Baños is some way off our route south- the main road back to the PanAm would involve a long climb back the way we came, almost all the way back to Ambato. ..unless we took the back road to Riobamba, via Penipe.

The road isn’t even marked on Google Maps (neither is Penipe- a town of several thousand souls)- and Simon’s map noted that the road had been partly swept away during an eruption a few years ago .. it looked to be still passable, however, as a day or two before we left Baños, we found the local police preventing all but locals from driving that way. The road was clearly marked on my GPS map (OSM), so it seemed likely to have been repaired.

Tungurahua was quiet when we arrived in Baños- but it began erupting on the second morning we were there. Despite there being an ash column many kilometres high, none of this was visible to us as a result of dense cloud cover. We even joined a volcano watching expedition up to a viewpoint above the town, but couldn’t see anything of the volcano.

By the time we left Baños, much of the activity on the volcano had apparently calmed down- there was still some seismic activity, but not much of concern. There had been some evacuations, but not on our intended route. The police we found at the Penipe turnoff were blasé; they told us to be careful, but didn’t think there was cause for concern.

The road was made intermittent tarmac and compressed ash- it was obvious which parts if the road had suffered in the past. After we’d climbed well over 200 metres above the Baños road, we found a sign explaining that Penipe wasn’t reachable this way, but pressed on anyway- if the way was blocked, it might be interesting to see.

Not much further on, we found the weak link in the road- a huge ash flow (which at that moment only had a trickle of water) which in spite of recent work would be difficult to cross with a vehicle. A car sized lump of mud and ash slid off the cliff and hit the road in front, emphasising the clearly unstable landscape. We were briefly interviewed by a crew from TC Television who happened to be there- we may well have appeared on Ecuador’s channel 10 news..

As we were portaging our bags and bikes across the stream, the volcano gave a mighty rumble- I think the sound was far above, but at that moment it sounded as if the whole hillside was about to come down on us- abandoning everything, we both hared up the road for fifty metres or so- much to the amusement, I think, of the telly crew who were still filming.

Throughout the afternoon the road alternated between soft muddy ash and short segments of tarmac. Frequently we had to cross small streams that under different circumstances might have been big torrents of mud, or worse.The first real clue that all might not have been as it seemed was in the scree slopes on the other side of the river- whether caused by volcano-related earth tremors or wet weather, there were a large number of boulders (20 or 30 a minute) tumbling down the steep slopes with impressive speed and violence. At one point we had that on one side, and the volcano rumbling loudly on the other- we became acutely aware of the narrowness of the valley. We didn’t linger.

The caldera was several kilometres away and more than two thousand metres above .. but the sound was impressive – visceral and loud. The volcano is not uniformly cone shaped, however. While there were many places with evidence of considerable destruction both recent and old, there were many parts of the road downhill from reasonably aged trees and mature vegetation that normally escape that which flows down the mountain. While there were definitely moments when we may have been vulnerable, this was also not the case much of the time.

Some kilometres further on, we did encounter another police pickup- evidently they had heard from one of the (very few) other cars that had passed that we were there, and had come to look for us. They asked us three times whether there were more cyclists with us, and weren’t overjoyed we were there at all. Evidently the weather was causing instability in the slopes that was dangerous (which we certainly witnessed first hand) ..Later it became clear that since I’d checked the Ecuadoran Geophysical Institute’s website and that morning, the level of activity had increased significantly. The road we were on was untouched, but there had been pyroclastic flows elsewhere. Seemingly the police we met initially didn’t know that- the tv people weren’t overly concerned, and neither was a guy we met calmy repairing the access road to his property. I wonder if we’d all have been less calm if the ash column above the caldera had been visible. While there were many cultivated fields on the west side if the mountain, there were not many inhabitants at all, and a fair number of abandoned houses.

Darkness fell as we approached the town of Penipe- the day’s persistent smirr of rain had abated, and our headlights now picked out the tiny flakes of ash falling softly and persistently from the sky.

Tomorrow we head for Riobamba and the main road south.

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