Thursday, October 22, 2015

Driving On The Volcano Trail

22 October 2015

The night before we left on our road trip, we were awakened by an intermittent beeping sound at about 4:30 AM.  After our half-asleep discussion, we figured out it was the smoke detector battery.  So I climbed up on a chair, pulled the stupid detector off the ceiling, Richard opened it up, and I took out the battery.

It was just one of those nights, or mornings, or whatever you want to call that time of day when it's still dark and most people are still sound asleep.

The rest of the day was similar.  The unexpected intruding on the unsuspecting traveller.  Not that the unexpected is a bad thing - not like a beeping detector in the middle of the night.  Just, out of the blue.

It took almost 90 minutes to get our rental car.  There were forms.  We had been offered a special insurance deal that we could only get online, not at the counter as we had thought.  We sat in the rental agency lobby and bought the insurance online.  Got extra perks because we're AARP members.  It turned out okay, with a vehicle upgrade, it just took for-e-verrrrrrr.  

We followed the directions to get to the Pan American Highway, called the Pan Americana here, heading south.  It was a gorgeous drive, and we agreed we'd drive until maybe 4 PM, then look for a hotel.

We saw mountain after mountain, all looking like volcanoes, tops shrouded in clouds.  And then we saw it - Cotopaxi National Park!  We followed the signs, exited the Pan Americana, and looked at Cotopaxi, the volcano that has been rumbling and shooting up steam and ash, the one with all the alerts, the Alerta Amerilla (yellow alert) volcano!

We watched, but couldn't see much, just the base of the volcano, with the whole thing covered by clouds.  We waited a bit, and there was a vague smell of smoke and sulphur in the air.  But, no rumbling sounds, no lava, not even a glow behind the clouds.  So, we turned around and got back on the Pan Americana, and continued south.

We made our way to the town of Latacunga, found a hotel, and settled in.  We thought we could see Cotopaxi from our windows, but it was a cloudy afternoon and evening.

We walked around town, and looked at the hills in the distance, ringing the town.  There was a lovely park with a river, various bridges crossing it, all sorts of shops, friendly people who were curious about who we were, where we were from, how long we'd be in Ecuador, and how we liked the country.

And I found guaguas in the bakery!  I finally tried one, it was pretty much like French or Italian bread, but with pineapple jam in the middle of it.  But even better, the window display had the most decorated and ornamental guaguas we've seen yet!

I woke up with the sunrise, and peeked out the window - and there it was, Cotopaxi, merrily steaming and puffing away!  The security reports say that the steam and ash column rises about 1000 meters up from the peak - that's a one kilometer column of ash and steam!!!!!  

As the sun rose above the horizon, the pillar of ash became more visible, though the clouds started to move in, and eventually they covered and hid the peak once again.


We looked at the map and realized that the town of Baños wasn't very far away.  Baños has several names - Baños de Incas, Baños de Agua Santa - the Baths of the Incas, the Baths of the Holy Water.  The town of Baños is in a valley on the side of Volcan Tungurahua, another active volcano, and among the tallest volcanoes in Ecuador at 16,480 feet (5,023 meters).  The tallest is Chimborazo, 20,560 ft (6,268 meters), which is across the Pan Americana from Tungurahua.  Really, the two peaks look at each other across the highway!

Tungurahua has been steaming for a while, and there are packaged tours to see the volcano.  About ten years ago, the volcano was spewing lava - not enough to reach the town or endanger anyone, just enough to make a gorgeous nightly show.  But now, there isn't any lava, just the steam and ash, so we'll skip the volcano tour.  (We explain to the sales people that we saw Cotopaxi this morning, and they all nod as if that explains why
Tungurahua would be boring for us!)

Baños is at an elevation of 5,971 feet, or 1,820 meters above sea level.  SO much more comfortable than the 9000 or so feet elevation of Quito!  I can walk without huffing and puffing and feeling like I'm gasping for air.  Really such a relief!

There are waterfalls all around, some just at the edge of town.  I don't know how tall they are, and I imagine in rainy season they'd be either wider or in numerous cascades pouring down the mountain.

Baños has its own basilica, which really dominates the skyline of the town, with a backdrop of the huge green mountains beyond.  Despite looking very Gothic, the Basilica Reina del Rosario de Agua Santa was actually built in the early to mid 1900s, and was dedicated in 1944.  It's a huge building, complete with carvings, stained glass windows, and twin bell towers or campenile.  In fact, as I was taking these photos, the bells began to ring - real bells, with the ropes moving up and down, not the recorded bells that some churches have.

It turns out that today, 22 October, is the Feast of the Virgin of the Holy Waters, or Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa.  We had no idea, we just spent the afternoon walking around, chatting with people, getting to know the town, seeing what there is available to do or see.  (And I met a charming man, José, who somehow managed to have a long conversation with me in simple Spanish - he has children and grandchildren all over, he was chatting with me about this, though I was confused about some of the details.  But he was very interesting, and wanted to know all about our travels as well.  These conversations are really expanding my Spanish!)

Anyway, after dinner it started raining, and we figured okay, it'll be a quiet evening in the hotel.  Richard was downstairs on the hotel's computer for guests, I was in our room, and all of a sudden I heard BAM!  BAM!  BAM!  We had heard and seen occasional fireworks displays in Quito, never quite knowing ahead of time, or what they were for, but enjoying the colorful display despite our understanding of the events.

So I went racing down the two flights of stairs and out to the sidewalk, and it was a huge and extensive fireworks show, originating maybe two blocks down the road!  We heard every rocket go off, they exploded almost right overhead with a sonic BOOOOM that I could feel in my bones, and then the lights and colors came raining down almost right on top of us, looking so close I felt like I could reach out and catch all the sparkling colors!!!!!  It was amazing, just a gorgeous and very enthusiastic show of lights and sounds!  Loved it!

We came inside, and I asked the guy at the hotel desk why, what were the fireworks for?  He said "La Fiesta de la Virgin" - except neither Richard nor I understood his pronunciation, and we kept missing the "Virgin" part of it.  Burgeon?  Pigeon?  We were totally baffled.  Thank goodness for the internet, so we could figure out what this Fiesta and fireworks were all about, what they were celebrating!

Our plan for the next few days is to spend time in Baños, try out some of the volcano-heated baths, walk around some more, and maybe visit the monkey rescue center near Puyo, which is down toward the Amazon basin.  Yes, Baños is kind of halfway between the Ecuadorean Andes and the origins of the Amazon River - pretty amazing, huh?  

We're amazed, and we're here!

And of course we'll keep everyone posted about the excitement of being here!

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