A sleepy town in a dramatic setting, Riobamba's assets are obviousat least part of the time. When clouds permit, the imposing summits of Mount Chimborazo and Altar dominate the skyline. I'm here to see both the highs and lows of Ecuador, and I've made Riobamba my basecamp for outdoor adventure. Besides a clamber up Chimborazo, I'm set on exploring the Oriente, the beckoning rainforest to the east.
"Riobamba is about three hours by car from everything," says Patricio Costales, manager of the city's Zeus Hotel.
"Normally," he adds. "That is before the rains of El Niqo temporarily roughed up some of the roads. Cuenca would be three and a half hours away, Quito and Guayaquil three hours, Misahualli four."
As it turns out, in the wake of El Niqo, Costales' estimate for the river port of Misahualli is decidedly optimistic. The winding road through a cleft in the Andes down to the jungle is an all-day run by bus. For considerable distances, a corrugated dirt road slows the descent. There are numerous stops for trucks and buses to squeeze by one anothera steep drop on one side of the road, a wall of rock threatening to punch out windows on the other, and on one occasion a waterfall raining down on roofs and unwary passengers.
Almost 460 years ago, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana led an expedition through similar country in search of gold. Orellana's journey was one of the more inspiring epics of the early colonial period, and led him over a cross section of what was to become mainland Ecuador, from the coast up to Quito and then down into the jungle. Ultimately his companions and he boated the length of the Amazon, ending up in the Atlantic with a navigational 'first' under their belts.
Today, farms and small towns spread over the mountains, and the rainforest isn't nearly as primeval as it was even a few years ago. But rugged and scenic terrain still abounds, and the helter-skelter ride down through the climate zones remains a challenge for the eye and the comprehension.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication