Living Under the Volcano

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What a momentous birthday!! Not only did I become an OAPer, a volcano erupted over our heads!

We arrived in Banos on the afternoon of October 16 after a 3 hour bus ride from Latacunga. The small hotel we picked from our trusty Rough Guide, Las Florestras, was lovely with rooms arranged in two floors around an inner courtyard garden. Doug immediately found a Provencal restaurant a block away in which to have my birthday feast. Fabulous meal, with flaming Crepes Suzette for dessert in lieu of birthday candles.

Banos, named for its medicinal hot pools, is a tourist town for both Ecuadoreans and foreigners, so after Latacunga with its 5 or so restaurants open for dinner, we are absolutely spoiled for choice. The surroundings are just gorgeous, with mountains including the active volcano, Tungurahua,  rising directly from the edges of the city, which though nondescript is pleasant and peaceful. People come here to hike and do a range of active outdoor pursuits in addition to soaking themselves in hot pools.

Anyway, back to the birthday – after a satisfying meal punctuated by exploding fireworks, (practising for Halloween? we wondered) we retired to bed, only to be wakened with a jolt about 3 a.m. by the most enormous explosion which set our door and windows rattling and shook the whole hotel. I did wonder if it was something volcanic, but since no sirens sounded we did not feel the need to evacuate.

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The next morning we heard a loudspeaker truck going by at about 6 am, slightly worrisome but it did not sound especially dire, of course we couldn’t make out the words. When we left our room, I remarked to Doug that I hadn’t noticed that the chairs in the courtyard garden were silver not white, then I wondered why the cars in the parking lot were so dusty — we have hardly been over an unpaved road in Ecuador so it seemed odd. Reaching the breakfast room we heard from an American nun who comes to Banos regularly to check on an aid project she is involved with, that the volcano had erupted during the night and had blanketed the town in ash. The loudspeaker was telling the kids to stay home from school and help sweep!

An American couple who were there suggested we take a taxi to a viewpoint high on an opposite hill to see if we could see what was coming out of the volcano. Billowing black smoke — very impressive to see — but no flames, however they went back after dark and the whole thing was glowing red. The taxi driver told us that it is completely normal to have it erupt, what wasn’t as usual was the direction of the wind which had carried the ash and deposited it on Banos. The prevailing winds take the ash away from the town. The volcano erupted in a much more vigorous way in 1998 and the town was evacuated for 3 months. His wife refused to leave, so they put the taxi in the garage and stayed inside the house while rocks of various sizes rained down, but fortunately no lava!

It was amazing to see the town sweep — absolutely everyone was out sweeping up piles of ash which they put into plastic bags and set at the curb, the garbage truck went round and round picking up the bags. It took all day Thursday and all day Friday to get ahead of it, as of course, the trees were filled with it and the wind was blowing it everywhere. The hotel gave us masks of the hardware store variety to wear while we were out, but nearly everyone had their own much more industrial strength ones. Even with your mouth covered the blowing dust got into the eyes terribly, and when we went back to the hotel and showered before dinner, the shower stall was just black. I was relieved when they finally started hosing down the beautiful gardens in the courtyard, filthy lilies are just too sad to look at.

All this time, the fireworks, including booming cannons kept going off, starting at 5 am each morning. Also what seemed odd, was that the entire town seemed full of marching bands. Every man in Banos must own either a brass instrument or a drum, as well as a suit and pair of shoes to match his fellow band members. Even the police got into the act. Again we appealed to the American nun who went into the kitchen and, with her fluent Spanish, got the story. The sort of patron saint of Banos is called Senora del Rosario de Agua Santa and is credited with many miracles saving Banos from disaster, starting with saving one of the founding fathers as he rode over a bridge on his horse and somehow fell over the edge — he called on the saint for help on the way down and lo and behold, he snagged on a rock, the horse was not so fortunate. The central cathedral houses 20 or so huge paintings of these various miraculous interventions.

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For the whole month of October, Banos honours this saint. All the barrios and all the unions of workers take charge of half a day to put on their celebration, it is quite the competition who can have the loudest fireworks and the largest marching bands. They process through the streets carrying flowers, and some of them carry glass cases holding images of the saint. These images look like large china dolls with real hair and glass eyes, and are dressed in 16th century Spanish style clothes, holding a baby which looks like a miniature adult. People touch the image and then cross themselves with the hand that touched her. The priest from the cathedral has a device with which he sprinkles holy water on the crowds, who hold their babies up for an extra splash. The most elaborate of these processions featured a vigorous dance routine which Doug photographed. Quite fascinating, hasn’t been a dull moment since we arrived!

In our spare moments we have taken a couple of good hikes — it being a mere 1850 metres here (a little more than 6000 feet for the metrically challenged) we feel quite peppy on the hills. There are some lovely cascadas, or water falls, just outside the town and we rode a local bus to climb up to them. Ecuador is probably the first country we’ve visited in all our travels which keeps its parks clean, wonderful. The trail to the waterfall was steep and finished off with a precipitate scramble through a 3 foot high passage in the rock — you could see out so I managed to do it — then a chute you had to haul yourself up, and finally you were right under the waterfall and could get soaking wet. I stopped at the chute and Doug kept going until it got really wet as he was trying to save his camera. It was Saturday so lots of intrepid Ecuadorean teenagers scrambled up and competed in wet Tshirt contests. This is not one of the more modest countries we’ve visited!

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We also decided we had to try the famous medicinal baths so we went out of town to some that seemed a bit more like hot pools and a bit less like institutional swimming pools. The other people there were elderly Ecuadoreans all wearing their own bathing caps and seemingly regulars. We had to buy shower caps for 25 cents each, despite having no intention of ducking under the cafe au lait coloured water. The hottest one had boiling water bubbling up from its pebbly bottom. At the end of the pool was a sign: Danger, deep water – 1.2 metres! You probably think we are exaggerating about how short the people are, but most of them had to hang onto the bar as the water was over their noses at that point — one of the employees kept shouting at them to go back. It reminded me somewhat of the communal baths in Japan, the height of the women was similar, but the girth was something else. These ladies were exactly the shape of beach balls encased in black, skirted bathing costumes. Quite fascinating to see what they looked like devoid of clothing.

We have ended up spending an extra day here as we were so elated to be warm again after the polar temperatures at 3800 metres. It does get chilly in the evenings though, we are still at quite the altitude. Off tomorrow by bus to Riobamba for a couple of nights, then on to a small indigenous village called Guamote for one night so we can rise at the crack of dawn to see their muy autentico market. Cuenca follows. Thanks for reading and viewing the photos!

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