This route from the coast to the highlands is spectacular almost from the moment you leave Babahoyo behind and follow a straight road past rice fields, with the mountains looming up before you, cast in many shades of grey. Passing through a small hamlet called Montalvo, the road starts to ascend and by the time it reaches Balsapamba the vegetation has changed to semi-tropical, with banana palm and a range of other dark green leaves filling the hillsides. A river runs through the valley below. Water cascades down from rocks above. Balsapamba has a petrol station and a few shops. From here the road deteriorates as it heads up, invariably through cloud and rain until emerging into fertile pasture land inhabited by cows and their owners. There are magnificent views from the road and verges as it winds down into deep valleys and climbs back out again. Accommodation is available in the small towns of San José and San Miguel from where Chimborazo can be glimpsed as you descend the hill into town, before the final climb up to Guaranda.
Beyond Guaranda the journey gets even better as the road passes as close to Chimborazo as you could hope to get in a vehicle.
A decent road climbs up out of town past eucalyptus trees, little huts and fields. After 10km there is a turn off to Salinas along a gravel track. Opposite the turning is one of the many roadside stalls from which you can buy Pájaro Azul – the local moonshine which comes in plastic 3 litre bottles baring the labels of a famous multinational drinks company.
Higher up the road you can look back down the valley and enjoy a wonderful view of a patchwork of cultivation and isolated settlements which fall away all the way down to the coast.
No sooner have you absorbed the view than the landscape starts to change, giving way to wilder páramo, only fit for sheep. The colours are duller – light greens of swishing grasses with few trees.
When you reach the top of the climb things change again. The road crosses El Arenal, a flattish, desert-like zone under the peak of Chimborazo. A turning to the right leads to the entrance to the wildlife reserve and on to Riobamba. The road to Ambato continues across the desert, passing just north of the volcano. On a good day, when the clouds part, the view is magnificent. The clouds move so fast that they can part and reform in the time it takes to read a page of a book. So keep looking out the window (right side of a bus from Guaranda) and if you’re driving, be ready to stop (there are a few safe places) and jump out.
Leaving Chimborazo behind, the road starts to wind and descend into the central highland valley, passing again through páramo and becoming gradually more populated. Eucalyptus trees line the way down to Ambato.