...in which our heroes watch an erupting volcano without running away screaming (ha! Pierce Brosnan eat your heart out!)....
Thursday 15th March
I suppose that it was inevitable that this would happen at some point. How many people spend three weeks in South America and manage to avoid it entirely? My day begins a little unceremoniously in the small hours of the morning with a quick dash to the smallest room in the house. I believe that the Mexicans call this "Montezuma's Revenge" but as Ecuador was part of the Inca empire rather than the Aztec empire, around these parts it is known as "Atahualpa's Revenge". I don't actually feel all that bad - just a few stomach cramps and a desire to never be very far away from a toilet. I can't help but think that it is far better to be experiencing this now, when I have relatively easy access to plumbed bathrooms, than to have suffered from it when we were trekking. Anyway. I've got it now, and so does C. Just as I am about to take some immodium to stick a cork in it, Ivan stops me and tells me that it won't help as it will almost certainly be bacterial and my body needs to flush it out. Instead he takes us to a pharmacy and we buy some antibiotics. When I express mild surprise that it is so easy to buy antibiotics over the counter, Ivan smiles at me and tells me that things are different in Ecuador - it's not so much that you are allowed to just buy them, more that no one really stops you. He tells me that he was once challenged by a pharmacist and asked if he was a doctor. When he said that he was, the pharmacist simply said "and how may I help you doctor?". Under other circumstances I might think that this is a bad thing and will surely only help in the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Right now though, I just take the pills. Within hours I am starting to feel better, although the selection of pills and potions I am taking is starting to make me feel like an invalid (malarone to stave off malaria, vitamin B to discourage mosquitoes, omega oils for my brain and nervous system and now some antibiotic. Perhaps I should buy a pill box?)
After a quick trip to visit Saquisili market (more cows, more fruit, more textiles), we say goodbye to Ian and Val who are heading off to a luxury spa and then he Galapagos and we join Ivan for the journey south. C. looks as white as a sheet and tries to sleep in the back seat of the land cruiser, but I park the iPod speakers next to the gearstick and Ivan and I sing our hearts out to the Beatles as we leave the Cotopaxi region and head into Tungurahua Province. The province is named after the volcano that towers above the popular holiday town of Baños. Tungurahua has erupted as recently as August 2006 and is very much an active volcano. We haven't gone far down the road before we start to see giant plumes of ash being tossed up high into the sky by the explosions that are apparently happening every few minutes.
Given that Baños is nestled right up against the slopes of the volcano and that this is our destination, the sight can't help but make one feel slightly nervous. Who hasn't seen Dantes Peak? As we get closer, the volcano only becomes more impressive and as we drive into Baños itself, you can clearly see how the pyroclastic flows have swept down the mountain and barely missed the town on either side. As you approach the town itself, you actually have to drive over these flows where they have swamped the road. As we check into the hotel, we are warned about the siren that will go off in the event of an eruption and the evacuation route we would need to follow. It's all very dramatic and a touch unsettling. At one point in our stay here, we are having a nap after lunch when we hear an alarm going off. I am busy reading a book, and the sound of the siren only penetrates my consciousness after a few minutes. I had assumed it was a car alarm, but it now occurs to me that it could be the warning. Just as I wonder if I should be worrying and perhaps get up and see what's going on, the alarm stops. Later that evening I am woken in the middle of the night by a very loud rumbling noise as the volcano makes its presence felt. One day soon that volcano is going to erupt again, and I was very relieved when we left and it hadn't happened whilst we were there.
Baños is a nice little town made famous by the thermal springs that come down from the volcano. It is roughly equidistant from all of the major population centres in Ecuador (Guayaquil and Quito) and is the place where the locals come on holiday. It is also something of a gateway town to the Amazon jungle, and so tends to attract a fair number of gringo tourists too. As a result, it is packed full of hostels, restaurants, internet cafes and souvenir shops. There are also plenty of places where you can book a trip to the jungle or sign up for some bridge jumping or canyoning, or where you can hire a quad bike, a horse or a bicycle. Baños is also something of a place of pilgrimmage: the catholic church arrived here to find that the natives (perhaps not surprisingly) worshipped the volcano. A bit of quick thinking saw this deftly substituted by a cult of the Virgin Mary, who was said to have appeared at a local waterfall and who rather conveniently carried out a number of miracles in the local area. As a result, the waters at Baños are said to be holy and blessed by the Virgin, and people flock from all around Ecuador to see if they can be the beneficiaries of the next miracle. The walls of the nave of the main church in the town are covered with murals depicting the Virgin carrying out various miracles (each one carefully dated), and the font at the side of the church has a convenient tap on it so that you can fill up as many waterbottles / grails / whatever as you feel you require. The locals appear to have taken all of this into their stride although it is still clear that they have not completely abandoned their original beliefs either. After we have dropped off our bags of at the hotel, we decide to head up to a viewing point to get a good look at the volcano. On the way up, we pick up a little old lady who has been trying to get a lift back up to her house on the top of the mountain after a day selling leaves in the market. As the land cruiser picks its way up the mountain and the top of the volcano becomes ever clearer, this lady tells us that "Isabella is in her kitchen cooking fava beans and potatoes for her children".... animist beliefs still alive and well then... although when we drop the lady off at her house, she constantly makes the sign of the cross and blesses us to the Virgin for our assistance. It's an odd mixture.
We pull the car up and hike up about 50 yards to a viewing spot. It's a clear evening, so we spend the next hour gawping in amazement at the power of nature. The summit of the volcano is no more than a mile away from us and we can feel the ground shake with every "small" explosion that sends plumes of ash high up into the sky. It is an absolutely mesmerising sight, as are the great gashes cut into the side of the mountain and through the cloud forest by the pyrcoclastic flows as they sweep down towards the town. Apparently if you watch the volcano at night you can see sparks of hot ash flying up into the air. Frankly it's an impressive enough sight as it is. All I can do is stand and watch and feel very small.
After a while we head back down the slope and grab our trunks for a quick dip in the famous hot springs. This is clearly the thing to do in Baños in the evening, and the place is absolutely swarming with tourists. The pool itself is basically gringo soup and we don't stay for long. These may be amongst the most famous springs in Ecuador, but they aren't a patch on Chachimbiro or Nangulvi. We pick up our stuff and head out on to the local pizza restaurant for some much needed sustenance (and I'm pleased to see my appetite is returning) and an episode of the popular medical drama "Doctor House".
Friday 16th March
The volcano doesn't erupt during the night and we don't die in our beds. I must be feeling better too, as my breakfast consists of coffee, passion fruit juice, pancakes with fresh fruit, yoghurt, granola and passion fruit honey. Mmmm. Just the fortification I need for the day as we spend the princely sum of $5 hiring a bike and bombing down the road out of Baños and along a canyon punctuated by a number of splendid waterfalls - the most spectactular of which is the "Pailón del Diablo" (the devil's cauldron) where the water is forced through a narrow opening in the rock and slams down under pressure onto a shelf of rock, throwing up an enormous amount of spray.
Very impressive - certainly impressive enough to make the walk over the rickety bridge a touch nerve-wracking.
....or maybe it was just the incredibly rickety bridge that made the crossing a bit nerve-wracking?
We also watch some apparently nerveless gringas from somewhere in scandinavia bridge jumping -- this is where you are strapped into a harness and throw yourself off the side of a bridge over the canyon, swinging round on an elasticated rope attached to the other side of the bridge. It looks a bit less scary than bungee, but only because the harness is strapped around your body and not just to your legs. I still don't fancy it much though.... my stomach is feeling better, but I don't think I'd want to put it through that, thanks very much.
After the exertion of the bike ride, we have a nice and gentle afternoon.... we head back into Baños, have a nap (well, C. has a nap, I finish off "Moonraker", the third of the James Bond books that I have brought with me) and then head out into the town to have a look at the shops and to back up the cameras. Well, you can't be too careful, eh? Because he has been such an excellent guide and because he has shown some distinctly left-wing tendencies, we buy Ivan a Che Guevara t-shirt as a gift. Hasta La Victoria Siempre. I am however totally unable to find a shop that will sell me an Ecuadorian club football shirt. I am keen to find one because I want to take it back to Lord Bargain as a gift, but all I can find are appalling fakes of the national team shirt. Can I find a FC Quito, a Barcelona or a Deportivo Imbaburra strip? Nope. I start trying to think of a plan B.
Ivan is delighted with his t-shirt and insists on wearing it out to dinner, where I am also gracious enough to allow him to beat me at chess. *ahem*. I think I'll be sticking to Cuarenta. Ivan's wife is making the long trip from Otavalo to Baños to spend the weekend with her husband, so C. and beat a hasty retreat back to the hostel to allow to head off to the bus station to pick her up and to spend some time with her without us in their hair.
Tonight the volcano can rumble all it wants.... nothing is keeping me from the land of nod.