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We were met this morning by Joel and his 4x4 to go to Chimborazo Volcano. Along the way we picked up Joel's friend Nelson, who speaks English and will act as interpreter.

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Pint-sized locals

Chimborazo is 6,310m high. As its near to the Equator, the peak is the point farthest from the centre of the earth. The volcano, one of ten in Ecuador's central valley, is dormant having last erupted over one thousand years ago (give or take a year or two). It is an impressive sight from a distance as it towers above Riobamba and the surrounding countryside. The latter changed as we drove into the Volcano's national park to become altiplano pampas of vast wide, dry open spaces, above the level of the clouds.

In the national park, the road turns to a track and climbs, switching back on itself, to the first refugio. People who climb to the top spend two or three days here first to acclimatise to the altitude. It is a basic place with a few tables, a large fireplace and not too hygienic toilets! Looks like people who stay here simply sleep on the floor.

This first refugio is at 4,800m already pretty high. It is possible to walk to the next refugio, another 200m higher up and about a forty minute walk. Not long after we started I could feel my head starting to pound and turned back down. Stef carried on with Nelson, making it to the second refugio but with his heart beating frantically and many stops to get his breath along the way. This was common to all the people going up that far.

I stayed down by the refugio enjoying the sun (too much as it turned out as I have a nasty blister on my cheek that burst during the night). It was a really clear day and this high up the sun makes it feel lovely and warm despite the cold breeze that also blows. The views of the volcano are superb, as are those of the valley stretching out below us. I tried to get photos of Stef at the second refugio. I have got photos with people in them but whether or not they are Stef I could not tell with my little camera!

Joel's brother, who is also here with tourists (none of the guides seem to actually do the walk with their tour groups) came over to check that I was OK and we chatted for about fifteen minutes in Spanish. It was a basic conversation with an obvious topic, the volcano, but I was chuffed with myself that I had managed to do this. As you look at the volcano from the refugio, the path to climb to the top winds to the left and then along a ridge up to the snow and ice. Its do-able in a day but that day starts at 2:00am. By late morning the sun starts to melt the ice and it is too dangerous to climb. The right side of the volcano is also dangerous as there are many avalanches. People have died on the climb to the top.

Another 4x4 had mountain bikes strapped to the back. A Dutch couple and two English girls got kitted up with knee and elbow protectors and crash helmets and then set off to cycle back down to the bottom. It must have been an impressive, if a little bumpy, ride back down. The 4x4 acts as a support car, ready to fix any punctures and to pick them up again at the bottom to take them into town. We got a Chimborazo stamp in our passports and the headed back down and on to the market at Guamote.

The market was fabulous. We only saw three other non-local people and not a feria artesanale in sight. On the way there we stopped at a mirador to get a birds eye view of the market. It seems to take over the whole town and is a splash of bright colours - reds, yellows, blues. Its even more colourful at ground level. Here there is a total mix of different indigenous groups all in the local costumes of their village. They are sturdy people carrying huge loads on their backs.

At this market you can get pretty much anything you need. Our first stop was livestock. In a big enclosed field people were buying and selling sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, birds, puppies and guinea pigs. With the exception, I think, of the puppies, this was livestock being sold for food. From the bleating of the sheep and squealing of the pigs it was as if they sensed what their destiny was going to be. Throughout the rest of the market we saw people struggling with very resistant animals.

Next to a couple of trucks being loaded were piles of sheep on the ground. I had though they were dead but then they twitched and move their heads. That was all they could move as their legs were bound together. They were picked up as big bundles and hauled up to the tops of the trucks. A common sight on the buses leaving town was sheep standing on the top, tied on so they would not fall off between the market and their destination. Stef haggled and bought himself a sheep, but, as he only paid $1 he had to content himself with a photo rather than the real thing.

Lots of people at the market were wary of having their photo taken and turned away. Even so we managed to get some good shots to try and capture the atmosphere of the place. Here you could buy your national dress, pots and pans, shoes and other household items. In the food section you could buy meat from the carné market, but having seen the market you would not want to eat the meat that came from it! There were loads of stalls selling oranges, apples, pineapples and vegetables (mainly onions, cauliflower, carrots and broccoli). Past, rice and flour came by the 40kg sack or in smaller quantities if you only wanted a bit.

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Buying a sheep at Guamote

You could also eat your way around the market. Stef took a safe bet (mainly so he could get a photo) and bought some fried potatoes with onion and tomato. There were whole pigs roasted and gradually being carved up and sold off. Piles of shredded roasted pig, choclo (sweetcorn, but with white kernels about four times bigger than we are used to) and different types of bread were all on offer.

Nelson was with us in the market and chatted to friends of his that we passed along the way. He was meant to be directing us to where we would meet Joel, who had gone to park the car. For some reason he could not find Joel so we walked around for a while looking to no avail. We headed to the entrance to town to see if he was there but no Joel. Finally, Nelson said he would look again but for us to stay where we were. He came back ten minutes later, oddly from along the main PanAm rather than the village - no Joel. We sent him off again. After about an hour we started contemplating getting the bus. We were in a great spot for watching people leave the market. Each village has its own truck and they came by fully laden and with people hanging off the sides.

As we were almost at the deadline we had set to get the bus Joel turned up in his 4x4, but with no Nelson. He had been looking for us for more than an hour. Nelson was meant to have stayed at the orange market which is where Joel had parked. For some reason the message had not got through (Nelson was not the sharpest knife in the block). We then went back round the market with Joel in the 4x4, not easy as the streets were still crammed with market stalls. We finally found Nelson back where Stef and I had waited on our own.

Joel was not impressed, probably because we had by then decided not to take up his offer of another trip tomorrow, and there was a bit of a heated exchange between him and Nelson. Joel had told us that Nelson has the languages but does not know the sights. I do not think Nelson was familiar with Guamote or with the market.

Back in town we checked to see if we could change rooms as promised yesterday. Seems that other people have decided to stay an extra night so we are still in the back of the garden. Stef was not happy! We decamped again to the hotel cafe and whiled away the evening making plans for the next few days.

By 8pm, fed and watered, we were back in our room. We zapped around looking for something to watch that was not either originally in, or dubbed into, Spanish. Finally I settled on Shakespeare in Love, which I have seen before and really enjoyed. Stef had nodded off but I woke him up every now and again as I chuckled at the film.