The resort town of Baños lies at 1,800m in a deep gorge cutting through the Andes from Ecuador’s central highlands in the west to the Amazon jungle in the east.
As some of you will know, the word baños can often be found written on toilet doors in bars and restaurants across the Spanish speaking world. You may wonder why the town is named after the Spanish word for toilets, until you realise that ‘baños’ is also the word for baths, and the town is actually named after the hot springs that make it a resort town in the first place.
Dotted on street corners throughout Baños are these alarming signs.
You may wonder why that chap is running so quickly from his tent in the direction of the police college. But that’s not a tent he’s running from, but a volcano, and the signs are pointing to the assembly area, where citizens are supposed to gather in the event of a large eruption, in the much the same way as office workers mill around during a fire drill.
Where there are hot springs, there is volcanic activity, and sure enough, rising 3,200m above Baños is Tungurahua, a 5,023m volcano that emerged from its slumber in 1995 and was one of the most active volcanoes in South America for the next twenty years. In the local Quechua language, its name, appropriately, means ‘Throat of Fire’.
The toilet is often considered a place of refuge – the room to head for in the event of an emergency – but in the case of Baños it worked the other way round. The town’s citizens were evacuated in 1995, and have always been ready to do so again should it prove necessary.