Luminous seeds, balls of fire, necks of the moon… These were some of the names the puruwá used to refer to their hills, their mountains, their wakas (sacred sites), their taita (father) Chimborazo and their mama (mother) Tungurahua. They were the sons and daughters of the pacha (Mother Earth); She understood and communicated with her kin with tireless care and they turned to her when in need of inspiration or consolation, to ask for sustenance, which she offered benevolently when they celebrated her in their rituals.
Today, many of these traditions persist, albeit hidden. Chimborazo, the eternal protector, continues to watch over its “children” from a close distance, communicating the spirit, knowledge and customs of the land that grandfathers and grandmothers transmit to newer generations. They know they come from the volcano’s heart and only those who visit may come to understand that truth: that they are the eternal heirs of Chimborazo’s legacy.
This route begins in Calpi, one of Riobamba’s rural parishes, which has recently engaged in organized community tourism along with San Juan and Cacha. From the provincial capital, you can take the inter-parish bus “Unidos”, which stops at each of these community centers.
We arrive at “Tres Cruces”, a land surrounded by patchwork fields as far as the eye can see, home to ancestral crops such as quinoa, corn or lupin beans. This is a strategic site that perhaps served as a transition point in remote times and it will be our starting point as we visit La Moya, Jatari Campesino and Palacio Real; each offers its personalized charm.
Comunidad La Moya
From the fork in the road at Tres Cruces, La Moya is closest. Thus, we decided to visit it first. We had heard of an intriguing interpretation center, where, we were told, one can experience a more educational approach to the ancestral history of these lands and its people, descendants of the Incas and Puruwás.
This indigenous community is made up of some sixty-five families. It was in 2005 when they decided to unite in order to create a new project that would take advantage, in harmony with its visitors, of the beauty and mystique of its surrounding mountains. Once consolidated, they got to work. A year later, they built cabins at their community center, which was once used by ancestral generations as a place to congregate—but that had, for a long time, no modern use. It is now here where the museum, restaurant and lodging for travelers operate.
Before Covid-19, when the Ecuadorian railway would stop specifically to visit the community, the project turned successful quickly. It was even forced to expand due to the demand. Everyone was dedicated to making it work. Even the grandfathers and grandmothers entertained themselves daily, telling their stories and transmitting their knowledge to tourists. Today, the railway no longer operates and the pandemic has upended tourism. The community is desperately seeking new ways to attract visitors.
La Moya’s centerpiece is the Urkukunapak Wasi museum (the “house of the mountains”), where notions of the ancestral Andean worldview are exhibited in a clear, colorful fashion. Inside, you can learn about the Machay Temple, where the Puruwá would make offerings and sacrifices to honor Chimborazo. A replica of an ancient Puruwá home is also on display, with important tools and utensils of pre-Inca everyday life. For example, the grinding stone, which was used to prepare grains such as barley: at the moment of contact with the stone, one feels enveloped by the aroma.
Proud of their local cuisine, the community’s residents offer dishes with Andean superfoods that were harvested in Inca times: quinoa, corn, and beans. On the other hand, alfalfa was the main food for their domesticated animals, so it is common to see villagers carrying large bushes on their backs bound for home.
If you seek intimate contact with nature and the environment, there are several trails that the community members use to reach the ice mines. Lobo Ñan, Inca Ñan and the Camino de los Hieleros (Iceman Road) are the three routes you can travel, with durations of two, four, and eight hours respectively.
We continue along, past La Moya, its people and their kindness to head to one of the friendliest communities on the route: Jatari Campesino. Just over a kilometer away, again, we find ourselves surrounded by landscapes and their patchwork plantations.
It seems smaller than the previous community, but the locals tell us that they are almost the same in number. The railway passed right through town, which, similar to La Moya, became central to the project’s success as part of the “Ice Train” route. Upon arrival, travelers were greeted by girls and boys who danced in front of the large mural that embellishes the town, while the women prepared a heart-warming canelazo, an essential beverage recipe for the high-paramo cold.
The Jatari cultural art mural is a tribute above all to the community’s history. The ten-meter wide wall was painted by the Riobamba artist Pablo Sanguano together with community members including children and elders of Jatari. It portrays rituals, people’s festivals, typical food, traditions, emblematic animals, and a small section featuring a variety of beloved characters.
The visit is not complete until you stop by the community farm. This model of productive development for families is conceived to offer a means to share and exchange the food collected for the local livestock, to assure that they are always healthy. In addition, the activity involves the entire family, so even the youngest members can learn from the work carried out daily by the community, which initiates in the early dawn hours.
We return to the Tres Cruces turn-off and continue several kilometers southeast towards Riobamba, to the town of Calpi. Without prior notice, a sign on the road announces our next destination: Palacio Real… the “Royal Palace”. A curious name, no doubt.
Locals say the site was a rest stop for Simón Bolívar himself. On countless occasions. Perhaps one of many possible sites in Chimborazo that inspired the Libertador to write his famous “Delirium on Chimborazo” poem.
In any case, in the area where the main restaurant is located, you will find painted and carved decorations that honor the “queens” of the Andes: the llama. It makes sense. These camelids have always been of vital importance for local inhabitants, even before Inca rule. They used their skins to cover themselves, their wool for textiles and their meat to feed themselves. Even today, this is still a house specialty: llama meat.
Their praise for this animal is such that his cultural museum is dedicated to it. There, we learn about the upbringing, origin, development and medicinal and economic uses that the llama has had throughout history for this Puruwá community. Even on the ceiling, we discover a beautiful Yacana (or llama) constellation. We notice two eyes and a long neck, as well as an imaginary body that travels through a ‘great river’ (the milky way). In addition, it represents the camac (vital energy) of these noble quadrupeds.
For those who want to explore the surroundings, there are two interpretive trails. The first is Miraloma where, if you are lucky, on a clear day you may see the peaks of Carihuairazo, Tungurahua, El Altar and Sangay. There is also the Simón Bolívar trail that takes us to the “enchanted stone”. Legend has it that every time someone tried to move the large rock, terrible rains and plagues tore into the community.
We leave Calpi and travel southeast far past Guamote towards the remote town of Cebadas. As we approach the provincial border between Chimborazo and Morona-Santiago, the “Royal” Cordillera reaches its highest point before beginning its dramatic descent towards the Amazon Basin.
This is a magnificent journey… we’re astounded by horizons we didn’t even imagine existed, even those of us who have traveled the country extensively. In Atillo, you will not only find some of the province’s most arresting landscapes, but also an enticing, little-known community project that is worth discovering.
“Atillo”, which in English means “punishment” or “penance” was given because of the glorious lakes one finds here, used as prisons in pre-Inca times by the Puruwá. Wrongdoers were banished to the lakes’ islands and those who attempted to make their escape by swimming, would freeze to death in the cold páramo waters.
On the road from Guamote to Macas, just five kilometers from the beautiful lake complex of Atillo, with natural wonders such as Cuyo, Colay and the changing hues of Laguna Negra (Black Lake), we reach Los Saskines. A steadfast community tourism promoter, Dorita Peña, receives us with a warm hug, very much appreciated in such a cold climate.
Her restaurant has operated for over twenty-five years. Dora decided to make a different commitment to local tourism, pursuing her dream as a tour guide. She also serves the best trout in the area, which comes straight from her own trout farm, located right next door.
Saskines is the name of the páramo that surrounds the Atillo lakes, explains Dora. “As you can see, the beauty of these lands is incomparable. So I said to myself, why not preserve it with a little help from my traveler friends?” This very concept has generated a great, positive impact for her and her community.
Facing Saskines are three peaks that surprise even the most clueless traveler. Papa Urco ( Atillo’s highest point), Ruelas and Ujivo. Overlooking these three majestic pinnacles, one can spend the night in the on-site community cabin. With capacity for six adventurers (and a price of $5 per person) you can stay in one of the most beguiling settings you could wish for. It is well equipped to combat the cold, but you will need as much warm clothes as you can muster to enjoy the experience comfortably.
By day, you can reach the lakes on foot or horseback in the company of local guides, trained specifically for this activity. Members of the younger generations are usually in charge of these activities, since they are the ones who are always “going from one place to the other”, says Dorita. Another dream of hers is to build a self-guided trail to the summit of Padre Urco; this was actually one of her main inspirations for the project.
On the way back, a copious plate of trout awaits, ready to replenish our energies after the walk like any local would. Sunfo-leaf tea is also crucial to combat altitude sickness… and the cold.
From this point on, one can continue their community adventures towards Ozogoche or Achupallas, with several day trekking routes and camping. For more information on these areas, visit our website.
Photos: Murray Cooper
To experience the communities of La Moya, Jatari Campesino and Palacio Real, you must take Riobamba’s urban bus line #16 to the town of Calpi. From there, hire a pick-up truck (camioneta) to shuttle you to each destination.
You can also take the interparroquial bus “Unidos”, which leaves tourists at the entrance of each community center.
To visit Saskines, you must travel down the Guamote-Macas road and stop five kilometers before reaching the Atillo Lakes.
We recommend you make a reservation at each place at least one day in advance
La Moya / Jatari
Parroquia Calpi, en la vía a Urbina, km.10
+593 99 875 2686 / +593 99 573 6693
Parroquia Calpi, en la vía a Urbina, km.4
+593 99 812 9637 / +593 99 700 5944 / +593 3 262 0500
email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
Paradero Los Saskines / Atillo
Comunidad Atilllo km.75 (Atillo Chico) – Vía Macas
+593 99 794 6887 / +593 3 301 4383