(From July 16th)

Last night, I saw an active volcano erupt and I’ve since nominated it Coolest Thing I’ve Ever Seen. I’ve been to 19 countries in the world and seen some pretty cool stuff along the way, so I don’t award that title lightly. Let me explain how I had the privilege to see this.

Through Facebook, A Peace Corps Volunteer connected me with a geologist named Mark that’s been living in Ecuador for 18 years, advising companies on how to do things like extract oil in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner. He also co-purchased (with a local) 1,000 hectares of jungle four hours east of Quito and turned it into a nature reserve named Alto Coca. Him and his partner then built a cabin on top of one of the property’s mountains, with the intention of hosting scientists, tourists, and student groups in order to cover some of the costs of maintaining the reserve. I was fortunate enough to be part of the first ever student group to visit the reserve.

Alto Coca, Ecuador, Reventador

The hike up

I met Mark and an intern at his company, Marco, at Mark’s office in Quito and after brief introductions, Mark asked me how much I’d be willing to carry up to the reserve. I agreed to pack lightly for my two day trip and fill the rest of my pack with supplies. About 60 pounds later, I had a nice full backpack and a rather different opinion about the difficulty of the 3 hour hike up.

We then boarded a rented mini-bus and picked up the students (7 high schoolers from the States, plus two group leaders from a program called Broadreach) from the airport and drove the four hours from Quito to the base of Alto Coca. We did a night in a hostel nearby, got up early the next morning with packs loaded, and began the hike up.

The hike begins in a small valley town that seemed to be inhabited by cattle farmers and mine workers. Thus, the first hour of the hike took us through cattle pastures and farms and was flat, green, and pleasant. We breaked as the trail began to go uphill and Mark asked Marco, a few of the local workers, and I to go up ahead and get the cabin ready for the students. We began the climb.

The hike in and of itself is great. You’re essentially walking a barely beaten path through primary jungle and occasionally, you can see through the trees out over the valley. If you’re lucky, you can spot exotic birds and other creatures. It is also extremely muddy, which means rubber boots are essential.

Alto Coca, Ecuador, Reventador

Marco on the hike up

The 60 pound pack made the hike a little less enjoyable, but luckily, Marco was similarly burdened and we could commiserate and complain together whenever necessary. We also had the local workers to inspire us.

The local workers were part of a man named Carlos’s family. Carlos is a beast. He wore a pack that was probably heavier than mine, without a waist strap, and arrived at the cabin about an hour before we did. His wife also had a heavy pack and she arrived half an hour ahead. The most “inspiring” (read: embarrassing) of all though was Carlos’s son. The kid had to be 10 years old, was carrying a pack, and arrived probably two hours before us. When Marco and I finally reached the cabin on top of the mountain, Carlos was already cutting wood with a chainsaw, his wife was cooking, and his son was chopping something with a machete. Marco and I collapsed and his son gave us the subtlest of looks that basically said, “You two are so pathetic.” I could feel my Man Points disappearing like evaporating water.

Alto Coca, Ecuador, Reventador

The Cabin

The rest of that day, we essentially prepped the cabin for the student’s one week visit (with their help). They were on a three week trip to Ecuador to learn some Spanish, immerse in the culture, and do some volunteer work. The Alto Coca week was the volunteer portion of the trip and the goal was to get this cabin and its surrounding facilities ready for future groups, so that the reserve was prepared for a sustainable source of income, with a limited environmental impact. My goal was just to experience what a tourist or student group would on future trips, and so I gladly joined them in their various duties.

The cabin is two large rooms, with eight bunks in each room, and a large porch, which is perfect for socializing, holding meetings, and relaxing. Late the first day, we strung up four hammocks, which was essentially Game Over for my productivity and also where I chose to sleep both nights.

I can honestly say Alto Coca is one of the best places in the world to wake up. Again, I don’t award that lightly. Mist slides over the surrounding mountains and drops into the valley, distorting the colors of the sunrise to a surreal orange and gray. Both mornings, I woke up to birds chirping and searching for food and all I had to do was open my eyes and prop myself up a little in the hammock to get a front row seat of flying Inka Jays, Blue-Browned Tanagers, and Chestnut-Fronted Macaws. (Don’t worry – I didn’t know what these were either, but apparently birders will travel a long way just to get a glimpse).

Alto Coca, Ecuador, Reventador

The view from the porch

This particular student group alternated their hours between volunteer work, recreation, cultural activities, and environmental education. Piggybacking their schedule, in one day I got dirty with a hoe and shovel, learned to carve a spoon out of wood, went bird-watching in the nearby jungle, and hiked to a waterfall about 30 minutes from the cabin. Late in the afternoon, exotic birds surrounded the cabin, raiding the nearby trees and calling to one another to do whatever it is that birds do in the afternoon. We sat in silent awe as they flew within ten feet of us and we fought over who got to use the binoculars.

Making Wooden Spoons

Then that evening, the volcano Reventador began to erupt.

It started with a blast of smoke and ash that must have shot 200 meters above the crater and the volcano rumbled and boomed. It continued to shoot ash and lava until about midnight, and I watched every minute of it.

Alto Coca, Ecuador, Reventador

Making a spoon

Once it was dark, you could see bright red lava shoot out of the top and then slide down the side. You could even see flaming rocks bouncing down, exploding with each impact into smaller pieces. We again switched off binocular use, although the naked eye was enough to impress and awe.

That said, one of the other tag-along members of the group, a friend of Mark’s named Jeff, had brought a telescopic lens and once we mounted that and focused it on the crater, the whole night changed.

Through the telescope, you could clearly see each eruption – the flaming rocks, the ash, the sliding lava. Several times, I would be looking through the lens, with not much happening on Reventador, when suddenly there would be a firework-like explosion from the crater and a couple seconds later, a shower of flaming red rocks. Those watching without the telescope would Ooo and Ahh – those watching with it would practically poop themselves with excitement when the volcano went off.

Yeah, we actually saw that. Copyright 2013 Jeff Cundith

Yeah, we actually saw that.
Copyright 2013 Jeff Cundith

I eventually settled into the hammock and watched Reventador tire itself out. It was midnight and it had been erupting for about five straight hours.

Alto Coca is definitely worth visiting, even if Reventador doesn’t explode. Between the hikes, the bird-watching, and the extreme tranquility, it’s a great place to volunteer or just to surround yourself with nature and relax for a few days. But if you get to see the volcano erupt, it is literally the experience of a lifetime.

(For more on Alto Coca, check out their Facebook page and blog; for more on Broadreach, visit their website here. And for more sick photos of volcanoes, check out Jeff’s gallery here)