The Chimborazo Wildlife Reserve in northern Ecuador was created in 1987 to protect massive Chimborazo Volcano and the páramo and puna ecosystems around it that are home to endangered wild vicuña. The program has been a success for those elegant members of the camelid family, and for nature loving travelers.
In 1988, 200 donated vicuña were introduced into the Chimborazo Wildlife Reserve. Vicuña are the supermodels of the camelid family which also includes larger and cruder llamas, alpacas, and guanacos. It is virtually impossible to domesticate vicuñas, so wild herds are crucial to the survival of the species. By 2012 there were more than 4,800 vicuña living in the Chimborazo Wildlife Reserve.
Covering 139,762 acres (58,560 hectares) at elevations between 12,467 feet (3,800 meters) and 20,700 feet (6,310 meters), the reserve is a harsh and dramatic place. The highest point in the reserve is the top of Chimborazo Volcano. Its last eruption was more than 10,000 years ago, but it remains an imposing presence.
The volcano’s glacier has been receding, but it is still a source of ice for local communities. A few times a week, a local man named Baltazar Uhsca Tenesaca climbs to the glacier at about 16,000 feet (4,876 meters) and uses a pickaxe to hack off chunks of ice which his donkeys carry down. The blocks (some believe the centuries-old ice contains special vitamins and healthy properties) are then sold to vendors at the Mercado La Merced in Riobamba where it’s used to make freshly blended juices.
Exploring the Chimborazo Wildlife Reserve in Ecuador
The Chimborazo Reserve is about 1.5 hours from the city of Riobamba. It offers hiking trails, including the 10 mile (6 km) trail used by Balthazar when he collects glacial ice, and tour companies offer mountain biking trips. Mountaineers can head for the summit of the volcano as well.
Condor Lake, at about 16,732 feet (5,100 meters), was really just a beige puddle when we visited. About a half mile (1 km) from the entrance to the reserve is a turn off that accesses a forest of polylepis trees (check out our story for Atlas Obscura to learn more about these odd high altitude trees). A short but steep trail (allow 20-30 minutes each way and ignore the official sign that weirdly says the hike will take 3 hours), gets you into the hobbitty forest tucked in a rocky nook out of the omnipresent wind with great views of the volcano.
Wherever you go in the refuge you will see vicuña. Small family groups are everywhere and the wild animals all look identical which is a little creepy. The reserve is also home to páramo foxes, hummingbirds, rabbits, rarely seen pumas, Andean condors, and more.
Sleeping in the Chimborazo Reserve
There are two simple but comfortable places to stay on the mountain within the reserve. The Carrell Refuge and the Edward Whymper Refuge (named for the man who is said to be the first to summit the volcano) which is a tough 30-minute hike beyond the Carrell Refuge. Both were recently renovated to add lovely stone exteriors, new wood floors and beams, and modern bathrooms. Dorm-style accommodation (around US$30 per person) includes dinner and breakfast. Bring your own towel and toilet paper.
Chimborazo Lodge, created by Ecuadorian climber Marco Cruz, is another more hotel-like option in the area.
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador