One last volcano

Friday, January 27th 2006

Our plan had been to go to Alausí to get the train to Riobamba, via the Nariz del Diablo switchbacks. But time was now so short, and the train schedules so inconvenient, that we had to skip this. We headed instead to Cuenca, where we only had time to visit the studios of Argentinian artist Ariel Dawi, and the awesomely named German-owned pub, WunderBar. After Cuenca, our target was Baños but we had to spend a night in Ambato on the way after thick fog delayed our bus by a few hours.

The reason we'd come to Baños was to see if we could see the eruptions of Tungurahua. Baños was evacuated in 1999 after a big eruption, but when activity stabilised, the people returned, and the town now thrives on the tourism generated by the volcano, and the geothermal pools which give the town its name. The pools were a good place to spend a couple of hours while a cool drizzle fell. In the evening, we took a trip up to a nearby viewpoint, which we'd been told has good views of the volcano. But we spend most of the time in thick cloud, unable to see even the lights of Baños below us, let alone the glow of lava from above. We met some locals there who were going to a club later on, and they invited us to join them. We had a fun night out at Club Leprechaun, which the locals pronounced 'lepre-chown'

The next day the weather seemed to be changing for the better. We went for a walk in the hills behind town and saw a spectacular rainbow arc over the valley. With the sun threatening to break through, we decided to hike back up to the mirador and see if we could see the volcano. We had a chat on the way to a friendly guy called Carmelo, who had lived in Europe for a few years. He told us about the evacuation of Baños, and said that people moved back not because activity was really declining but just because they couldn't stay away from their livelihoods indefinitely.

Once we reached the mirador we found ourselves in thick cloud. Everything was wet and we couldn't see more than ten feet. But I had a feeling we might have some luck, and so we hung around. Occasional breaks in the mist gave us hope, even though the few other people who came to see what they could see had left pretty quickly. Gradually, it seemed to us that we could see more of the mountain, and eventually we were sure we could see the summit. What looked like black smoke appeared to be billowing from the top, but it was hard to tell whether it was rain cloud or volcanic ash. But a few minutes more and there was no doubt - we could clearly see the volcano, and it was clearly erupting. For me it was quite impressive, but Dave had never seen an erupting volcano before and felt that he hadn't really seen the full show.

Sadly we couldn't hang around. I had two days left in South America, and so that night we got a late bus to Quito. After almost four months and eight thousand miles on the road, I was almost at my final destination. Ever since Christmas in Bolivia I'd been feeling like the trip was almost over, and now that it really was I could hardly believe it.

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