A bus ride along Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes was, I’d planned, going to be one of the highlights of my trip. Choosing to visit during dry season, I pictured snow-capped peaks under ultramarine skies. What I got, however, wasn’t quite what I’d bargained for.
Leaving Quito under a cloud, both literally and figuratively, for some deft fingers had relieved me of several personal effects at the bus station, the first volcano obliging enough to be visible was Cotopaxi. This mountain was accessible by car through rugged lava fields and fields of ochre grass. Stepping out of the vehicle, the wind whipped my face like a wayward rope, stinging my cheeks and messing my hair. The ground was boggy underfoot and we were almost alone, save for a party of unlucky schoolchildren in an old American school bus. Each gust shifted the clouds at the summit, flicking the light on and off. Illuminated, the volcano was imposing, standing at 5897 metres above sea level, the second highest in Ecuador. It stood as an improbably perfect cone, its textbook shape remaining intact despite numerous eruptions. Today it was quiet, and as the wind flung another scarf of cloud across the volcano’s shoulders, my guide decided it was best for us to descend before the weather set in.
Back at my hotel, a charming colonial hacienda set beyond a long, tree lined drive, I discussed the weather forecast with anyone who had an opinion. Despite the now warm late afternoon sunshine bathing the beautifully tended gardens, the consensus was that rain and wind would batter the volcano for at least the next week. I decided to move on.
Catching a bus along the Pan-American Highway, it tipped me out at Riobamba, from where I should be able to see Tungurahua. A waking hulk of a volcano that had led to the evacuation of the nearby town of Baños just a few short years earlier, it had now started puffing and rumbling again and the area was on alert. Whilst I’d been at Cotopaxi, newspapers had reported plumes of ash rising from the summit, so I was confident that I’d get to see some action. The local residents were considerably less pleased, dreading the disruption that would come and the adverse impact on their earnings.
Although the top of the volcano was obscured by thick cloud, I caught a local bus the next morning bound for Baños. We were diverted; a large pile of rock ejected from the volcano had blocked the road. Rain drops started to splatter on the cracked windscreen; the ancient wiper blades weren’t up to the task and smeared the dirt into crescents. As I alighted, the heavens opened and I paddled up the main street past sugar cane sellers who’d given up on any more sales.
I made towards the hot springs that gave the town its name. The baths were located at the foot of the mountain, which was the only part of the volcano I got to see. Luxuriating in the milky green water of the public pool, icy stair rods pounded my shoulders and smacked at my head as the rest of my body relaxed into the soothing warmth of the geothermally heated water. Tungurahua, above me, remained sulkily covered the whole time.
Disappointed, I retreated south, away from the volcanoes but into clear blue skies. From an elegant colonial mansion in Cuenca, I licked my wounds, allowing the hotel staff to pamper and cosset. Ultramarine skies dotted with cotton wool cumulus accentuated the beige stone and whitewash of the city’s many colonial edifices, their ironwork balconies glinting in the sun. I wandered amongst the stalls of the flower market and beside crocosmia and washing-adorned streams, tried on Panama hats and drank decent coffee. In one cafe, I browsed the newspaper and a story caught my eye: Tungurahua had erupted yesterday, it said. Tourists to the area had been treated to a show of fiery orange lava. Powerful blasts had thrown rocks as large as chairs as far as Riobamba. One had landed in the street two metres away from what had been my bedroom window. I’d missed it by two days.