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El Vulcan Tungurahua

Volcano spotting in Run Tun

all seasons in one day 27 °C

The active volcano, Tungurahua, rears majestically above the mountains surrounding the Andean Spa town of Baños. In 1999, the entire area was evacuated, as a major eruption was forecast. For a while, Baños was a ghost town, but during 2000 volcanic activity decreased slowly and steadily, and the inhabitants and visitors began to filter back in.
Because of its location, Tungurahua is usually shrouded in dense cloud and invisible to the many tourists who come hoping for a glimpse of its smoking rim.

As our bus struggled along the steep mountain road, another bend brought a collective gasp from the passengers on the right. Tungurahua appeared in perfect clarity, the only clouds present the hot ash smoke belching from her active cavity, or caldera. This spectacular sight is such a rarity that even the locals on board were pointing and exclaiming excitedly. The bus trundled on and Tungurahua disappeared from view in the vertiginous landscape.

The volcano is not visible from the town itself. A small, bustling resort, Baños is in a valley already at an altitude of c.1,500m. It is surrounded by mountains, with Tungurahua rising behind these to over 5,000m.

The following day, we hiked up to Run Tun, a mountain village which boasts a 'mirador del vulcan'; a viewpoint for Tungurahua. Although at first the weather looked promising, as time went by the sky darkened, and we were less hopeful of a clear sighting up close. The climb was hard work and of course the signs for the mirador changed constantly (friends reading this will remember a certain evasive town in west waterford when the need to arrive there was fairly pressing). Eventually we stopped to have our picnic and to shelter from the rain, now coming down straight from a heavy sky. We had come out onto a deserted road and there we found a strange little bus shelter. We ate simple and delicious local fruit and cheese - they say hunger is the best sauce. When we had finished, and were debating whether to persevere or turn back, there was the sound of an approaching car. This turned out to be a local taxi, dropping a family home from the market in Baños. He came back and we agreed a price for bringing us up to the mirador, and dropping us back into town. Needless to say, the viewpoint was easily another 2 miles, so it was a happy event for us.

As we walked up the final slope to the top of the mountain, some Ecuadorian tourists were coming down. They were disappointed; they told us there was no view to be had, the vulcan was totally obscured. We couldn't understand why this seemingly gentle hill was such a struggle to climb; it was like wading up through mercury. Our by now friend, the taxi driver, explained it was the altitude that caused this problem. We were probably almost back at Quito altitude at this stage, some 2.500m or so. Eventually we reached the top and found ourselves in a pleasant field, where we were greeted by its owner, who had built a wonderful tree house at the edge of the incredibly steep valley opposite Tungurahua.
The volcano was not to be seen. Undaunted, we climbed the tree anyway, not that it would afford any better a vista even if there were one - the entire field was ideally located for front row seats at Mama Tungurahua's showing (she is affectionately referred to by this name in Ecuador; Cotopaxi is of course 'hombre' and there is an old legend about the two volcanos). We stood and looked at the valley, at the mountains, and as if by magic, the clouds cleared and this is what we saw....
Words cannot describe the feelings of awe and humility inspired by being so close to a live mountain of this stature.
And well-being..

So, I won't try. The pictures will give some idea at least.

We were well-rewarded for such persistance and a long hard climb. That night we soaked in the volcanic mineral baths by the waterfall at the edge of the town, soothing our aching limbs and healing our many insect bites. It was an experience I will long remember, floating in the hot pool, surrounded by Ecuadorian families, socialising and hanging out together, before plunging into the cold pool to close the pores.

The following day we cycled the length of the 'ruta de las cascades'; some 20k or so, and visited the famous 'Pailon del Diablo', a fall of extraordinary power in a channel smoothed out from lava.

Posted by Eleniki 09:31 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (6)

Tropical Montane Cloud Forest

Here comes the science bit...

-17 °C

If any of my friends, family or colleagues ever wonder in passing what I am up to at any given moment between now and the middle of November, the likelihood is that I am crunching my way through a forest track, slithering down a hazardous mountain path, or cutting grass in a verdant cloud pasture for the farm goats or horses. We live literally all of our time outdoors here in this stunning landscape of no seasons.
The way it goes is, if the sun is out, it's hot, and if the clouds are down, it's raining. But always balmy at La Hesperia. Only in the higher altitude of Quito, and other locations throughout the Andes, is it cold. The lower you get, the warmer the climate. And with climate change, nothing is forecastable. It's been raining here even though it's still the dry season (until November) and who knows, it may be dry during December. We had an earth tremor last week. I was in bed when the volunteer house started to shake. It lasted several minutes. Your mind goes through all sorts of explanations as to why your bed is moving- and an earth tremor is way down the list. But that's what it was. Part of everyday life here.

With all this in mind, I thought I might put down some facts about this beautiful and unpredicable country and its cloud forests. The problems which exist in Ecuador, environmental and social-political, I will write about another time soon.
Ecuador straddles the northern and southern hemisphere. Bordering Columbia, Peru and the Pacific ocean, it covers Amazon, highland, coast and the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador is a multiethnic, multicultural nation with a population of 13 million, comprising 14 indigenous groups. It is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, its extreme geographical and climatic variations facilitating the evolution of thousands of species of flora and fauna.
Eduador has 10% of the world's plant species (25,000 species of trees); c.8% of the world's animals and 18% of the planet's birds (c.1,640 bird species, 4,500 species of butterfly, 350 species of reptiles, 375 species of amphibeans, 1,550 species of mammals, 800 species of fresh water fish and 450 of salt water fish). The country has 46 ecosystems, from sea level to 6,400 metres in a total area of 256,370 km sq. Despite its tiny size, Ecuador is home to rain forest, cloud forest, mountains, islands, deserts, valleys and snow-capped volcanos.
La Hesperia is in the western range of the Andes at an altitude of 1,100 to 2,040 metres: 814 hectares in the middle of the Rio Toachi - Chiriboaga, an IBA (important bird area) and is part of two important bio-regions: the tropical Andes and the Choco Darien of Western Ecuador, one of the top five bio-diverse hotspots on earth.
La Hesperia contains three types of forest: pre-montane evergreen, low montane and high montane (cloud forest). The reserve is home to 287 species of birds; 40 mammal species; 63 butterfly genera; and a huge diversity of epiphyte plants. Several species of endangered trees are reproduced in the nursery here. In Tropical Montane Cloud Forest (TMCF) clouds cover the vegetation most of the year round, enabling it to capture moisture (horizontal precipitation). This phenomenon allows the forest to flourish even in the dry season.
In TMCFs and their surrounding area, horizontal rain provides up to 50% of the water for the hydrological cycle that humans, animals and vegetation depend on. Ecuador's TMCF has an altitude range of 1,400-3,500m. Its enveloping cloud reduces solar radiation and vapour deficit, wetting the canopy and suppressing evatranspiration. TMCF also conserves water by consuming it over a long period of time. This results in a high proportion of epiphytes (bromelias, orchids, lichens, mosses, fungi and filmy ferns) and a corresponding reduction of woody climbers.
Reasons to preserve TMCFs:

  • Their biodiversity is comparible to tropical rainforest, but cloud forest has not received equal public attention.
  • Endemism: TMCF has a high level of endemic species; ie, species found only in specific ecosystems, which therefore do not occur anywhere else in the world.
  • Climate change: special characteristics of TMCFs make them excellent sites for monitoring the impact of global climate and air quality change.
  • Ecological sensitivity: TMCFs are highly susceptible to disturbance; if their ecosystem is disturbed, it takes longer for them to be restored than lower altitude forests.
  • High deforestation and habitat loss: TMCFs are disappearing at the alarming rate of 1.1% per year, which is 0.3% higher even than rainforest loss.
  • Insufficient research: we do not know half of the benefits of TMCFs. However, we do know that they inhibit erosion and that horizontal precipitation is an important part of the hydrological cycle.

Current threats to TMCFs:

  • Expansion of subsistance agriculture by local people.
  • Wood harvesting for fuel.
  • Commerical logging.
  • Hunting.
  • Introduction of non-TMCF species.
  • Tourism and recreation.
  • Telephonic/media station construction.
  • Unlawful development.

Much of Ecuador's forests are in need of preservation and restoration. 22% of the national territory is under governmental protection through the national parks and reserves programme. There is more forest in private reserves covering another 78,000 hectares or so, but much of this needs better monitoring and protection. Public and private sectors need to be incorporated in more diverse endeavors. The government alone cannot do it - it must be a shared responsibility.

La Hesperia's goals:

  • To preserve the biodiversity of TMCF.
  • to protect the local watersheds and existing forest through reforestation; monitoring human impact; and environmental education.
  • to protect the existing forest.
  • To maintain the reserve as an important bird area.
  • To work toward sustainable development.
  • To create community development programmes.
  • To restore degraded areas both inside and outside the reserve.
  • To educate the public in conservation and ecologicy.
  • Research
  • To share the reserve with locals, volunteers, research students and visitors.


La Hesperia is also striving to become a model of integrated farming where agripractice works with forest preservation. It also seeks to promote environmentally friendly economic activities which also benefit locals.

Posted by Eleniki 14:44 Archived in Ecuador Tagged volunteer Comments (1)


Market Day in the Andes

all seasons in one day 21 °C

The Andean town of Otavalo is famous for its saturday market, and tourists and locals alike flock to this major attraction every weekend. We took two buses to get there from La Hesperia via Quito, and the journey took five hours in all. Distance means very little in Ecuador - its the road that matters, and the roads in this part of the country are mountainous and quite busy, so progress can be slow, specially if its misty and raining as well.

The market was not a disappointment. We were up and out in the square while the sellers were still constructing their sturdy stalls, and wandering the side streets where the colourful artisan´s market mostly takes place. The animals and livestock market is much earlier, but I wasn´t too keen to see it, being of an oversensitive disposition where animals are concerned. I was afraid I might end up trying to sneak a pig or two and some chickens back to the reserve on the bus with me, so that they would be assured of a tranquil life.


One side of the square was taken up with food stalls, selling anything from fruit to roasted pigs and guinea pigs (an ecuadorian speciality I have yet to try) to maize. Much of the fruit I didn´t recognise, likewise the grains. Corn, or maize, comes in so many guises here, the variety is extraordinary. The lines of baskets, each with different grains and seeds, were a real treat for the eye. The smells of roasting meat, frying maize cakes and cooking rice and potatoes or yukka added an extra olifactory dimension, and it was great to see entire Indian families (the indigenous people as they call themselves) sitting tucking in to freshly cooked local produce.

Part of the square was devoted to knitwear: ponchos, sweaters, hats, scarves and blankets, and to woven wall hangings, rugs, hammocks and bags. There were leather goods, ceramics, jewellery made from silver and semi-precious stones, beautiful pieces of crafted Tegua (fruit from a tree, like a nut) and gourds from different semi-tropical trees. Some of the gourds were magnificently inscribed with ´historias´of such topics as ´La matrimonia´or ´Los animales de la selva´or just pictures of musical instruments and people. There was artwork, created from recycled paper with metalwork images of humming birds, condors, sun symbols and other legends of the Quechua or Inca people; there were wooden painted masks galore, some of animals, some of child-frightening monsters; paintings and etchings, charcoals and drawings. You just don´t known where to look. Some sellers are on the aggresive side, coming to meet you if you so much as cast an eye in the direction of their wares, others are gentle, smiling and welcoming. Either way, if it comes to a sale, the price is asked; you reject it immediately, whereupon the vendor asks you to name your price; this too is received with disbelief and a volley of explanations about the complexity and duration of the work that has gone into the piece in question. Eventually, a compromise is reached on both sides, and both parties end the transaction feeling satisfied that it was a fair one.

The indiginous people are 'amigable' and interested in where you come from. They speak a clear and articulated spanish, thankfully very different from the smooth tongue-rolling rattle of the natives of Spain I have encountered. So, conversation is easy and simple. I wonder if this is because Spanish is not their first language, as many of the Indian people speak Quechua. At any rate, communication was a pleasure, and many jokes were shared over the course of a very enjoyable day. Worries about non-existant space in my 80 litre backpack will come later...

Meanwhile, back up into the clouds till next weekend.


Posted by Eleniki 16:23 Archived in Ecuador Tagged round_the_world Comments (3)

La Hesperia

Head in the clouds

all seasons in one day 26 °C

The cobbled path from the Quito/Santo Domingo highway winds steeply up from the small community of La Esperie. Once through the flowercovered stone archway, you enter a domain of abundant trees and humming birds, startlingly coloured butterflies and huge iridescent flying beetles, snakes and well-hidden monkeys. P1000483.jpg It was about half-an-hour's climb up to the reserve, I was told, and so I set out with determination, 20kg of pack on my back and front. A lot of weight, but the contents have to last me till May or June 2008, and I can leave some things behind when I leave here at the end of November.

Some 30 minutes later, I was wishing I had taken the advice of the volunteer coordinator in Quito, and left my backpack in the little shelter just inside the arch. It's not as high as Quito here in the western flanks of the Andes, but my body was still acclimatising and the afternoon heat and humidity was not helping me. When I thought my heart was bursting, I gave up the challenge and dropped my pack at the side of the path. Lighter physically and mentally, I went on up into the forest. At last I came on a welcome sign, with handpainted butterfly, and found myself approaching the hidden farmland and forest hacienda paradise of La Hesperia.

Words cannot do justice to the beauty of this place. Months of research on where exactly to volunteer in South America have paid off, as this must surely be heaven on earth. P1000537.jpg There was nobody around that hot afternoon, and I later learned that every Wednesday at 4pm the volunteers take on the staff and local kids in a game of football at the reserve. Juan Pablo, the owner/manager, and his wife Alexandra were in Quito at an important meeting about a hydro-electric power plant planned for the area, and so there was nobody to meet me or to collect my pack. However, volunteers soon began to appear, and soon I was surrounded by friendly faces and began to feel at home. As darkness and the inevitable nightly downpours descended, there was concern about the stray pack, but this was later picked up in Juan Pablo's jeep, with me shining my torch out the window, desperately searching for it in the dense darkness and vertical rain of the selva.

Ten days later, I am part of La Hesperia's furniture (of which there is precious little). There were 16 volunteers when I arrived, but people come and go on a weekly basis, which is difficult, but part of the routine here. We are a truly international community of diverse ages, backgrounds and experience, but socially we work extraordinarily well together. I have made friends from Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, England, Norway, Germany, France, Denmark, Canada and the U.S. in the short time I've been here. P1000617.jpg

I share one of the smaller rooms with an English woman and an American student. P1000435.jpg The volunteer house is a five minute walk from the main hacienda and our kitchen and eating area. In the house we sleep, shower, do our laundry and generally hang out.

Everything here is semi-outdoors, so we are breathing pure forest air every minute of every day. There is only one jeep on the reserve, so there is no pollution. The walls of our house are half Cabuya fibre, half window, so the air constantly circulates in the rooms.
The showers have ceilings, but little in the way of walls, and our eating area is the same. The kitchen, where we wash up after meals, is completely outdoors, with a shelter overhead. It's the most wonderful kitchen I've ever worked in. P1000500.jpgP1000513.jpg

There are three women who cook for us. Lolita, the main cook (yes, my cat's name - it's got to be good sign) cheerfully presents us with simple, mainly organic food (which I'm learning to grow in our fantastic veggie garden) three times a day. P1010295.jpg
I was never one for breakfast, at best grabbing a banana or apple to eat in the car on the way through the traffic, but here I'm hungry for our first meal at 7.30am, and starving by lunchtime. The work is hard, though the hours are short compared to my Dublin workday. The jobs change every day, so we get a chance to try everything. For the first two days, I worked in the veggie garden with Eleanor, my room mate, who knows a lot about organic and sustainable farming.
P1000627.jpg It was so interesting, and provided plenty of opportunity for hard labour too. The hoe is officially my favourite tool, but not your pathetic little city garden hoe - no, here we have real hoes; huge, strong handled implements with broad sheets of sharp metal to swing and uproot the ubiquitous 'devil weed' from the soft, brown, humus-rich soil. I love using the hoe - it acts like an axe too; can hack through thick wood.

Another tool high on the popular list is the machete, although I have not used it yet. This is for the jungle, the selva, or forest.
Last thursday, a group of seven of us walked up to the high forest reforestation lines (a 40 minute uphill hike just to get to work) and Raoul, Juan Pablo's right-hand man, started to carve a path through the under and overgrowth. When I say a path, you may imagine a level track through soft vegetation. Not so - this 'path' dropped straight down from the main track at an angle so alarmingly steep that if you slipped, you fell several metres, and the growth was mostly dense, hard wood with some bamboo (stems thicker than both my hands can encircle). Raoul is a superb machete man. He merrily swung and hacked his way down impossible, impassible terrain, drawing swiftly far ahead of the other macheteers until the only evidence of his whereabouts was his cheery whistle and melodious song. Raoul is 42, looks 35, is fit, slim, strong and healthy. Like his colleagues Pablo and his wife Freda, Raoul is always laughing and telling jokes, and I look forward to improving my spanish sufficiently to understand them, because they must be hilarious, judging by the Ecuadorians' reaction. I have conversation classes in spanish most days (4 dollars an hour) and speak as much as I can with the Ecuadorians, so, it's slowly improving.

Meanwhile back up the mountain, my job was to follow in Raoul's wake with my ridiculously heavy 'digger', a tool I have since fallen in love with and want for my little garden, although I know it would be sadly out of place. Having taken most of my energy just to carry the damn thing up to the tree lines, I was then expected to clamber and slide down this mountainside, avoiding overhanging branches and vines (perhaps with snakes or spiders, and yes, there are poisonous species a-plenty), taking extreme care not to trip and fall, or step on anything living, lug my digger, AND dig a perfect hole every five metres (the lads claim this is five steps; it is not five of my steps, so some confusion reigned). P1000636.jpgP1000649.jpgP1000546.jpg

The job is hard - first, find a level site (everything's relative and standards slipped after 30 minutes, but hey, this is Ecuador and things are gentle and laid back); clear the ground of creepers, weeds, small seedlings and other invasive species, making sure there is no fire-ants' nests around); then lift and poise the extremely heavy digger (basically two long wooden pole with two sharp conjoined metal spades facing each other at the end, and a mechanism for closing them when full of soil, to remove same); thrust it with all your might into the earth, clamp soil and release in mound beside hole. P1010387.jpg The joy of this, once started, is immense, because the soil is soft and clean and workable. After five or six minutes, you have a perfect, cleanly outlined hole, 2 feet deep, for the baby trees, raised from seeds in the nursery, to begin their new lives in the forest. And muscles - you have muscles too.

The idea is simple: clear invasive species and reforest with threatened species, carefully nurtured at La Hesperia. We plant a different tree in each hole, repeating only every six or seven holes, so biodiversity is encouraged as much as possible. The seeds are collected by volunteers too, so the process is a complete and wonderfully satisfying one.

Having worked so hard that morning, I thought the afternoon would present an easy task, perhaps some pottering in the medicinal garden or collecting some green beans and basil for dinner. I was wrong. Eight of us went up to one of the high fields to roll dry scrub down the steep slope, where it will slowly decompose when covered with a light layer of earth, then can be used for fertilizing the same field. It was a searingly hot afternoon and the scrub was dry and dusty, so before long our eyes, noses, throats and mouths were filled with stinging dust. Between that, the heat and the bugs which persist despite copious quantities of Deet, we were completely shattered when the job was finished. The scrub had been cleared to grow a special tall skutch grass for the farm livestock. It may seem a little ironic that the farm has cleared land in an area of conservation, but firstly, this has been a farm for generations, and secondly, it is necessary to grow food to sustain the animals and hence the workers on this project. The bigger picture is happening, and I am glad to be even a tiny part of it for a tiny amount of time.

Posted by Eleniki 08:15 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (4)

South America


sunny 22 °C

Hola from Quito, 2nd highest capital city in the world! Altitude so far has not posed too much of a problem, but I did experience some difficulty ascending the stairs of The Secret Garden hostel with my 20kg mochillo on my back. We flew in over the avenue of the volcanos, including majestic snow-capped Cotopaxi; it was breath-taking to see it for the first time from the air. Some 60km from Quito, the mountain rises over 5000 metres above sea-level, and is still active. It is expected to erupt again sometime soon, I was cheerfully told by my travelling companion Luis, a retired Ecuadorian engineer who was returning home after a 6 month stay with his daughter in London, after the sad death of his wife from cancer. He was emotional as we approached the wide-spread panorama that is Quito. He invited me to have coffee and a tour of the old town with him tomorrow.

P1000386.jpg I think this will be a lovely way to see the city. Perhaps after my orientation meeting in the Jatun Sacha office, where I will meet some of the staff of one of Ecuador's most well-known conservation organizations. They will give me all the information I need, and directions to La Hesperia, the cloud forest reserve which will be my home for the next ten weeks.

So, to my family and friends, I'm safe; I'm sound; I'm here! XX


Posted by Eleniki 17:03 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (3)

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