The world becomes smaller, decreases, when it loses its words. “Every two weeks a language dies,” wrote Eduardo Galeano, as he reflected on the words of Angela Loij, one of the last Tierra del Fuego natives. With her, the language that she spoke disappeared. She was the last person who spoke and sang in a language no one else could remember: I walk in the footsteps Of those who have gone. I am lost…
Languages die, memories vanish, stories are built on stories, as the footsteps of those who have already walked the ancient roads persist, except for in the minds of those who walk upon them. These words, speaking of lost languages, echoed in my mind as I walked the Camino Real, or Royal Road, located on the southern side of Mount Chimborazo: a path of footsteps that are no longer to be found. Footsteps of the ancient Puruhá people, of the Incas, of the Spaniards, of 19th century adventure seekers. Today we walk this beaten path, whose character and essence had been contemplated and imagined long before we came along.
These ancient roads, which date back over 2,000 years, are lined with páramo. One of them leads all the way from Cuzco, Peru, through the eastern slopes of Chimborazo and from Chuquipogyo (Hacienda Andaluza), heading north through Mocha. From Chuquipogyo you can also go west through Yungas cloudforest, or through Tambo Totorillas (Chimborazo Lodge) down to Guaranda, where you can descend to the coast via the Babahoyo river.
Visiting Chimborazo’s Polylepis forest with Marco Cruz, an unforgettable experience.
In colonial times, this pass was called the Royal Road, or Camino Real, and it was in use until 1908, when the Guayaquil-Quito Railway was finished. We usually call these routes “Inca trails,” but in reality they were there long before; once the Incas arrived, they used these already-existing paths to create a massive interconnected road system called the Qhapac ñan, which was praised by Alexander von Humboldt: “Nothing I have seen in Roman roads in Italy, southern France or Spain, were more imposing than these works”. Inca trails cover over 5,000 kilometers, spanning from the Mayo River in Colombia to the Maule River in Chile, with offshoots in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
The road, along with the people, cultures and the more than 70,000 animals that had used it, was forgotten in 1908. It’s hard to imagine what the path must have looked like just over 100 years ago, with so much traffic. The Puruhá passed through here to trade spondylus shells, coca leaves, salt, corn, chilli peppers and soon everyone else followed. There would have been a constant movement of goods from the coast to the Amazon, as well as Inca armies, soldiers, Spanish chroniclers and conquistadors. Then there was geographer Pedro Vicente Maldonado, who created the first Ecuadorian map and, in his wake, the Geodesic expedition from France.
Chimborazo Lodge’s cabins are nestled in a privileged spot in the foothills of the volceno.
Today, the road can be seen from the tambos with relative ease. Tambos are Inca resting stations, located in specific, almost equidistant transects of the trails. They left an Incan mark on the mountain, reminding us of their former glory. Hiking this particular part of the Royal Road takes two days, going at six hours a day, from Urbina to a community near Guaranda, traveling about 20 kilometers from tambo to tambo.
The road runs almost straight, right through the mountains, reaching an elevation of 4,240 masl at the “Ata Cross” apachita (one of the stone cairns left for Mother Earth). It marks the highest point on the route bet- ween Quito and the Guayas river delta. This apachita, a mound of stones placed at a specific point in the road deemed the most difficult part, which in turn needed the protection from the apus (mountain spirits), has since been marked by a cross, placed by the Spaniards when they arrived with their Catholic religion. The wind blows wildly here. Behind the apachita, you see the imposing Chimborazo, the unavoidable escort of all travelers here.
Chuquirahuas and other plants are easy to find when hiking in the moorlands.
A short walk off the main road brings you to a beautiful, primary Polylepis forest. The Polylepis’ twisted trunk is always a sight to behold, but the strong wind that blows here has bent it even more — a truly striking sight. From this high point, you can see the city of Guaranda.
The entire road seems landscaped with beautiful vegetation, which extends out into astounding grass plains. This is a hike of legacy: we traverse the wandering paths that mark the area, which are accompanied, like us, by the great Chimborazo. The paths are footprints leading to our ancestors. All we have left to do is to walk them and use our imagination to recreate the spirits of those who once walked it.