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Tungurahua, seen here in 2010, again shot deadly gasses and lava into the air early in March. (STR/REUTERS)
Tungurahua, seen here in 2010, again shot deadly gasses and lava into the air early in March. (STR/REUTERS)

How I got lost in the shadow of a volcano Add to ...

Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

Tourist maps, with their fatly drawn streets and idiot-proof illustrations are great for navigationally challenged travellers such as me. I’m the kind of guy who once got so ridiculously lost in a moderately large Canadian mall that when a salesman hawking a radio-controlled helicopter zoomed it over shopper’s heads, I secretly wished it was a tiny search and rescue crew coming for me.

So the free tourist map I pocketed of Banos, Ecuador – a resort town in the Andean highlands not much larger than West Edmonton Mall – became a frequently unfolded, crinkled pal to me and my friend Darren. Darren is the only person I know who is even more navigationally challenged .

Trouble was, while great for Banos proper, our map proved no hikers guide. A thin trickle of dashes supposedly marking a trail climbing high above town for a wheezy view of Volcan Tungurahua proved too sketchy for us. The 5,023-metre Tungurahua (Quichua for “throat of fire”) is reputedly South America’s most active volcano. Just eight kilometres from Banos, it’s tucked behind a high plateau that partially protects the town from eruptions like a shielding forearm.

We wanted to climb that forearm and get a look at the volcano which had been silent for a couple of years. It was baking hot and Banos, at a thin-aired 1,800 metres, made climbing even porch steps an effort. We first ascended what seemed like 10,000 concrete steps to a statue of some virgin or other. We were too sweaty and tired to look. Beyond the statue, a thin trail climbed up into tall grasses and occasional cacti. Then it did the unthinkable. It forked. And there was no fork on our map.

We swung right. After a half hour the trail petered into a slippery dirt vein along a soaring ridge that would have challenged a Cirque-du-Soleil wire-walker. A fall would send us crashing through greenhouse roofs a thousand metres below.

We backtracked, went left this time, and climbed. And climbed. At this point, Darren, ahead of me and out of sight, began to scream and holler unabashedly for help. “Do you see someone?” I yelled. “Noooo!” he screamed back, and let out a pyroclastic flow of panicky expletives. He continued for what seemed like 20 minutes. Then, suddenly: “A cow! I see a #$%@$ cow!”

The cow lead us to a farmer, who gave us vague directions that, four or five knee-aching hours later, got us down the plateau and back to Banos along another steep but more obvious trail.

Next morning as we headed to breakfast there were townspeople everywhere wearing surgical masks and diligently sweeping the streets. “Gee, what a clean little town this is!” I dozily remarked to Darren, marvelling at the industrious citizenry. We walked around cluelessly another half hour, noticing, but not comprehending, a thickening column of dark grey smoke smudging the sky. Then we heard the word: eruption. And then booms that sounded like thunder and canon shots. Earlier I’d thought were just the big firecrackers South Americans love to set off for any and all reasons, any time of day.

We crossed town to a spot where we could spy the volcano. There was Tungurahua belching thick ash high into the sky. It was spectacular and a bit unnerving, especially since, just 12 hours or so earlier, we’d been just across a narrow valley from the volcano’s flank. A local beside us made a remark in Spanish that I took to be “Something woke up the mountain, Senor.” I thought of Darren’s own throat of fire during our hike, and I was pretty sure I knew what set Tungurahua off.

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