Tungurahua, or El Volcan, as it is known, is beloved by both locals and tourists alike in Ecuador. None more fanatical than the Volcano Hunters, a group of fans constantly on the lookout for Baños’ most famous denizen. The Hunters know the best time to catch a glimpse of the Volcan (7.00 am on a morning when it has not rained the previous evening). They also know that Tungurahua likes to show itself on days when the wind is not so constant – on days that are cool but not too hot, on days that began with the letter T.
Despite the conflicting advice, I had no luck with visibility, always arriving too early, too late, or after it had made its cameo, gloriously etched against the sky – a backdrop so awesome I imagined my jaw literally dropping.
On one of my hikes, I met a group of Hunters who had been on watch since dawn. They told me I’d just missed Mama Tungurahua in her full glory, snowy tip and all. We sat and watched silently as the clouds floated around the Volcan, obscuring it completely from view.
You should have been here half an hour ago, one of them said, as they passed around a thermos of hot coffee. It’s all about timing, someone else said, If she wants to see it she’s going to have to get up at 5:00 every morning. Tungurahua is an elusive and tempestuous mistress.
They started gathering their things to go back to the town. Clearly my moment had passed.
Earlier in December, there were red flames shooting out of the top of the glaciers. Tungurahua, making her presence felt, had rumbled every 15 minutes.
The next day I found the Hunters on watch again. It gets cold up in those mountains, especially when you are waiting for something to happen. I told them I almost didn’t come to Baños after the UK had issued a travel warning.
They were upset at the bad press and what it does for tourism. Every night when Tungurahua was active, they camped out here: cab drivers, bus drivers, school kids, everyone came out to see.
Now there is nothing. But we still visit, even when she is silent, they said.
I ask about the Big One, but they don´t like to talk about the major eruption 11 years ago that displaced the entire town. Businesses and residents had to evacuate for almost a year while they repaired the bridges and the roads.
Despite the destructive antics of their mistress, locals couldn’t wait to return. I guess you get used to living with a larger than life presence looking over you.
Earlier, my cabby told me that the really obsessive fans will sit and watch the Volcan all morning and afternoon, patiently noting the times Tungurahua reveals herself. They come before work, after work, on weekends. Like naturalist train spotters.
But it is not just the Hunters who are obsessed. Restaurants, cafes, hotels and other establishments in town feature photos and paintings of the Volcan in either its glacial state or its red-hot atomic fieriness.
I was running out of time. I took another cab up at 7:00 am and was in luck, as the cabby himself was a part-time Hunter. I know a place with a great view. My kind of guy. He shot up the windy and narrow mountain roads going 80 mph. I was certain I would not live long enough to get a look at Tungurahua, but having lived in Banos his entire life, the man understood the Volcan’s impetous nature and better still, he understood that it was all a matter of timing. As we rode, I could see the Volcan peeking behind the clouds. My driver went faster, flying past dogs, horses and buses coming down the opposite side of the mountain. I shut my eyes afraid to look at the road. Finally, he pulled up to a beautiful country lane on a steep inclination and parked his taxi in the middle of the street.
We walk from here, he said.
The driver must have been well into his 70s, but he practically ran up the incline. What. is. the. altitude. here?, I gasped. Oh, we´re pretty high. Almost 3000 feet above sea level.
My lungs felt like an anaconda had a hold on them. Just a little bit higher, he chirped.
An hour later, we ended up in a place that looked like the Ecuadorian Alps. I would have been better able to appreciate its beauty had I not been struggling to catch my breath.
When I was back to normal, I almost kissed the man. My darling driver had taken me to a place of cloudy dreams. An observatory where Tungurahua’s activities were monitored and tracked by satellite. I walked to the edge of the field and wished I hadn’t looked down. Thousands of feet of nothingness below, and no rail to stop me from falling. Right across from the shack, so close I could almost touch it, sat the Volcan: icy, regal, resplendant, blowing out gray smoke, but peaceful in every other respect.
There was a coating of ice on her left side. Her right, which the last eruption had caved in, made her appear lopsided. From this side spilled ocassional sediment and smoke falling toward the village of Puyo in the Oriente.
I was introduced to Carlos, who was even better than a Volcano Hunter. He is a Volcano Watcher. For 30 years he’s been living in the little shack across Tungurahua, noting its movements and sending back information to seismologists and volcanologists. He was kind enough to give me a tour of the place, showing me old photographs, maps, even ashes collected from previous volcanic activity.
The ash contained different metallic content depending on the severity of eruption. He brushed it with a magnet to show me how the fine powder clung to the metal tenaciously. Imagine if you breathed that in? He showed me a finer beige powder, which a few years ago made it all they way to Guayaquil. He showed me photographs of how the Volcan had changed with each new eruption. While Baños was currently protected by the left hand lip, if there was a big eruption, molten lava would shoot straight up, 8 or so kilometres in the air. Goodbye Baños.
He showed me softball-sized rocks that had shot out as recently as a month ago. But being hit with rocks was not the worst part. Long before the molten lava or the rocks, noxious gases would get you. Hard to believe that beautiful and sleep Volcan, was so treacherous.
I ask him what would happen if Tungurahua erupted now. He’d have just enough time to hit the alarm to warn the town below. But even with all the seismic equipment and advanced warnings, it was anyone’s guess. The only thing that is certain is that you and I would never make it in time, Carlos said. We are up to high. Still, I would not choose to live anywhere else. His father before him had been guarded the town and so had his grandfather. Generations of Volcano Watchers.
Do you want to see the treehouse? Carles asked.
Despite my emerging problems with vertigo, I climbed those rickety wooden steps pretty quickly. From the top of the tree house I could see the craters of the volcano clearly. They reminded me a little of the moon. Two puffs of smoke were now visible, although now they didn’t seem as harmless as they had earlier.
Tungurahua is like a woman, the Watcher said. One minute she is silent, the next you don’t want to go anywhere near her.
My cab driver chuckled and pointed to a young man who was swinging himself under the tree house into empty space. He was the son of the Volcano Watcher, no doubt made of the same grit as his old man.
A memorable day, not only as I finally got to see Tungurahua as more than a pretty purplish hue in the distance, but I better understand the people of Baños who literally live under its shadow. Their lives revolve around the Volcan, in a similar way our lives revolve around the clock. The difference being that our clock is man-made, while Tungurahua is a constant and striking reminder that there are still mysterious forces we cannot control in this world. Thank goodness for that.