ABOVE BANOS, Ecuador
Climbing the nearby active volcano had become one of my curiosities.
Intrigued by its daily rumblings, I wanted to witness the action on the 16,000-foot behemoth known as Volcan Tungurahua.
Mario, the Ecuadorian volunteer leader at the Tea Room, planned the trip for two other volunteers, Pessa and I.
We took a truck from the city of Banos at 5,900 feet to the trailhead at 9,100 feet. From there, we would hike about two miles up to a refuge at 12,400 feet. We would spend the night in the dilapidated accommodations there. Before dawn, we would hike up to a lookout at 13,100 feet, a spot well below the mouth of the volcano at 14,700 feet.
An overcast and rainy morning last Saturday didn’t postpone the trek. We hiked up muddy trenches with an increasingly powerful wind whipping the back of our raincoats.
Reaching the refuge an exhausting four hours later, I shed the 20-pound backpack to bask in the sunny skies that opened up to reveal the peak, mouth and part of the western valley facing the city of Ambato.
We ate chicken, rice and French fries for dinner, and we promptly headed to bed at 7 p.m. We hoped that the skies would continue to clear before our 2 a.m. wake-up call. We wanted to see the array of stars, any activity from the volcano and, later, the sunrise.
Our accommodations didn’t make for a restful early evening. The refuge was left in disarray with broken windows and no electricity after the recent eruptions in late May and early June. The volcano’s relatively current dormancy has park officials allowing explorers to make the journey — at their own risk.
Before going to bed, Mario showed me a memorial at the refuge to a 23-year-old Israeli who died after a fall from the volcano a few years ago. We would need to be careful going to the lookout, he said.
As expected, the volcano rumbled like thunder throughout the night – albeit much louder than what we normally hear more than 6,000 feet below in the tent at the Team Room organic garden.
The two other volunteers and Pessa and I shared slivers of a single mattress, while Mario camped out on a thin twine mat. We were exhausted from the hike and the altitude, but tossed and turned in the below-freezing temperatures. We faded off for a few short hours of sleep; then the alarm clock sounded.
Before I put my pants on in the wee hours, I gazed out the second-story window into the Ambato valley. The sky had cleared to reveal the Milky Way and other stars. A few sporadic, low-level clouds blanketed the lights of homes and neighborhoods in the valley. I was no longer groggy.
As I stepped outside, Mario points to the volcan and says, “fuego,” or “fire.”
Tungurahua, meaning “devil’s fire” in an Ecuadorian indigenous language, was spitting lava up into the air. The sparks resembled Fourth of July fireworks against a starry sky. However, there was nothing artificial about this combustion.
Pessa and I then engaged in an impromptu shooting-star contest. (I ended the night as the undisputed champ. Me: 12. Pessa: something closer to 4. Sorry, Love.)
Mario later called me over to the eastern valley facing Banos. The seemingly wise 46-year-old man pointed out some constellations. He said the flashing green and red light near the horizon was a budding young star.
The next destination was to see the sunrise further up the volcano, which was now emitting a dense gray smoke.
Pessa was scared that her life was going to end inside the devil´s fire, so we set up our blue sleeping bag a few hundred feet beneath the park limit where the other three ascended to. All of us were safely more than 1,600 feet away from the mouth. (Pessa disputes my use of “safely.”)
Thick low-hanging clouds moved into the Banos valley, but couldn’t reach us at 13,100 feet. A brisk morning wind above the tree line made us huddle under the bag, but certainly didn´t detract from the view.
When the sun crept above the clouds, we could see Ecuador’s more well-known peaks of Chimborazo (20,000 feet) and Cotopaxi (19,000 feet).
Back at the refuge before our morning descent, Mario lead us to the natural spring for some fresh drinking water.
The walk has “trees with their own ecosystems,” Mario said.
The walk also included multi-colored rock gorges where lava has flowed and trees seemingly out of a Dr. Seuss book.
“The dense clouds make this seem like a fairytale,” said Carly, a fellow volunteer.
Back at the refuge, Mario shared a bit of folklore about Tungurahua. On two separate occasions, the indigenous people of the Ambato valley lost battles when the volcano became active.
The indigenous were battling the Incans in the valley when Tungurahua rumbled and spit. The indigenous laid down their weapons and knelt facing the volcano. They said it was the spirit of their fathers. The Incans subsequently killed them and added them to the empire.
A similar thing happened when the indigenous were battling the Spanish. While the indigenous paid respects to their ancestors, the Spanish killed them and continued onto Quito to fulfill their conquest.
We finished the journey with an all-day trek down more than 6,000 feet back to the Tea Room in rural Banos. The walk through the clouds felt like a baptism in the mystique of a powerful active volcano.
Visa fortitude (part 3)
Our visa renewal had a tidy– if not arbitrary — finish.
On Tuesday, the immigration officials told us we would have to come back on Friday and Monday in order to get the proper visa to stay in this country for more than 90 days this year.
We said it would be difficult because we live about three hours away in Banos. They relented and said we could finish the payments and paperwork Thursday and Friday.
On Thursday, we pushed to have it completed that day.
¨Es imposible,¨ said the immigration official, who sped up our timeline earlier in the week. He assured us, however, that we could get it done on Friday.
We went to the cashier to pay the $30-dollar balance on our $60-dollar fee and returned to the processing counter.
Another official tells us that we now have to return on Monday. We tell him what the other official said. They conference briefly, and when he returns, he tells us we can do it Friday.
We shake our head at how whimsical the system is and breathe our lungs because we have money limitations to worry about too.
When we arrived on Tuesday, we thought it would be a one-night visit and we would return to Banos with our new visa stamped into our passport on Wednesday. The plans changed and we budgeted the money we had for the rest of the week.
Even those revised plans were altered when I lost a $20 bill. I can´t fathom how it happened, but I can´t rule out the cleaning lady skimming off my money clip.
We quickly checked out of the hostel that doesn´t take credit cards and tried to find one of the rare places that does. We found one and pinched pennies for food. I´ve never been as frugal in my life. (And as Pessa will points out, I’m one frugal bastard.)
On Friday, both officials recognized us. How couldn´t they? We were wearing the exact same clothes as when we arrived on Tuesday.
¨Your visas are ready,¨said the official who tried to prolong the process a day earlier.
¨Yeah,¨said Pessa as she uttered her question about why it took so long.
¨It´s a process,¨ he said. ¨We need to have the director approve the paperwork. You have to come back and pay the $30 again. And we need to do a lot of visas every night.¨
OK. Fine. Fair enough. We are done now — oh wait, he then tells us that we have to complete one more step. We have to board a bus to the north side of the capital to have our visa registered for the census with the immigration police.
¨Pronto?¨ I question.
¨Yes, the sooner the better,¨the immigration official replied.
Upon arrival at the immigration police office, we are immediately turned away.
¨Nope, you don´t need it,¨ said the officer at the information booth. He didn´t bother moving his crossed arms. We say screw it.
Relaxing back at the outdoor kitchen at the organic farm in on Friday night, Carol shared some history of how things get done in this developing country.
¨It comes from a time when the country was run on bribes,¨she said. ¨¨Come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow,¨ they say. Then you slip them 1,000 Sucres (a dollar or two) to get it done.¨
Carol of Canada shared other stories about delays and other jerking around she has had to go through with other governments here.
She said that bus drivers used to slip money to the cops at toll booths in order to keep broken-down busses on the road. She said that all the buses have since been removed and the current president — Rafael Correa — is anti-corruption.
But on a return bus to Banos on Friday afternoon, an oversized truck scraped the toll booth as it passed. I saw the driver quickly hand something small to the obviously dismayed cop at the scene.
It could have been paperwork, but then again. …