionary hotspot

Only rarely will you find absolute solitude in breathtaking scenery like this:
The Andean moorlands, or Páramo, as it is called here, is an alpine tundra ecosystem above the continuous timberline, yet below the permanent snowline. A perfect landscape for vicuñas.
Located roughly between 2800m and 4700m, this wild and untamed stretch of land is, according to scientists, one of the fastest evolving regions on our blue planet.

In the last 3 to 5 million years, ever since the Andes reached these altitudes, organisms that occupy the area evolved faster than in most other places on earth.
Páramos, therefore, represent the ideal model system for studying diversification processes. Understanding these effects will assist with efforts to determine how future climatic changes will impact plant populations.

Riobamba – City of volcanoes

San Pedro de Riobamba, the capital of Chimborazo province, is ideally located in Ecuador’s central sierra. The city’s skyline is nothing less than spectacular:
Surrounded by 5 volcanoes, Riobamba is the perfect place to start great adventures!
Chimborazo, the point on earth closest to the sun, is probably the most well-known of Ecuador’s volcanoes.

Carihuairazo, its closest neighbour, was once of similar height but exploded in prehistoric times and only the heavily eroded remnant of a volcanic caldera remains today.

El Altar, to the east of the city, is another volcano that can be seen from the city, with 9 summits over 5000m and a beautiful crater lake in between. It is a guarantor for breathtaking hikes, alongside vicuñas and other animals that roam the paramo.

Sangay, located to the south-east, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, erupting almost constantly since 1934. Technically easy to climb, but due to its activity not entirely safe. From here, you can experience magnificent views down to the Amazon basin.
Tungurahua, also active, is the last of the 5. In 1802, the great Alexander von Humboldt attempted to climb the summit but unfortunately failed.

 

Riobamba, starting point for the trek

Riobamba, La Sultana de los Andes

 

Our trek – Passing through No Man’s Land

Angelica and I travelled from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, to Riobamba, where we first settled in and strolled around town. We had hornado (roasted pig) for lunch in the city’s famous market, bought a beautiful blanket with a vicuña stitched on it and went to bed early, to save some energy for what was about to come.
For our first longer hike here, we picked a scenic route between Chimborazo and Carihuairazo, roughly 13km long and at altitudes between 3900m and 4400m.

 

Vicuña Trek, Chimborazo

The map of our route

We were picked up early in the morning by our friend Popkje, who is a tour operator for hiking, trekking and climbing adventures in Riobamba.
We took her pick-up truck to the tiny village of Urbina, where we picked up our local guide. A few kilometres further up north, our driver dropped us off at the end of a road, where our hike would start. Later that day, our driver would surround Chimborazo from the west, ready to pick us up in the evening on the north side of the volcano.

 

Local man passing by

A local man passing by

 

Let’s go

The hike started on a dirt road, meandering up from 3900m to about 4200m. Vicuñas eat grass along the road. The weather was sunny and warm, almost too warm for the clothes we were wearing. But that should change soon.
An hour or so later, the road ended and we immersed ourselves in the moorlands.

From here on, there were no more paths that would have made our way comprehensible. Our local guide was there for a reason: Without him, we could easily get lost after a short while in the vast Páramo landscapes up here.

The Páramo - As far as the eye can see

The Páramo – As far as the eye can see

The weather changed quickly. Nothing was left from the warm and partly sunny skies, the clouds got thicker and darker. The wind increased and it started hailing now and then.
We were hiking on the northeastern flank of Chimborazo, with the remaining stone formation of Carihuairazo to our right. No sights of any human existence anywhere nearby. Not even vicuñas. We were all by ourselves.

The weather turned worse after a few kilometres of hiking and we put on our ponchos and raincoats to protect ourselves from the occasional downpours.

In between, when the rain stopped for a bit, I was able to get our drone up in the air, to take some footage from a different and rather spectacular perspective. Although the wind pulled hard on the drone, we were lucky enough to film some incredible scenes.

Soroche – When the altitude sickness hit me

Almost exactly halfway through the trek, at maybe 4400m, the altitude sickness hit me. Not too surprising, since I experienced it several times before, always at more or less the same altitude. Angelica, Popkje and our guide were fine, it depends on each individual and how altitude sickness is experienced.
The symptoms are different for everyone. For me, it usually starts with increasing pain in the temples and a headache in general. Then the back of my neck begins feeling stiff and uncomfortable. The pain goes down my arms, making them seem heavy and the hands feel numb. Luckily, my legs were good to hike further, and also breathing with these low oxygen levels up here was not causing problems.
But still, it can be a real ‘pain in the ass’.

High up - Dealing with altitude sickness

A trek high up – Dealing with altitude sickness

We had hot coca tea with us, which lessens the symptoms a bit, but still doesn’t make them go away entirely. Since we were halfway through the trek already, there was no thought of returning to our starting point anyway. And without cell phone reception also no way to tell our driver where to pick us up. Not to mention the absence of driveable roads from start to end.

So we continued on our way through spectacular landscapes, up and down through the moorlands, alongside the cliffs of Chimborazo’s flank.
Chuquiraga, evergreen, flowering shrubs, as well as Xenophyllum, cushion-like plants that store large amounts of water are dominant here. We walked right next to them. We are above the timberline, and even the Polylepis, the world’s highest growing tree, stops growing already a few hundred metres below.

The last meters

On the last kilometres, now on the north side of Chimborazo, the landscape suddenly changes. It becomes more desert-like, with fewer and smaller plants around us.
The weather seemed to change accordingly, the sky was still cloudy, but the ground was dry again. Herds of vicuñas roamed the Páramo in the distance.

 

The end of our trek

Towards the end of our trek

 

Luckily (for me) the last kilometre was on a dirt road again, going slightly downhill, until we reached our driver and his car.
After 13.2 kilometres (or 8.2 miles) I was happy to sit down again, relax, and feel the altitude sickness improving more and more.

Even though I felt slightly misplaced during half of the hike, it was still a fantastic trek which also made me experience my boundaries and how far I can push them.

You might also enjoy reading: Cahuasqui: One of Ecuador’s best-kept secrets

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