En español | The “Throat of Fire” was on Luis Alfonso Proaño’s mind when he built his hospital, and on Alfonso Guevara’s mind when he built his cave.
The two Ecuadorians have little in common. Proaño, 52, practiced medicine in Oklahoma until 1997, when he returned home to Ecuador, a South American country in the midst of the breathtaking Andes. Guevara, 60, is a farmer who never left.
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What these two men do have in common is their precarious location: they live in the shadow of Tungurahua—"Throat of Fire" in the local Quechua language—a mighty volcano and, at 16,575 feet, one of Ecuador’s 10 highest peaks. Proaño and Guevara, like the other residents, constantly fear the volcano’s eruption and the loss of their livelihoods, if not their lives. But they also benefit from the alluring beauty of the wild landscapes and rich volcanic soil, some of the most fertile in the world. And though the mountain’s puffing and rumbling scare off some visitors, the volcano also boosts tourism, creating jobs and improving the local economy.
Tungurahua is part of what the 19th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt named the “Avenue of the Volcanoes,” an area south of the capital, Quito, that includes nine of Ecuador’s 10 highest peaks. Between each mountain lies a valley at about 7,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation. Different ethnic groups as far back as pre-Inca times have farmed the densely populated valleys. Today, thousands of Ecuadorian and foreign tourists each year visit the region to hike or explore the Avenue of the Volcanoes from a safe distance.
That distance is critical for Tungurahua, which has erupted, off and on, for millennia, spewing fire and sending rocks flying miles away from its 600-foot-wide crater. “We [have] had to learn to live with ‘Mama Tungurahua,’ ” says Proaño, who had concerns about eruptions before he built his dream—a small hospital in his hometown of Baños, a nearby tourist town. Still, he’s happy to be back. “Life in the United States was turning into too much work,” he says. He’s busy now, too, blending traditional and alternative medicine, but feels he has a more balanced life, with more time for family and friends and for his favorite pastime: soaking at sunrise in La Piscina de la Virgen, a local pool fed by scalding-hot waters from Tungurahua. Despite its periodic eruptions, the dangerous volcano doesn’t frighten him off. “I trust only in God,” he says. And if necessary, he jokes, in the concrete roof over his head.
Guevara, on the other hand, trusts in a cave he dug out of his land in Runtún, a village six miles from Tungurahua. In this earthen hole, he and his family will seek refuge from the destructive force of the unruly volcano if it erupts again. Guevara, a corn and dairy farmer, has big, calloused hands and loves hummingbirds, for which he grows colorful, fragrant flowers. Like Proaño, he stands resolute in the face of the steaming “Black Giant.” “I am prepared,” he says.