An hour by bus west of Riobamba and Ambato lies the 58,560-hectare Chimborazo Fauna Reserve, which lies within three provinces: Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, and Bolívar. The reserve’s main attraction is Ecuador ’s highest mountain, Chimborazo (6,268 meters), which is also the farthest point from the center of the earth and closest point to the sun.
Even though it is some 2,500 meters shorter than Everest when measured from sea level, Chimborazo’s peak is actually farther from the center of the earth because of the earth’s equatorial bulge.
Climbing Chimborazo is no mean feat and requires both serious preparation and luck with the conditions. The craggy peak next to it, Carihuairazo (5,020 meters), is considerably lower but also challenging and is often used as a preparation climb.
For nonclimbers, the reserve has plenty to offer, and it’s worth it at the very least to drive through here to gaze on its unworldly landscapes. The western side of Chimborazo, in particular, is made up of dry terrain that recalls the Bolivian high plains. The reserve’s páramo, farther down, is home to thousands of llamas, vicuñas, and alpacas. Vicuñas had been hunted to extinction in Ecuador but were reintroduced from Chile and Bolivia in the 1980s and now number over 2,500.
The reserve can be entered either near Pogyos on the road between Ambato and Guaranda or on the road from Riobamba to Guaranda near Pulingui San Pablo, from where it is eight kilometers to the refuge. A taxi can be arranged from Riobamba ($35), or you can take a full-day guided tour that includes hikes around the park and between the two refuges ($45 pp) with Alta Montaña (Avenida Daniel León Borja 35-17 at Uruguay, Riobamba, tel. 3/294-2215).
Chimborazo, whose name comes from the Kichwa for “snowy place to be crossed,” actually consists of two peaks with five separate summits between them. English climber Edward Whymper along with Italians Jean-Antoine Carrel and Louis Carrel were the first to stand atop Chimborazo in 1880, having ascended via what is known today as the Whymper Route.
If you want to tell people you’ve been to the real roof of the world, bear in mind that the climb is challenging. Most people take the Normal Route in preference to the more dangerous Whymper Route, and while it’s not technically difficult, it still demands knowledge, experience, and above all, enough time to acclimate. The upper slopes are prone to avalanches—a bad one in 1993 killed 10 climbers, and the melting of the mountain’s glaciers has led to changes in the route.
The ascent takes 7–10 hours, and the descent 3–4 hours. Although Chimborazo can be climbed year-round, the best months are December–January. February–April brings rain and heavy snowfall; by June you can expect high winds, clear sky, and good snow.
Climbing without a guide is strongly discouraged, and it’s best to book a tour from Riobamba or Quito . A recommended agency in Riobamba is Alta Montaña (Avenida Daniel León Borja 35-17 at Uruguay, tel. 3/294-2215). Two-day ascents of Chimborazo cost $220 pp. Two-day hikes between Chimborazo and Carihuairazo cost $140 pp.
Sharing the Abraspungo Valley with its big brother, Chimborazo, Carihuairazo (ka-ree-why-RAH-zo) takes its name from the Kichwa for “strong freezing wind.” Both the Maxima (5,020 meters) and Mocha (height disputed) peaks are covered with snow and ice, making technique and experience necessary for the ascent. Both summits are part of a large caldera almost two kilometers in diameter, open to the north. Whymper and the Carrels first climbed the Mocha peak in 1880, while Maxima remained unconquered until a Colombian, German, and French expedition reached the summit in 1951.
These days, the Maxima peak is the more commonly climbed, and it makes good practice for tackling Chimborazo. There is a new refuge at 4,600 meters, which is used as base for the climb. Hiring a guide is strongly recommended for climbing and hiking in this area.