Active Traveller: A potentially explosive trip in Ecuador
Ben Westwood finds volcanic activity looms large on an adventurous family holiday in Ecuador
Wednesday 17 April 2013
"Daddy, what happens if the volcano explodes?" It was a good question from Jake, my six-year-old son. I explained that Tungurahua's crater was on the other side from where we were staying, so any hot rocks would go in the opposite direction. Jake didn't seem totally convinced, but returned to gazing out of the car window at the Ecuadorian Andes.
We were driving up from Ecuador's coast to the mountain town of Baños, and the journey was a perfect snapshot of the country's diversity - from banana plantations through cloud forest past snow-capped Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest mountain. All in just four hours.
Baños has been well-known to backpackers and locals for years. But its position just eight miles from active volcano Tungurahua has deterred mass tourism for the most part, which is no bad thing. Tungurahua means "throat of fire" in Kichwa, the native language. It awoke from an uneasy sleep in 1999 and has been erupting regularly ever since, most recently in 2011. However, the crater's position means that lava flows in the opposite direction to Baños and the town has suffered nothing more than an occasional showering of ash in recent years. The devout Catholic locals believe that the town is blessed; the thermal baths, which rise from the foothills of the volcano, were named after the Virgin Mary, and the main church is filled with murals depicting her miraculous work in keeping the townsfolk safe.
My children are aged six and four, so after a few years of bucket-and-spade holidays, I'd decided it was time to ease them in gently to an adventurous family holiday. In Baños activity-addicts and spa-seekers alike are kept busy. You can work up a sweat by canyoning, bungee jumping, zip-lining, rafting, hiking and mountain-biking. Or you can take the waters at the thermal baths, with plenty of massage therapies on offer too.
Our first outing took us to the Pastaza Valley, known for half-a-dozen dramatic waterfalls, where springs rush down 1,000 metres in 65km close to the Amazon rainforest. We made our way steeply down the hillside to a rickety bridge across the Pastaza river to view the first set of falls, Manto de la Novia (Bride's Veil). Perversely, this waterfall has proven more destructive to the residents of the valley than the volcano above it. In 2010, a mudslide killed four people in the valley and created a second waterfall. A survivor named Marcelo runs a garden trail at the foot of the falls and explained how residents had very little time to escape on the morning of the mudslide.
Further down the valley we visited another set of falls, Pailon del Diablo (Devil's Cauldron), via a walk down into a deep gorge. We climbed through a muddy trail to get behind the waterfall - a real highlight for my son. The rain was falling hard by this time, so we returned to Baños to ease our aching limbs.
At the Piscinas de la Virgen in the centre of town there were three pools - freezing, luke warm and hot. My children had never experienced thermal baths and first impressions of the cloudy yellow waters were not the best. ("It looks like pee.") However, once he got in, Jake loved the hot pool, while Isabella, to our surprise, plunged into the cold one and seemed perfectly happy.
A few days later, we headed higher into the mountains with just the briefest of glimpses of Tungurahua, which had kept reassuringly silent, peaking out of the clouds. It was remarkable to see not just the change in landscape but in climate in such a short distance. Ecuador has three very different zones - coast, mountains and jungle. Baños, situated on the edge of the jungle, was enduring the rainy season, while the Andean plains above were bathed in sunshine. Our next destination was equally dramatic in its location. Alausí is a small town tucked into a valley with steep green hills surrounding it. A giant statue of St Peter dominates the town, and the locals were busy readying themselves for the Summer Solstice festival of Inti Raymi, which coincides with the festival of St Peter.
Our hotel, Pircapamba, was perched high above Alausí, and the best way to take in the surroundings was on horseback. Isabella could only manage a short ride, but Jake embarked on an hour-long trek around the hills.
As beautiful as the landscapes are around Alausi, the main tourist attraction is the Devil's Nose train ride which departs from the town. The Ecuadorian government has invested millions regenerating a train network which had fallen into disrepair, and later this summer the entire 450km route from Quito to Guayaquil will be up and running.
The Devil's Nose section is the best known, dubbed "the most difficult train in the world" by geologist Theodor Wolf. As we set off, the guide explained the tragic history of the railway. Some 2,500 men, mainly Jamaican prisoners, died from disease and accidents during the two-year-long construction. Two switchbacks were carved into the mountain and the train negotiates a perilous route before rolling backwards downwards to the station at Sibambe. Thankfully, riding on the roof is no longer allowed.
As we headed for home after a fascinating week, Jake asked once again about the possibility of the volcano exploding: "Is our home far away from the volcano?" I confirmed that it was. "Let's go home," he decided. Nevertheless, he now has a picture of the volcano on his bedroom wall, so he can view it from a safe distance.
Journey Latin America (020-3432 1129, journeylatinamerica.co.uk), Sunvil (020-8568 4499; sunvil.co.uk) and Families Worldwide (0845 051 4567; familiesworldwide.co.uk) offer packages to Ecuador, including the train journey to the Devil’s Nose.
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