Well, I wasn’t planning on coming here… on account of the smoking volcano. And really, it is smoking, just behind the hill outside this internet cafe.

People had told me a lot about Baños, spa town, tourist hot spot and general good time party town. Well Mum and Dad are holed up in the finest hotel in Ambato (30 quid a night, buys a lot out here!) and I’ve taken 24 hours out to come an hour to the East on the bus to Baños.

You may have heard a little about it, because it sits on the slopes of Volcano Tungurahua (means: throat of fire) and recently, in fact since 1999 on and off, and very spectacularly last time I was out in Ecuador, it has been “erupting”.

People have told me that should the volcano do a full on lava flow eruption, there is no way out of the town. And now, having driven in on the bus, I can believe it. I’m in a hanging valley on the side, way down the side, steap sides, of the volcano. You can’t see the top of the volcano from the village, and I was out for a roam around earlier; taking pictures of beautiful waterfalls and hills etc, when I realised that some of the cloud over the ridge, was considerably darker… and was in fact a puff of very recent volcanic smoke. That took me aback a little.

As we drove into the town, down and down, I saw doorways with plastic covering them (to stop the smoke getting in), a layer of fine volcanic dust on the plants and we drove past lots of men repairing the road… landslide or ash, I’m not sure. Equally a little to the right of the bus, up the hillside about 500 meters, you can CLEARLY see lots of LARGE, WIDE, lava flows. Thankfully cooled and grey, not red.

This is a very scary and interesting place. Some of the rocks on the drive here, were sticky viscous cooled lava flows… not looking at all like normal rock. I think I am perhaps a bit dumb coming here. The town is fairly dead – a very large funeral procession (pre-emptive?) which passed me earlier seems to have taken up lots of the locals, and there aren’t loads of gringo-tourists that I’ve seen yet. I asked in the tourist information for things to do, and asked how dangerous the volcano was… the lady told me that it wasn’t dangerous, as the wind was blowing all the smoke and ash to the other side of the moutain at the moment. Guess it depends on your definition of danger.

It’s not helping right now that some woman appears to be dictating her university thesis to a guy typing, and every sentance she says seems to include “volcanoes”, “lava flows” and “hot ash”. Sometimes I wish I couldn’t understand Spanish.

If the volcano keeps its lid on for another 24 hours, hopefully I will be able to regale of you my twilight trip to the thermal baths under the waterfall and my cocktail including trip up the hillside for a better view the smoke spewing monster by night.

On the up side, the bus came into town slowly… as it was having to follow quite possibly the largest, fully loaded Pilsener lager truck I’ve ever seen. I think I’m going to need a few to sleep tonight.

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January 21, 2008

Well, you may have gathered that things have been rather hectic out here this year.

I saw the New Year in with 6 gays and a German. And it was fab. On the balcony of a lovely penthouse flat in Quito, drinking champagne watching the fireworks with 6 handsome men and a good friend.

The next morning was a little tougher as my guests weren’t happy with the accommodation they’d had the night before (plenty of other people like it… but hey) and although the days riding started out well, a hailstorm amongst other things (too nuerous and litegous to mention) occurred and the ride was aborted for the guests, whilst Jose Javier and I rode on into the night to get the horses to the next mornings destination. Ended up riding and for about 9 hours. I hope never to have another January 1st like that in my life. (Bring on the monsterous hangovers and going back to work depression anytime.)

Right now my parents are out here, which is wonderful. It was a bit up in the air as whether they’d make it out here or not, and I as I stood for over an hour in Mariscal Sucre airport, Quito, waiting for them, I began to think that they hadn’t got on the plane and weren’t coming.

Then finally, they lumbered into view, pale and tired from 24 hours travel… really really really lovely to see them out here. I don’t think I’ve quite stopped grinning since they got here. I can’t quite believe they’ve actually made it out to scary 3rd world South America just to visit me!

So far we’ve been hoping on and off the mad Ecuadorian buses making our way around the country to places I’ve only heard off and never had time to visit. We went to Mindo first of all and saw all manner of butterflies and hummingbirds.

On our last day in Mindo we went on a very scary heart in mouth cable trip across a valley to get to the waterfalls on the other side (you need to see the pics to fully understand the non existent remit of health and safety in Ecuador). Powered by a guy sitting at an engine, without any casing, the little metal cage travels on a cable across the cloud forest canopy, where you (not a member of staff) unbolt the hip-high metal gate and hop off onto the oposite platform.

Then you plunge downhill through the damp forest, slippery mud slopes, for “10 minutes” (more like half an hour) to get to some majorly rushing water. Sadly as my parents have been to Niagra Falls more than once, the end result was a little disappointing. Instead of just slogging back up the hill, I made off down a side track and found another cluster or waterfalls, which were far more impressive, before re-joining Mum and Dad at the top to take the gravity defying cable cage back.

I had to take a riding tour for a few days, so I left M&D to their own devices in Quito. They did a couple of days in the concrete mass that is downtown Quito and then took themselves off to Otavalo to look at the indigineous people. I met them back at their hotel on Tuesday evening and on Wednesday we headed off littlest hobo style with mini backpacks on a trip South along the Pan American Highway which runs from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of Argentina. (see this link for the South American part).

We went to Hacienda Bomboli (3,000m), North of Machachi on the coast road to Santa Domingo, where the cloud which is there for 75% of the year lifted and showed us the awe-inspiring moutains and the full extent of Osawaldo and Marianetta’s 125 hectare primary hillside forest. We examined tiny, rare orchids and indigenous trees along with beautiful, still palms over 800 years old. Finally Oswaldo took us for a hair-raising ride in his pick up to view the pure waterfalls filled year-round with water from his precious forest.

Moving on we had a look around (for free of course, bus mans holiday thing), one of Ecuador’s best/most modern, dairy farms. Carlos the white skinned, Spanish descended owner met us at El Obeslico (where we’d hopped off another bus) and took us to look around his estate. He was what I’ve come to expect from hacienda owners out here, slighly pompous, above the regular people, well dressed – never seen a farmer really – but he was kind (or arrogant?) enough to show us around the diary, some sheds and some cattle. When he left us, to get to the business of being important, Jamie – the foreman – took us into the garden and we waited among the hummingbirds and flowers for our driver to show up.

Eduardo took us into Machachi and then up into Cotopaxi National Park. After a brief interchange with the guard at the North entrance to the Park (we arrived at 3pm and the gates close at 3pm… jobsworths!) we continued on through the park to Tambopaxi.

Tambopaxi (3750m) is remote, originally an Inca Tambo (stopping off point), and has startling views of the volcanic landscape and a number of volcanoes in the area. (German explorer scientist Humbolt christened this area the Avenue of Volacnoes back in the 1800s). Although we woked up to cloud the next morning, there was enough blue to make a pair of sailors trousers (new phrase learnt from a guest last week…) and before long we had some amazing views of Cotopaxi (5897m), the World’s Highest Active Volcano. We went for a walk, past the lava flows of 1877, along a stream watching the wild trout, and through the long grasses and small flowers of the paramo. All very very good stuff.

At 12 noon the indomitable, unmarried at 65, Luis Toapanta showed up to take us through the park. Laughing and joking we went to LimpioPungo and marvelled at the stoney crags of the Rumiñahui Volacano. Dad complaining yet again that there wasn’t enough oxygen in the air for him… a recurring theme.

After a sneaky look in at San Agustin de Callo, a very up market hacienda we use on VIP tours occassionally, to see the perfectly cut and fitted Inca walls and chapel we left the park and arrived at our far more modest accommodations, just off the Pan American highway in a small town called Lasso.

We moved on this morning… an hour by bus to the town of Ambato, capital of the Tungurahua Province (home of the famously exploding volcano Tungurahua, which means throat of fire in the Quichua language).

And that’s as far as we’ve got so far… tomorrow Riobamba and the Devils nose train are calling, then onto Cuenca, Ecuador’s 3rd city.

I know you’re missing pictures… but the internet just isn’t as fast as at home out here… give me a chance and I’ll try and upload some good stuff in the next few days.

Love to everyone back home  xxx