From Guaranda, a serpentine dirt road leads 61km east to Riobamba, the liveliest and most attractive city in the central sierra, sitting on the Panamericana 52km south of Ambato. With an appealing blend of fast-paced buzz and old colonial charm, Riobamba easily merits a visit in its own right, but can also be combined with worthwhile excursions. Most famously, it’s the start of the Devil’s Nose train ride and is also a popular base for visiting Volcán Chimborazo; nearby Guano, a rug-manufacturing centre, and Zalarón, with its authentic highland market, are somewhat less demanding targets. East of Riobamba, the northern stretch of Parque Nacional Sangay offers some great trekking opportunities, in particular to the volcanic crater of El Altar, approached from the community of Candelaria, and to El Placer hot springs and Volcán Sangay, both reached from the village of Alao.
The self-proclaimed “Sultan of the Andes”, RIOBAMBA (2735m) is a handsome city made up of stately squares, flaking pastel-coloured buildings, cobbled streets and sprawling markets. An important centre since the early days of the colony, the place was dealt an abrupt and catastrophic blow in 1797 when a massive earthquake left it in ruins, though it was quickly rebuilt where it stands today, 20km north of its original site. Located in the centre of the Ecuadorian sierra, Riobamba is a major trading nucleus, with part of its appeal stemming from the lively mix of suited city dwellers and large numbers of indigenous traders from the countryside. The main market day is Saturday, when the city overflows with energy and colour. Another draw is the wonderful view (if the weather cooperates) across the city to Volcán Chimborazo; most hotels have flat roofs, so if you wake up on a clear morning – the earlier the clearer, usually – ask to go up to the roof patio.
The best place to start exploring Riobamba is the Parque Maldonado. This wide square is lined by the city’s most impressive nineteenth-century architecture, including the colonnaded, peach-and-white Municipio (where Ecuador’s first constitution was signed in 1830) and other flamboyant colonial buildings. On the northwest side of the square is the relatively new Museo de la Ciudad in a stately and elegantly restored building, with displays on Sangay national park, some stuffed animals and temporary art exhibitions. Across the square, the delicately carved stone facade of the cathedral is Riobamba’s only survivor of the 1797 earthquake, painstakingly transported and reassembled here when the town was rebuilt. The city’s two other major churches are the Neoclassical, pink-domed Basílica, three blocks southeast on Parque La Libertad, and the red-brick, neo-Gothic Iglesia de la Concepción, a couple of blocks northeast of Parque Maldonado.
Adjoining the Iglesia de la Concepción, the Monasterio de las Conceptas houses one of the best museums of religious art outside Quito. A series of small rooms around a leafy patio is devoted to various themes, with most pieces dating from the eighteenth century. The bulk of the collection is made up of carvings and paintings, but the museum’s most prized possession is a gold, jewel-encrusted monstrance used to display the consecrated wafer of the Eucharist during Mass, believed to be one of the most valuable in South America.
Other museums inlcude the Museo del Banco Central, Veloz and Carabobo, which features illuminating pre-Columbian artefacts, with detailed descriptions in English of the development of local and national cultures from 10,000 BC onwards, finishing off with a section on colonial religious art. The imposing Colegio Maldonado, on Parque Sucre, has a modest natural history collection; even if the museum is closed, it’s worth taking a look inside the college building to admire its marble staircases and arcaded courtyard. If you’re in town on a very clear day, wander out to the Parque 21 de Abril, a small, landscaped hill about eight blocks north of Parque Sucre, which has fine views over the town and across to Chimborazo.
If you’re around on a Saturday you can’t fail to be impressed by the immense market bulging out of the streets bounded by calles España, 5 de Junio, Guayaquil and Argentinos. The range of products for sale is staggering, from squawking chickens to rubber boots; for artesanías head to the Plaza La Concepción, in front of the church, where you’ll find many shigra bags, ponchos, shawls and jewellery. If you’re not in town on Saturday you can still catch the smaller-scale Wednesday version, as well as the daily covered fruit and vegetable market at La Condamine, or the smaller flower and fruit market at La Merced, off Colón, between Guayaquil and Olmedo. Something else to look out for is tagua nuts carved into items ranging from massage contraptions to jewellery; there are a handful of tagua carving shops on Daniel León Borja between Lavalle and Francia.
In 1899, after 25 years of frustrated plans and abortive attempts, work finally started on Ecuador’s first railway, which would link the coastal city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito, in the highlands – a feat finally achieved in 1908. The greatest obstacle, which prompted the line to be dubbed “the most difficult railway in the world”, was met 130km east of Guayaquil at a near-vertical wall of rock, known as El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose). The ingenious engineering solution was to carve a series of tight zigzags out of the rock, which allowed the train to climb 800m at a gradient of 1-in-18 by going forwards then backwards up the tracks.
Despite frequent delays and derailments, the service from Guayaquil to Riobamba and Quito ran, with interruptions, until 1997, when El Niño-related weather devastated the tracks. Currently, only the 12-km stretch from Alausí to Pistishi (usually advertised as Sibambe) at the end of the Devil’s Nose descent, is open. However, a controversial multi-million-dollar project to restore almost the entire original rail network is now underway, so it should soon be possible to start the trip in Riobamba again. Although the currently curtailed route, inflated price and abandonment of rooftop travel have undoubtedly diminished the appeal of the journey, it still offers stunning views of Chimborazo and Carihuairazo and a thrilling descent down the Devil’s Nose itself.
Taking the train
The train starts at Alausí (Tues–Sun & public holidays at 8am, 11am & 3pm), taking around two and a half hours for the return trip, including a brief spell in Pistishi, where you are treated to some traditional dancing and can pick up some light refreshment. Note that a cheaper autoferro (bus on wheels) runs the same route for a lot less (Wed, Fri & Sun – though the days sometimes change – and public holidays at 9am and noon; $6.50). However, the full Riobamba–Sibambe section will reopen soon; check Wtrenecuador.com for the latest information. Tickets cost $25 for the standard Alausí–Sibambe (Pistishi) route, and can be bought on the day at the train station. However, it’s better to make an advance purchase by phone (t1 800 873637) or at one of the train stations (Alausí station: Mon–Fri 8am–4.30pm & before departure), especially if you plan to travel at the weekend or during a holiday period. The carriages have recently been refurbished but following a fatality, it’s sadly no longer possible to ride on the roof of the train, which was one of the big draws. Since the service is subject to unpredictable changes, call the station office ahead for the latest news.
A number of outfits and independent guides offer a range of tours around Riobamba. For day visitors, the most popular target is the refuge at 4800m on the slopes of Volcán Chimborazo, from where you can take a strenuous half-hour hour walk up to the second refuge (5000m) for details. Several hotels in Riobamba offer good-value day-trips here, including the Tren Dorado and the Imperial, though these aren’t recommended for any serious mountaineering. Dedicated climbing companies and guides concentrate on guided ascents of Chimborazo (6268m), the highest peak in Ecuador and the most popular volcano climb after Cotopaxi; most also offer climbs up neighbouring Carihuairazo and other central sierra volcanoes. Some also do multi-day hiking programmes around the sierra, providing tents, sleeping bags, food and transport. All prices quoted below are per person for a group of two people, including a guide and equipment rental.
Riobamba is also a great place to arrange mountain-bike tours, ranging from riding down the slopes of Chimborazo to outings around rural villages along backroads or multi-day tours of the Atillo or Ozogoche lakes. There are two excellent dedicated operators, who use good bikes, protective equipment and a support vehicle: Biking Spirit, at Alta Montaña, offers rides for all levels; and Probici, Primera Constituyente 23-51 and Larrea (t03/2941880 or t2961759, wwww.probici.com; if there’s no one there, ask in the fabric shop opposite).
If you’re interested in supporting community tourism initiatives in Chimborazo, get in touch with the Corporación de Desarrollo Comunitario y Turismo de Chimborazo, Veloz 22-28 between Colón and Espejo, CC High Fashion, Office 106 (t03/2951996, wwww.cordtuch.org.ec), which coordinates fifteen local projects, mostly in remote indigenous villages. Generally, for a modest charge, you’ll have the pleasure of being the guests of these communities, experiencing rural highland life first hand and get the chance to be taken on hikes, horse rides, mountain-bike trips or climbing expeditions by people who have spent all their lives in these hills.