Travel: Rivers and valleys of colour in Riobamba, Ecuador

Riobamba — the name itself suggests exotic, rhythmic dancing. For us, it was a place to cool down from the steamy coast of Ecuador, and our three beach towns: Salinas, Montañita, and Puerto Lopez. Getting there by bus was arduous!

First we taxied to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest port and city, spending the night at a downtown hotel to break up the long trip into central Ecuador. The next day we went through a complicated maze at the huge, disorienting, multi-level bus station before we boarded what was supposed to be an air-conditioned “Executive” bus. The air conditioning never really worked. It was hotter inside than outside and there was literally no air near our seats— reserved front row behind the driver. You get what you pay for and that was $4.50 each for a 5-hour ordeal. And seemingly there is no more luxurious public-transit option.

The driver stopped every 10 or 15 minutes to pick up five to ten vendors at a time selling everything from chicken-on-a- stick to fruit salad, mangoes, big and small, plantain patties, and drinks. There was even some kind of preacher but we didn’t understand either the message or the messenger.

On the subject of drinks, ironically the bus doesn’t do toilet stops. We discovered that after three hours. It took an appeal from Barbara, actually a demand, for the driver to announce after 3-1/2 hours that due to a request from a lady, we were stopping. There was a mad rush by the elderly to get to the bathroom before any accidents happened. We could barely fight our way out from the front seats.

Eventually we arrived at the terminal in Riobambo and marveled at the cool air! We grabbed a taxi for $2 to a hotel that we had discovered in our guidebook.

Montecarlo is a charming, old world, two-level hotel with the rooms surrounding a courtyard. We took a second floor room with four beds, one double bed, and paid $39 for the two of us. For four people, it’s $60. We had a small balcony overlooking the main street, excellent for people-watching in this city that seems to have more indigenous residents than any we had visited. This is expected because Riobamba is in the mountains where the indigenous people live.

We discovered that the colourful costumes represent different tribes, but the women all wear fedoras and capes of different colours and carry children and belongings wrapped around their backs. As far as we could see, the women do all the schlepping. The men wear colourful capes, but do no heavy lifting.

There was a parade on when we arrived and we quickly took pictures of the colourful costumes, mixing Catholic and aboriginal traditions.

We basically did nothing for two days, except search out restaurants, including Chinese/Ecuadorian fare and Andaluz where we had their $3.25 lunches and salads.

There is a charming train station and old-fashioned train that travels to Devil’s gorge south of the city, but we declined because we were still in recovery mode from the bus trip.

The nice thing about Riobamba is that it’s a genuine town, almost devoid of tourists, and the people are friendly and helpful, but some Spanish is necessary. Even then you can be easily misunderstood.

There is a flourishing Chinese presence, both in food and clothing shops. We noticed this because the newly-elected president of Ecuador was visiting Beijing. The buses are manufactured in China.

Like Quito, there is a vista around every corner, varied and interesting neo-classical and Spanish colonial architecture and city squares.

Unfortunately, it was a bit depressing on Sunday when it rained all day and most everything was closed. But Monday morning, the city came to life. We loved the food market with its fresh and cheap produce and lovely women vendors of all ages. The strawberries are out of this world!

But the cheese — forget about it! The coffee for some reason is not the greatest. It seems the best Ecuadorian beans are exported. Trout is the fish of this central sierra because it’s found in the rivers. Rio, of course, means river.

Riobamba is the place to go to experience how the average Ecuadorian lives. There’s nothing touristy about it!

After three nights and two days, we hired Joel, known to the hotel receptionist as a good driver, and took off through the mountains to the fabled town of Baños, nestled among the hot springs and waterfalls and surrounded by towering green, lush mountains.

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