Photo by Sindy and Mike Weltreise.
Upon approaching Chimborazo Volcano’s natural border where birdsong fades and glaciers begin, the delicate sound of ice melting in the sun can be heard over the wind, like the crackle of toasted rice. Half a century ago, ice miners in this part of Ecuador would journey to the dormant volcano’s crest and return to city markets with blocks of ice for sale. But when electricity and the use of refrigerators became widespread in the region, the number of ice merchants gradually dwindled: today, Baltazar Ushca stands alone as the region’s final ice man.
In local indigenous lore, Chimborazo – which is pictured on the country’s flag – is more than just a mountain. At, 20,564 ft. high, its summit marks the farthest point on the Earth’s surface from the Earth’s center, and the highest peak on the Western Cordillera’s Avenue of the Volcanoes. Locals refer to it as Taita Chimborazo – taita meaning “father” in the Andean Ecuadorian dialect of Kichwa – and to a neighboring volcano as Mama Tungurahua, meaning that the two mythic figures married, so the story goes, because her blue beauty and white sombrero enticed him and she admired his riches and power.
Today, 70-year-old Baltazar Ushca struggles as the lone upholder of a bygone profession. Due to global warming, he must travel higher and higher on each sojourn to reach the glaciers, stab them loose with his pick, form them into cubes, wrap them in strawgrass and load them onto his steeds. He goes through all this trouble to use the ice in a traditional delicacy known as helado de paila: ice cream.
In Riobamba’s La Merced market, Ushca sells his blocks for $2 apiece. Ice cream makers who purchase them go about placing a bed of hay in a wide metal bowl, then pouring the broken-down slush of the volcanic ice inside, and balancing a copper bowl (paila) on its surface. With a wooden spoon, they churn bits of fruit, ice and sugar in an incessant spin until the sorbet is made. Then they spin some more, trying to keep the ice from melting. Star of an award-winning short film, Ushca has become somewhat of a celebrity in the market, and shoppers snatch up his ice cream, reveling in the strangeness of eating El Taita.