I’m standing on the brink—the very brink—of the volcano’s crater. Below me, in the carbon-rich lake, dark patches streak the green waters, which glisten with minerals. A lone sheep grazes nearby, impervious to the keening wind. Overhead, smokelike clouds, moving in off the late-afternoon peaks.
Tranquil it might be, but that crater never lets you forget: Quilotoa was once the scene of some serious violence.
Serious, as in, one of the most earth-rending volcanic upheavals of the past 1,000 years. A Plinian event, geologists call it, after Pliny the Younger’s account of Mt. Vesuvius’s famous flare-up in 79 C.E., and when it blew from the hill I’m standing on in the year 1280, it vomited some three cubic miles of magma into the air in four separate stages. (To get an idea, every human being on Earth could fit into one cubic mile, with room to spare.) Immediately after, ashy billows of poisonous gas steamrolled down the slopes around me, razing the topography and evacuating the volcano’s innards so utterly, the whole thing caved in on itself, leaving only the caldera now shimmering so pacifically below.
I check my watch. ETA for the next cataclysm: 9,000 years, give or take.
I figure I can linger a bit.
Moments like this are commonplace in Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes. Stretching some 150 miles south of Quito through Ecuador’s twin cordilleras and transected by the Pan-American Highway, the corridor is part of the so-called Ring of Fire, a coil of seismic activity and hydrothermal vents that snakes its way from New Zealand to Japan, from the Aleutians down the west coast of the Americas to Chile. It’s punctuated by peaks whose explosive outbursts, like Quilotoa’s, have wiped out whole cities—meaning visitors have abundant chances to ponder the downsides of local real-estate ownership. But where I’m at currently, it also happens to include some of the country’s most arresting landscapes: soaring snowcaps beside mirroring mountain tarns, verdant valleys dotted with haciendas and Inca ruins.
Beauty and a frisson of danger: what more could an intrepid traveler want?
It’s to experience this beauty and danger that I’ve come to this stretch of the Andes—vagabonding along in the beds of pickups and chiva buses, straddling my backpack and warming my face in the clear sunshine. They’re very much here at Quilotoa, but I’m hoping to find them further down the road as well, as I stumble my way along the Equator country’s fiery corridor.
I stow my camera in my bag. I look up.
There, towering over everything: the peaks of nearby Illiniza and Sagoatoa. Always there, like a shadow on the azure sky.
The chiva driver honks. I shoulder my pack, hurrying down the slope.
God in the Mountain
The chaps weight my legs down like iron But I’m in no way complaining.
Granted, that’s due largely to the cold, which the fuzzy sheaths—leather, wool, goat hair—insulate me against marvelously. But more crucially, complaining is verboten in the world I’ve just entered, the world of the páramo, a high, windswept flatland that forms the contours of Cotopaxi National Park, and across whose mist-soggy trails my gray Andalusian is now clopping.
In this bleak moor country, the chagra, Ecuador’s version of the cowboy, reigns supreme, and Don Eusebio, the guide who’s taking me to see the volcano that gives the park its name, is as silent and stoical as the gnarled trees bordering the path. His poncho-clad forbears have tended livestock for the páramo’s haciendas in a generational sequence stretching back to the 17th century, fronting bitter winds and altitudes of over 13,000 feet to do their duty by their patrones. In this world, words tend to lose themselves in the thin mountain air.
“There,” he points.
I look. In the distance—not a volcano, but a low hill, crowned by a row of gray rocks. All around, tufts of pampa grass slant stiffly in the wind.
As our horses plod forward, the geometry of walls and doorways comes into focus. We’ve arrived at Pucará de Salitre, an Inca fortification on the crest of a defensive rise, and protected by a shallow trench. When the emperor Pachacutec expanded his Cuzco-based empire north to Quito in the late 15th century, he built a string of military installations like this one to track the migrations of natives in his new territories, as well as head off potential uprisings. I gaze at the ruined parapets. Scoured by the páramo’s icy winds, a pre-Hispanic hardship post, no question.
Soon Don Eusebio has gotten our horses to the top. Passing the zig-zag opening in the outer wall, we find a series of tumbledown barriers amidst the grass. Once these were the barracks for the soldiers stationed here; little else remains. Further on, an oval-shaped inner compound. Officers’ quarters? A prison? Who can tell? I look out from horseback over time’s depredations on the expansive country, but a lead blanket of clouds shuts down the view.
We dismount. Damp from the sod soaks through our breeches as we sit, sipping a thermos of yerba mate under the heavy sky.
Soon, our bellies warmed, we’re off again, to see more of Parque Cotopaxi’s austere moorscape. A mile on, we pass a weird scattering of rocks, like a cairn in the roadway.
Remnants from a building project? Left by whom? If Don Eusebio has any ideas, he’s not sharing.
The temperature drops. Our horses’ breath is soon steaming in the moist air as we round a small hill. Here our next landmark heaves into view: Lake Limpiopungo, a silver mirror edged by reeds, loomed over by the pitted teeth of Volcán Rumiñahui to the north. Limpiopungo was formed by pyroclastic flows—ash, lava, broiling gases—that erupted out and melted the volcanic snowcap. Only those flows didn’t come from the dormant Rumiñahui, but from the much larger Cotopaxi, our ultimate objective, dimly visible from the shoreline. This means those gases and melting ice chunks were catapulted over three miles, flooding the valley to create the lake in its current form.
“The apus [gods that inhabit the mountains] are powerful,” comments Don Eusebio.
Indeed they are. Gazing up at Cotopaxi’s mist-shrouded cone, I find it more imposing and godlike for its haziness.
Suddenly, ancient beliefs about sacred mountains are seeming distinctly plausible.
Veering south, we pass two steers, grazing along the water’s edge. Don Eusebio is careful to give them a wide berth. The páramo, he says, is home to many wild bulls and horses.
“Unpredictable, these creatures. One must take care.”
One bull has me in his sights. I try to keep mine fixed straight ahead.
After riding for nearly a mile in silence, I ask Don Eusebio again about the apus. Who are these gods in the mountain?
The chagra doesn’t respond straight away. His spurs rattle, as he gazes abstractedly out. Suddenly his voice sounds in the mist of the páramo.
“Bueno, in Ecuador, we say the mountains are holy places. For water and for animals, yes. But also for the danger. Storms come down from the mountains, and landslides. And with the volcanoes, it’s worse. Probably you know, many times the apu of Cotopaxi has destroyed Latacunga [a town on the opposite side of the park]. Buried it, till there was nothing left. My grandfather told me about the eruption back in 1940. Houses, covered in ash. Sheep and horses, curled up and burned, like cinders.
“He used to say, sometimes the mountain needs to eat someone.”
I’m hoping Cotopaxi’s apu isn’t feeling hungry for gringos as we amble on, climbing the slope to the lookout across the valley. The clouds have partly lifted: patches of weak sun dot the moor. The air remains achingly cold.
As we crest the ridge, three dots appear. Other visitors, come to pay their respects? But no: upon approaching, they turn out to be wood-block figures built by locals. Man, woman, llama. The eternal denizens of the sierra. Behind them, swathed in cloud, the white icing of Cotopaxi’s snowcap, rising majestically in the late afternoon.
I sit my horse, looking out. “The most beautiful of all the colossal peaks of the Andes,” wrote Alexander von Humboldt, standing on the same ridge. It’s hard to dispute the superlative. The great naturalist saw Cotopaxi erupt spectacularly in 1803; he knew the menace lurking beneath those pacific snows.
In the declining light, the summit seems clothed in a divine radiance.
I squint at the peak through binoculars. There, that gray shadow: a tuft of smoke?
Don Eusebio tightens his scarf. “Last year, there was an eruption. At night the mountain was on fire. For now, thank God, the apu is tranquilo. But Latacunga was nervous.”
We stand, rendering obeisance, as the wind strikes up. After several minutes, Don Eusebio wheels our horses around, to take us back down to the pampa.
The Guard at the End of the World
“You smell that? That’s how I know the mountain is acting up. That smell.”
Carlos Sánchez’s nostrils flare slightly as he gestures with his walkie-talkie towards the cabin window. The tinge of sulfur is unmistakable.
“But I’m not afraid of it. Me, the only thing I fear is God.”
Sánchez makes a dismissive wave, settling creakily back in his chair. His sang-froid inspires respect. At less than a mile from the crater of Volcán Tungurahua, his post for Ecuador’s Instituto Geográfico Militar puts him right in the path of one of the Andes’ most cantankerous crags, one that’s been spewing brimstone since I arrived just over an hour ago, and whose stinky conniptions cause much nail-biting in the tourist town of Baños, a mile away. It’s over this threat that Sánchez watches from his unlikely lookout: a clapboard treehouse, built with his own two hands.
“I do this to defend something that’s not mine, to defend Baños,” the leathery 74-year-old affirms. “If Tungurahua became active in the small hours of the morning, when everyone is sleeping, then this could save, God willing, 20,000 people.”
Sánchez knows about early-morning emergencies. In 2000, he and his family had to be evacuated after a particularly virulent flare-up from the volcano. When the all-clear sounded, he came back and erected his treetop refuge, known as La Casa del Árbol. To comfort himself during those lonely vigils.
“My wife, she thought I was with another woman. I spent all my nights here. But then my kids and she came to visit, so it was OK.”
Sánchez receives no salary for his efforts. His education never got beyond high school. But in his 17 years of volunteering, he’s earned the respect of countless geoscientists.
I ask him if he’s ever been seriously worried.
His owl eyes widen. He tilts back his hard hat. “Bueno, let’s just say, if this tree could talk, it’d tell you endless stories. It’s what’s allowed me to be alive today.”
The most recent eruption was in 2006. “At 6 p.m., the volcano turned red, and the noise was loud, like a turbine. Things were happening. I was a little nervous, sure. But the virgencita, she keeps me company.” He taps a poster of the Virgen del Rosario on the wall behind him.
“The jefes, they told me to evacuate, but I decided to stay. I was stranded in the Casa del Árbol for two weeks during the eruption. I drank a lot of coffee,” he laughs.
Sánchez is quick to reassure me that, the occasional tantrum aside, Tungurahua is generally safe. In fact, since the construction of his 30-foot playhouse, wedged in the fork of a soaring ceiba tree, it’s become a major tourist attraction. Visitors from the world over have penned rave reviews in the ten black-leather logbooks he’s compiled over the years. And it’s true: the vistas of the forest-clad ravine below are all the more ravishing for the volcano in the background belching smoke into the sky.
Beauty and danger.
Which reminds him…do I want to see the gorge for myself?
“Go on—you can get maybe a half hour in before it gets dark.”
We get up, step out into the orange and pink dusk. I feel a little-kid excitement when I see what’s hanging from the tree. Two swings, poised on the verge of infinity.
Sánchez smiles. “The swing at the end of the world, the tourists call it. But for me, it’s like going back to the start of life.”
I walk over, grip the ropes. I inch myself back. Then my feet lose ground contact; I launch out over the abyss.
The view is dizzying. My toes point to the sky. I feel I could let go at the end of my arc, and sail over the edge of the world.
“Hold on tight,” Sánchez laughs.
The world is upside down. Tungurahua surges up, smoking beneath my feet.
I lean back completely, an arrow cutting through the sulfuric air.
Don’t look down—