January 11, 2006
In the Shadow of Tunga-ray-ha
We recently traveled to the not so remarkable, very touristy town of Banios, located in the Central Highlands, about 4 hours southwest of Tena by bus. What the town lacks in character is completely redeemed by it's fantastic location: it is nestled in the Rio Pastaza Valley, surrounded by the Andes. It lurks in the shadow of Tunga-ray-ha, the not-so-dormant beheamoth of a volcano that stands at 5 thousand some odd meters, dwarfing St. Helens, and even Rainier [I should mention that the true name of the volcano is actually Tungurahua, but somehow the butchered spanish pronounciation "Tunga-ray-ha" seems to have a nicer ring to it, and well, it stuck].
Tunga-ray-ha sends out puffs of steams and ash now and then to remind those living in her shadows who is really in charge. A few years ago, Banios was evacuated because it was certain the volcano would erupt. Instead, it sounds like the police and military had a bit of fun looting people's houses while they "guarded" the town; the locals then went back into town, and in the end, the volcano didn't erupt as predicted.
Because of its location in the river valley, there are many drainages to explore right from town. Both days we were there we hiked up a different drainage and were the only gringos on the trail each time; in town we just blended in with all of the other tourists, and felt oddly out of place. The Rio Ulba, south of town, was a spectacular walk, even if it was mostly by road. Most people traveling the road took a right turn where the road did a hairpin turn about 3 km up; we opted for the left to get off the main road, following the river upstream as far as we could. Exploring kayaking possibilties, we found a path through some very dense bamboo and tropical vegetation leading to a nice surprise of a slightly rickety footbridge spanning the river just upstream of a beautiful gorge, and just below a waterfall (the site of the top photo). On the other side of the river we found an abandoned building, and I pondered the many possibilities of what it could have been used for--animals, did someone live there? We didn't notice that the trail continued anywhere from the building, which was a bit perplexing because the trail to the river looked fairly well used.
Once back on the road, we had to see where it would lead us. Cornfields, cows, and a house here and there dotted the hillsides. Finally we came to the end of the road, where two drainages came together. A footbridge crossed the stream that drains Tunga-ray-ha, and a small hamlet of houses sat just above. Having come this far, we had to see this community, that was technically just inside or bordering the boundary of Sangay National Park. We walked up the path, marvelling at the variety of produce being grown, here, in the mountains, and how peaceful it felt to be there. The farthest house away from the river had a stunning view of the Ulba valley, the Andes and the Rio Chico Verde valley to the north (bottom photo).
Finally able to tear ourselves away from this place, proclaiming that we wanted to someday live there, we made our way back down the road, feeling alive and so rejuvenated by our adventurous discoveries. Nearing the bottom of the canyon, closer to town, we stopped at a bend in the road to look at waterfalls and the place we had just been, tucked back behind a ridge in the shadow of Tunga-ray-ha. Just then, the clouds thinned and we caught a glimpse of her elusive summit, which dwarfed the other peaks (which are in no way small themselves) and provided a sense of scale: the Andes are huge!
The next day we headed back to Tena, sad to leave the mountains, but happy to get out of tourist-ville. The middle shot here is of Andy carrying his kakak to the bus station; the Andes and numerous small farms provide a dramatic backdrop.