A day with the children of Father Chimborazo
“When are you are coming back?” asks Eugenia Shesha, a smile on her face. I’m sorely tempted to stay and not return to the bustle of Quito. I’ve only been in the village of La Moya for about an hour-and-a-half, but already it’s claimed a place in my heart. Maybe I will postpone my return, stay for just a night…
La Moya lies in the Central Andes, northwest of the provincial capital of Riobamba. It’s a small place, hardly stirring beyond the villagers’ daily rural tasks. There are a clutch of houses, some older and wooden, others newer. A white-washed church dominates, with a modest façade, and charming, simple interior, its roof upheld by dark hardwood beams and carizo bamboo.
This simplicity comes in stark contrast to the church’s rear wall, which is adorned by a two-story-high mural. Although a nearby visitors’ centre does a fine job of telling the story of the geography, livelihoods, customs and myths of these mountain people, this mural is arguably far more effective in communicating the world we are visiting, the world of the Puruhua.
At its top, a depiction of “Father” Chimborazo (the snow-capped volcano to the west, Ecuador’s highest peak) beams a benevolent smile upon everything and everyone below. The wall is a riot of colour and activity, with every aspect of the Puruhuas’ lives represented, from harvesting corn cobs and barley in the fields, a hearth with earthenware jugs and plates where guinea pigs are roasted, a giant condor, hummingbirds, donkeys, llamas, pigs, rabbits, goats, chickens and fluffy baby lambs. All of this has been artistically-squeezed onto the painted wall, and our guides, Tránsito Tacuri and Julia Miñarcaja, explain it to our group with great pride – they all took part in deciding its contents and in the painting itself.
Eugenia Shesha runs the community tourism project from the pretty terracotta-tiled building that houses their kitchen and restaurant, and the well-equipped rooms for guests upstairs. The project is run entirely by women, as far as I can tell, although an elderly man does bellow on his curved animal horn trumpet, too.
All the women wear the traditional dress of the Puruhua, artfully designed to ward off the cold of these Andean climes: flouncy, embroidered blouses are wrapped in various layers of bright fuchsia and green woven shawls; simple skirts of black green, purple and blue, tied at the waist by bands of woven chumbi; bead necklaces; topped by white, round-brimmed hats with flowing black ribbons. Their cheeks are burnished, their smiles shy at first, their welcome warm.
The visit to La Moya is in fact the last in the Tren del Hielo II journey that begins and ends in Riobamba. Here our group sits down for a hearty lunch of quinoa soup and chicken and potatoes, washed down with blackberry juice and accompanied by lima beans and fresh cheese – all served by Eugenia and her capable team of six women.
We left Riobamba at the whistle of eight, making our way out through the suburbs until finally free and feeling the rush of the cold winds in the shadow of Mount Chimborazo. Steadily we climbed and climbed, up through patchwork files of potatoes, lupin and quinoa, the tracks bending and the convoy of carriages swaying to and fro, cows, sheep, llamas, farmers and farmsteads peppering the landscape between tufts of pine and eucalyptus.
Up we climbed to the highest station of the entire railway system, Urbina, at 3,609 m (11,811 ft) above sea level. We were fortunate as we climbed 1,000 m: Taita Chimborazo was happy to show his Colgate-white brilliance, a huge, hulking vast molar striking upwards into the thin blue air, playing hide-and-seek with wisps of stratus and clumps of cumulus cloud.
On arrival at the invigorating Andean cold of Urbina, the local community project women treated us to empanadas filled with cheese, a hot rice-pudding-like drink made with morocho (barley), a dish of corn on the cob, lima beans and fresh cheese, a warm fire, and, most beautifully, to a haunting, high-pitched song, a bewitching threnody that evoked the stern magic of these lands that reach up to the sun and stars.
Next door, we met the “Last Iceman”, an impish character called Balthasar Ushca. Inside the visitors’ centre, with our guide helping us to understand all of his Spanish – his first language is Quicha – we learnt about his tough life fetching ice blocks weighing 30 kg (60 pounds) from the glaciers of his Taita, which he carried down to Riobamba – a trade truly long-since rendered obsolete by electric refrigeration. Balthasar labours on, however, taking visitors and the curious on treks up to his ‘free’ ice trove, at nearly 6,000 metres high.
“I’ll be back, I’ll be back,” I told Eugenia Shesha in La Moya, as we said our goodbyes to the women, children and lone grandad with his horn. Back to walk amid the fields and along country lanes, back for the quinoa soup, more woolly hats and the mural, back to learn more about this intriguing and enterprising Andean community.