Ecuador 4. We are granted a lie-in on our first day at Misahualii (800ft above sea level), but I get up early to spot birds – plenty of calls, tantalising in the dense foliage. After breakfast Diego takes us on a three hour walk in the secondary forest round the lodge. He insists we wear gumboots which hurt my feet. He is full of information; stopping every so often to point out a particular tree, fungi or insect. We squeeze through a labyrinth of limestone rock, enjoying the welcome cool after a sweaty climb. We stop to examine the palm from which Panama hats are made – they originate from Ecuador. They can cost up to $1,000 depending on the fineness of the weave. I paid only $6 for mine in the market.
A late lunch at the lodge – they feed you well here, and they give me guava cheese every day for breakfast. I love it.
My feet and legs are sore so I opt out of the afternoon outing to a nearby village and enjoy quality time on my own. I have a sore throat and dose myself before going to bed.
Sunday. On with the horrid gum boots again, and we collect rain ponchos for a wonderful hour’s ride down river in two motorised canoes. We prepare for a walk into dense primary forest. But a tropical rainstorm pelts down, peppering the trees and saturating us in minutes. On with the steamy ponchos.
I turn back after an hour, not wanting to suffer sore feet again, and I am feeling below par. From the quiet shade of a thatched open rondavel I spot two black caracaras across the river, and glimpse a hummingbird which flits away before I can reach for my binoculars. The forest is full of birdsong.
The others arrive back for lunch after two hours, an excellent hot picnic of rice, pulses and chicken, and we embark again for the upstream return journey. We stop to pan for gold, and at a small village a woman demonstrates how to prepare a local brew.
I suppose we have the early start the following day to spend enough time acclimatising… we bus to Banos for lunch, and then kill four long hours wandering round the town. I visit the church for some quiet contemplation – very ornate with crude pictures of miracles which have been performed locally. Then I spend an hour on the internet, and go to the supermarket to buy a picnic lunch for the following day. We return to Potate for the night, but this time Tungurahua is not visible.
Another early start and a journey with a break for a forty minute walk up the road for further acclimatisation. We are heading for Chimboraozo Mountain: pudding topped with snow, much like Mt. Kilimanjaro in profile. At 20,564 ft it is slightly higher than Mt. Kilimanjaro. We see one-hundred-year-old thatched huts, plaited against the wind and we pass rabbits, guinea pigs and llamas. Three people remain at Riobamba because of altitude sickness, while the rest of us ride back up Chimbaraozo on the west side, where we visit a school and deliver the 90 gumboots we collected earlier. The tour company has built a community centre and a school, and the children enthusiastically demonstrate their appreciation of our contributions. We dance and jig and hand out gifts like Father Christmas; we play cat’s cradle and football. The village is tiny. Alpacas and llamas are farmed here, and we go further up the mountain to spot vicunas. But it starts raining and I am glad we have an excuse not to walk. On the return journey my head begins to ache.
The hotel in Riobamba is unprepared for our 4.30am start the next day, but we have a special treat prepared.