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Stage 1 - Yomping the Foothills

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

With the beers of Liam's leaving-do hanging heavy in our temples, we hit the road back to Chakana. It was time for Liam to take the hire car back to the Airport and leave Ecuador. We gave him a fond farewell and most of our mountain kit to take home. Ben, Yan and I donned our heavy rucksacks and began the 200km yomp to Shell, following the flow of water. The first river to follow was of course the Río Chimborazo.

For the first few kilometres we would skirt along the top of the canyon cliffs beneath Chakana (the location where our source walk had finished). The river weaved its way through lush cow pastures far beneath us, to our right, but we found a slippery shepherd's path snaking down through the rockface and followed it to the valley floor.

It's an exhilarating feeling being down by the river. It’s nice just to think that the water flowing past us will be shifting some of the particles that we chambered over, thousands of meters above us at the highest source. The feeling that we'll follow this trickle for over 5000km through extremely dangerous and varied terrain is equally as daunting as it is exciting. But for now, the pastures are kind underfoot and easy to follow. We pass haciendas breeding prize fighting bulls, some fields are mixed with a sturdy looking breed of sheep and dairy cattle. We guess that every family along the route own at least a couple of each, and sometimes pigs too.

The Quechua people of the highlands are friendly. Gaggles of old ladies, with weathered faces and iconic trilby style hats laugh and call us over asking if we've somewhere to sleep for the night. We politely refuse as we have a 10km downhill journey to a camp site we scouted out earlier with Liam when we had the car.

As we continue, we begin to realise that this option of being on the valley floor is not the best. The novelty of being so close to the water wears off with the umpteenth fence climb.

Lots of the fences are made up of brash from recent clear felling of an unrecognised pine species in the hills above. One fence butts up against a giant boulder and we relish the chance for a short climb, our boisterous natures taking over from the monotony of walking. Soon we have to divert up onto the tarmac road that follows the river down to San Juan because we can't keep hopping over farmers fences and dodging bulls.

The rest of the days yomp is uneventful, but we do notice that litter heaps are scattered down the banks at regular intervals which is disappointing to see. The plastic here may well travel for over 5000km to the Atlantic Ocean.

We camp at Castillo Campsite and are amazed to find they have a massive TV and Netflix. By the time we've gorged on a full series, it's too late and wet to set up the tents, so we get the role matts out and rather sheepishly, crash inside. Amazingly Ben recognises a picture on their wall. His friends George and Lauren had stayed here when they cycled the length of South America from North to South. The family who run Castillo are very friendly and we'd highly recommend anyone to stay there if visiting Chimborazo. They wave us off with gusto in the morning. The evening before we had played with their dogs who decide to follow us as we set off...

We choose to cut through some arable fields, right down to the Río Chimborazo again. This part of the walk is breath-taking. The people have cut irrigation ditches all along the valley sides, meaning there is agriculture of all kinds around us, and mini streams to hope over as we follow the farmer's paths. The river snakes along below us to our right. The dogs stay with us for 6km, and we start to wonder if they'll ever turn for home. Soon we leave the idyllic farmland behind and enter a huge industrial area where Chimborazo Cement Factory is situated. Giant trucks and 4x4s race by leaving our mouths full of dust and eyes streaming, the dogs leap out of the way and are clearly not accustomed to this kind of traffic. We shoo them back towards the direction we have come but they insist to follow. Eventually we have to stop and pull them in, and I resign myself to the fact that I'm going to have to make a very expensive phone call to their owners. They come to pick them up and are very grateful to us and clearly oblivious to the £6 that I now owe Vodafone for the 30 second location description. As a frugal Scotsman, you can imagine my upset.

We continue dog-free and now it's really hot. There's no choice but to follow a main road and were struggling to even keep an eye on the river as it weaves through the factory grounds behind giant barbed wire fences. Eventually we have to take to a highway and make good pace downhill inhaling the black diesel fumes pouring out of the busses that speed past us. We make it down to a bridge and cross the river. Here, another tributary has joined, and the river becomes the Río Chibunga. The name Chimborazo will now be behind us for the last time. The Chibunga is the second of six rivers that we'll have to navigate before arriving at Belem, our destination in the distant future.

On the other side is a steep dirt track leading up the side of the valley that we opt to take. We follow this for a while, eventually it levels of and becomes tarmac before sloping down into an agricultural village. Here and then continually for about 4 days we are harried by packs of farm dogs. They sense and then see the highly irregular towering gringos with big back packs and begin to howl and bark. This sets off the rest and we are met by (sometimes) up to 10 dogs bounding around us. Yan keeps his Tiso walking pole handy and a swift scrape across the ground near them is usually enough to send them whimpering back. They clearly recognise the stick!

We make it into Riobamba and have a quick lunch made by a lovely Colombian girl. She asks us to do a quick video exclaiming that her hotel is "The Best Hotel in Riobamba!!" We oblige as the food is exceptional. We then walk through the town, hoping to camp at the junction between the Río Chibunga and Rìo Chambo.

As we approach the area, we have to pass through the posh gates of Hacienda el Puente and then descend down a very loose dusty path, dodging numerous cactus. Ben had opted to wear his sandals that day due to blisters from his boots, so he was moving especially delicately here. At the bottom of the hill there are more lush pastures on our side and the far side of the river is lined with massive cliffs of some kind of mud and round river-stone conglomerate. We then notice that the fields are full of prize fighting bulls. A beautiful glossy brown or black breed, elegant and strong with long sharp horns. The electric fence we have to hop over is separating us from a field of yearlings and we feel that we can risk it in order to cross the Chubunga. We have to cross here because if we chose to go down to where it meets the Chambo, the current would be far too strong. We gingerly make our way through the long grass and come to the river’s edge. To our disappointment it doesn't look like we can cross, its flowing fast, narrow and deep and there are bits of sharp metal and lines scattered randomly through the mirky water.

Bearing in mind we are only just below the city of Riobamba, and it seems that waste removal here consists of literally: throw it in the river and it'll disappear. We search further down river and hop another fence, desperate to find a crossing rather than back track 3km up the cactus hill. About halfway into the new field we realise that just ahead are the fully grown bulls and we stop dead. Thankfully the grass is belly high and we haven't been noticed. We back track slowly then turn and speed march back to the fence, launching ourselves over to safety. Retracing our steps to the next fence we realise that the yearlings have taken an interest are now crowding our escape route. At the count of three, we jump the fence, whooping and shouting and they leap away giving us enough time to throw the bags onto the cactus hill, cross the final fence and scamper back up sweating like mad. It's now late in the day and we have a long hike ahead, round to a road bridge and up an endless tarmac hill. Shattered and beaten, without a decent place to camp we grab a taxi into Riobamba centre and decide we’ll recommence from here the following day. That night we made a rushed decision on a place to eat in a grotty bar which annoyed Ben immensely. He rightly didn’t like to have anything come between him and a good meal, especially after a day like that. Fortunately, the plan for the next day was to make it to Penipe and our beloved tortillas de maise.

We wake up early, return to the start location and start walking in the cool morning air. Despite the prospect of making it to Penipe, we're also excited about seeing the point where the Pastaza enters our river which is now the Chambo. This meeting of the two happens just upstream from Penipe. The walk takes us past more farms and more packs of dogs. We're high on a hill side, far above the Chambo to our right and crisscross through dusty farm roads eventually dropping down a steep mule track into Cubijies, a town that we rename Cabbage because we can't get the pronunciation right. We have a welcome lunch on the main road but are annoyed with the loudspeaker pointed at our ears about a meter behind us. Yan gets fed up and pulls the plug! It's a running trend, wherever there's a shop, be it restaurant or pharmacy in Ecuador, they seem to play music as loud as Bongo Club and usually from a playlist of about 5 different local Latin pop songs. The food however is great and portion sizes are equally as good.

Soon after leaving the café, we manage to drop off the main road and get back into dirt tracks closer to the river. Ben kicks a perfectly spherical stone out in front of us and we continue kicking it ahead in 'brilliant' through passes to each other for the next 10km, Messi would have been proud. We reach the point above the Pastaza confluence, and I send up the drone to get some footage.

As sunset approaches we hike into Penipe and despite wanting to camp, are drawn to a hotel like moths in the night to a light bulb. We check in, shower and head for the tortillas. Penipe is situated at the top of a sheer gorge and the restaurant has a perfect view for us to study the Pastaza.

After dinner, about 20:30, we head back to the hotel and are surprised to find the outside gates locked. I prize them open, and the lads slip through, then Yan leans against one side and I slip though. At the front doors, the hotel is completely locked down which is annoying but by now, due to our growing South American experience, we're not even remotely surprised. We find a very shoddy ladder round back and I manage to climb up to the balcony with Ben bracing it, a well-practiced technique through years of hedge trimming together. I walk downstairs to open up, rather pleased with myself. Yan and I decide to have a look for a party and Ben goes to bed. The only action in town is back at our favourite joint where Vikessie and Christian who had previously served us dinner are chatting with some other locals. We are invited to join them, and the beers start flowing, first on us and then when we run out of money, on the house.

By now we're all tipsy and they suggest we go to a festival, we agree and are driven a few miles out of town to massive shed. Inside is the familiar thud of loudspeakers blasting out Latin beats. We throw ourselves in and begin dancing, Yan far outdoing my wooden moves with his flamboyant hip flicks and salsa spins. We have a great time and begin our own variant of Scottish Country Dancing. We are immediately taken to the centre of the dancefloor and told to dance again. We do another five minutes until we are exhausted and then spend the next hour having our photographs taken with every single person in the festival. Mothers want us to hold their babies, boyfriends ask us to lift their girlfriends on our shoulders. We kiss countless cheeks for posed photos. Someone eventually explains to us that we won the annual dance competition, and we fall about laughing at the absurdity of the situation. It's a fantastic night and we head back to the hotel with an increased love of Penipe.

On the final day of yomping to Baños we are waved off from Penipe by a warm crowd and I can't help but feeling sad that we won't pass through here again. It's a full-on day, we begin by crossing a bridge at the bottom of the gorge and take a dusty road along the far side of the river on which we hope to jump in the back of a work truck. (We have seen many of them throughout the recces and decide the best way to see the river would be from on top of one.) Of course, for the next four hours none go by, and we march on leaving the hangover in the dust. We find a good rhythm and knock out some 15km steadily up an increasingly steep hill on a road of extremely fine volcanic dust. I imagine if this hill was situated near Lympstone, it would be aptly named "Mount Doom". Ben and I get excited and in Yan's words, our "long Bathgate legs were too much for the little stubby hobbit legs of the Roberts." who is of course more of a natural sprinter. Eventually the hill does flatten out and we take in the vastness of the valley beneath us. Our tiny tributary has grown substantially. It is larger than most UK rivers by a long way, and it’s amazing to think it’s just one of a thousand tributaries that feeds the Amazon, and a small and relatively unknown one at that.

We continue on and are eventually pleased to hear the whirr of an engine behind us. We step out into the track giving the driver no option but to pick us up. We hike and hitch the rest of the long way into Baños following the road along the side of the Pastaza and are relived to find out when we arrive, that the ever-accommodating Fabrizio has space at Montano Hostel.

For the next few days we explore the river around Baños and fiddle with equipment. Ben will be leaving soon, and we want to get as much excess kit into his bags so that we are only left with the vital river equipment. Our boats bags (two each) are ridiculously heavy and we're scratching our heads wondering what else we can do without. We call on the knowledge of Melissa, a local Shuar lass that I had come across on Instagram two years earlier and become friendly with. She shows us some beautiful waterfalls and we set up an abseil to descend one which is nestled into the side of the spectacular forested Pastaza gorge. She introduces us to “Ben 2” an American rafting guide who is keen to join us through a grade 5 section of the Pastaza further down stream, a section that he says no one ever does.

On previous recces we had already met Pat, a local man from Shell who was the last man to raft the canyon ahead of us, some 10 years back. We discuss the plan with him, and he comes up with a three-day package that should enable us to raft all the way to Copataza where the flat/canoeable water begins. We aim to be there by the 29th of May 2023. This will work out perfectly for Ivan to deliver the canoes, as previously arranged. We have a final night in Montano with an eclectic group of South American and European hipsters, eat some mushrooms and do some more Scottish Country Dancing before heading to Shell to meet Pat the following day.

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