Written by: Bernarda Carranza
Pictures: Paula Holguín, Juan Sebastián Rodríguez
Carlos Sánchez Carrasco is a short man, but he stands firm, like someone who has nothing to be ashamed of. When he speaks, his voice resonates through the monitoring station he built himself and he grows in stature… he gains at least 50 centimeters as he fills his lungs. He’s told the story many times. He knows it off by heart. But his tone reveals that he may want to continue retelling it (with the same passion) a thousand times over. “My commitment is to Baños,” he intones without hesitation. An military veteran and a former firefighter, at 76, Carlos’ will is still iron-strong.
In September 1999, Tungurahua began its most recent eruptive process. By October, the city of Baños and its 18,000 inhabitants had been forced to evacuate. Carlos, who decades ago fought on the Ecuadorian border against Perú, was not about to sit back and watch from a distance. On the 1st November, he returned to his city with an idea. “I decided to set up an early warning system,” he recalls. “It didn’t matter what might happen to me. I was the one on the mountain-side, below was an entire population.”
He settled on his family’s property, now known as La Casa del Árbol (the Tree House), located 30 minutes from the city (via the Luna Runtún hotel). The site is perfectly situated for observing the western flank of Mount Tungurahua and Baños, seemingly defenseless, at its feet.
He took his role so seriously that he spent weeks with little food scribbling down the volcano’s daily activity, without sending news to his family of his whereabouts (his wife suspected the worst). “It’s true, I was with another woman… just as she thought,” he says suddenly, looking to see how we react. “With Mama Tungurahua, of course…!” he explains, laughing raucously.
On July 14, 2006, Tungurahua produced the largest eruption for 88 years. Carlos, who was already reporting his monitoring to the Geophysical Institute in Quito, was the first to realize what was about to happen.
“I informed Miss Patricia Mothes
that there was pyroclastic material flowing down the Bascún River… I also told her that I felt short of breath,” he recalls. Mothes told him to run for his life, but he remained firm at his post.
The swing at the end of the world
Carlos and his family never imagined that the homemade swing he built with two ropes and a board in 2006 would become famous. Nor that the photograph a Slovenian tourist would take in 2014 swinging from it with Mount Tungurahua in full eruptive process in the background would win a National Geographic photo prize. Today, if you didn’t get your snap on that swing, you may as well not have visited Baños.
For Carlos, the construction of his tree house was nothing more than “military intelligence work”. He replicated a larger version used for military observation and decided it would work as his base for monitoring the volcano. The swing that he tied to a branch was just a bit of fun. Facebook took care of the rest, with a meme “The Swing at the End of the World” that went viral.
Apart from showing Tungurahua belching smoke in the background, the cliff and abyss below feels truly dramatic. It’s certainly not your everyday swing.
Because of the number of travelers who came to visit it (there is a daily bus up from Baños), the Ministry of Tourism decided to improve the swing’s safety. A team from the GOE (the local SWAT operation) tested it and replaced the ropes with more resistant versions, and implemented an additional rope. “There are helmets,” explains Carlos’s son, Carlos Vinicio, “but nobody wants to use them; they prefer the photo looking like you’re swinging over an abyss without any protection.”
Today, the property also offers a zip-line, two smaller swings for the less brave, a modest restaurant, and personnel to help you swing as high as possible to get the most dramatic shot. Yet Carlos is not distracted from his original task.
His collection of volcanic ash from every eruption since 1999; the logs of the volcano’s activity he’s filled diligently every day for the past 19 years; the photographs and graphics of Tungurahua, are all truly astounding. Despite the threat and the eruptions, Baños is still standing… albeit with a few scratches and scrapes. The miracle is attributed to the Virgin of Holy Water, patron saint of the town. But Baños has another guardian angel, who watches over it from his tree house.