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What It's Like Living Near Cotopaxi, Ecuador's Very Active Volcano

How people are preparing for potential destruction at the base of Cotopaxi, Ecuador's largest volcano.

by Melissa Kitson
Sep 9 2015, 6:00pm

All photos by the author

The trouble with Cotopaxi, Ecuador's largest volcano, is that no one knows when it's going to blow.

"It isn't going to explode little by little," says Mauricio Andrade, a café owner in Latunga, a town near the base of Cotopaxi. Roughly 16 miles from the volcano itself, Latacunga has benefitted from Cotopaxi's renown in the form of tourism but now stands directly in its line of fire. "There will be a boom, and everything that's in its path—water, rocks, trees—will be brought down in gushing streams of lava. In 30 minutes it could take out half of the city. But we don't know when it will happen."

El Gringo y La Gorda, Mauricio's café, serves a cocktail called Cotopaxi, as well as one dubbed Fin del Mundo, or "End of the World." He was in Latacunga on August 14 when Cotopaxi woke up after 70 years of relative calm, issuing ash and smoke from its mouth. That day, the Ecuadorian government raised the volcanic activity alert level. The next day, Latacunga's airport was closed. Two days later, President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency.

"The city just went crazy," Mauricio says. "We kicked opened our doors and we took what we could and we just ran. We were not prepared with masks or first aid kits. It was mayhem."

The town of 70,000 is now on volcano watch. According to a statement from the office of Minister of Security Cesár Navas, an eruption of Cotopaxi would affect around 300,000 people.

Cotopaxi is the third largest volcano in the world. Its crater is roughly 2,600 by 1,600 feet wide. It is 20,000 feet above sea level. And it's covered in snow.

Here's the other problem: Latacunga is intersected by three rivers—San Pedro, Cutuchi, and Illuchi. In an eruption, simulations done by the Geopolitical Institute of Ecuador predict these rivers will overflow with lahars—a mix of melted ice, lava, and whatever other debris get picked up along the way. The banks would burst and potentially wipe out anyone living by the river between Latacunga and Quito, about 30 miles away. In other words, the top of the volcano is a ticking time bomb.

To many all this means one thing: run.

"A fifth of the community has left," claims Mauricio. "Some forever, some temporarily. The little tourism we had is gone because most people come to see or climb Cotopaxi and the national park is closed. And now because people don't know what's going to happen, they're holding on to their money to wait and see what happens. They're scared."

Hotel owner Enrique Naranjo says he has lost 80 bookings in the past month. His friend's Mexican restaurant Guadalajara has closed down, he claims. Valuable artifacts have been removed from the local museum. And even the town's famous Mama Negra festival has been cancelled—which is ironic when you consider why it's held.

Mama Negra celebrates the town's salvation from the 1742 eruption of Cotopaxi. According to folklore, when Cotopaxi exploded people from the church decided not to evacuate but instead carry a statue of the Virgin of Mercy in procession in the streets and pray for mercy. This, so the story goes, calmed the volcano's fury. And now, every year there's a big party to celebrate.

But when you're on Volcano Watch, nothing else matters but Cotopaxi—not even the virgin who saved it.

Police sergeant Carlos Culinya of the nearby town Cumbayá is manning a stall at the town's Feria de Seguridad, which roughly translates to "Security Festival" in English. The event's vibe is odd, somewhere between a fair and a day of public safety demonstrations. Reggaeton blasts from stereos; there are fire engines and giant blow-up policemen. Kids are learning how to ride Segways. Others pretend to get rescued. But beneath the upbeat mood of the kids, there is a feeling of deep anxiety among parents.

Since the explosion, there have been 14 practice evacuations across danger zones to the volcano's north, east, and west. Culinya explains, "We are training people to know where the information centers and the secure areas are. We are teaching people house by house, suburb by suburb, all along the river. Because we don't know when, what, or if something will happen."

"We came to see what's going to happen with the volcano, to see what areas will be affected and what areas will be safe," says Elena Perez, a local mother of two. "We are trying to see what areas are in the danger zones so we can make a plan. For example, if the kids are in school where should they wait for us? Where we should pick them up? Where will our family meet? If we can make it, I mean."

One child asks a security official, "Will the gas stations explode?" The response: probably.

As part of the effort to prepare the public for the worst, volunteers hand out Emergency Plan brochures. The front page has a picture of an angry exploding volcano with a house sliding down it. A man, a little girl holding a teddy bear, and a cow look on. In big bold letters it reads, "Volcanos were here before us. Respect their space and you won't get hurt by an eruption."

It's a child-friendly interpretation of the Cotopaxi situation. But it's hard for locals to be cheery when there are news updates of increased volcanic activity, or when posters tell you how to dispose of ash (not in front of the gutter) and others explain how to care for a passed-out dog (gently lift them with a towel).

And adding to all the anxiety are the rumors. An audio message was leaked claiming the government was hiding the seriousness of the situation. The message was dismissed by the government (their response is here) but controlling hysteria continues to be a challenge.

As with any emergency, there are those who don't take it seriously. Someone has created a Volcán Cotopaxi Twitter account, posting "Roooaaar!"

"Social media has been a problem," admits Juan Zapata, Security Chief of the Quito metropolitan zone. "Someone makes a comment and all of a sudden everyone is panicking. We didn't have that problem back in 1742."

But for most, especially those in Latacunga, there is a tangible fear that their town is on the brink of destruction.

"We're trying to be positive, to put on a good face for the few people who come but we're nervous, obviously," says Mauricio. "Almost every day we've had ash and smoke. Every day it's more constant."

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He looks down at his rubber bracelet, decorated with the words, "I love Latacunga." Despite the steady fall of ash, miles-long columns of smoke, and thick smell of sulphur, he is determined not to leave the town, whatever the risk. But he is forgiving of those who do.

"We can't judge the people who leave because they had to leave. They wake up in the middle of the night, afraid they'll be swept away by lava," he says.

For now, the town and other areas in the danger zones remain under alert. There will be more practice evacuation, more brochures, more updates, but ultimately no more answers.

As Mauricio says, "We're left with huge questions: When is it going to happen? How big will it be? Will we survive? After it happens how much damage there be? We just don't know."

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