Chalupas: A megavolcano sound asleep


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By Tania Orbe | Photos: Jorge Vinueza

Five hours from Quito rises the great elliptical valley of Chalupas, an enormous caldera 16 kilometers in diameter, one of the planet’s seven “megavolcanos”.

As we pass Machachi, before entering the Cotopaxi National Park, we lose contact with the urban world. Without a mobile signal or internet, it’s now the winds, the wild horses and the great imposing snow-peak that crowns the Andes mountain range that accompany us on a rough road, where only the sound to interrupt the silence is the splashing of the puddles we drive through.

Marco Córdova and Edwin Telenchana, geologists of the National Polytechnic School’s Geophysical Institute (IEGPN), guide us into the wilderness. They know every stone we tread, every mountain we pass. “One of the objectives of geology is to discover our past to better understand our present,” says Edwin. “Because the volcanoes were here long before us and will continue to be on Earth long after we are gone.” We stop to collect samples from a volcanic deposit.

Marco studies the Chalupas (which lies in Napo Province) and Edwin the Chiles volcanos (which is in Carchi Province). With a small metal shovel that looks like a gardening toy, he peels a piece of the mountain to get at the soil he will later analyze back at the laboratory.

Could it be a trace of the Chalupas? It could be.

In fact, close to Cotopaxi, right along the Panamericana highway, a deposit from the megavolcano was found… This sample, however, is more recent.

The Chalupas now resembles an enormous valley, encompassing eight haciendas, located 4,000 meters above sea level. Only two of these are dedicated to tourism: Yanahurco and El Tambo. You reach them from the north. Yanahurco is located at the entrance of the caldera, in the middle of the ring of mountains that surround it. But only El Tambo lies smack-in-the-middle of the great Chalupas, at the foot of one of its volcanic children: the Quilindaña (4,919 m), a relatively young volcano, about 14,000 years’ old.

“El Tambo is a sacred place. A place full of energy. We are surrounded by four volcanoes… There are four that hem Cotopaxi: Pasochoa, Sincholagua, Rumiñahui and Quilindaña. This is a ‘satellite dish’ that absorbs up a ton of energy,” says Jorge Pérez, the inn’s administrator. He recounts that the hacienda was built on the ruins of an old Inca tambo (a strategic outpost).

The Chalupas is the ground El Tambo sits on, identified by chance in 1980 during geothermal explorations of the area.

It erupted 211,000 years’ ago when it smothered a staggering 2,000 km2 of the inter-Andean valley with its flows (about the same area as the entire island of Mauritius in the Pacific). It is a supervolcano because it can expel 100 km3 of pyroclastic material, unlike a younger mountain, like Cotopaxi or Chimborazo, which spout only about 10 km3. But Patricia Mothes, head of Vulcanology Deparment of the IGEPN, seems calm enough. A year ago, a monitoring station was set up for the Chalupas and no seismic movement was picked up.

“Maybe in another 200,000 years’ time,” she smiles.

For the time being, Marco is on his seventh and perhaps last field trip to find out more about this megavolcano, a three-generation Behemoth: the great valley of Grandmother Chalupas, with son Mount Quilindaña and grandson, the young dome of Buenavista… a great expanse to explore and feel the magnetism of our planet.

Setting out to explore

  • You can head out in search of the Tambo and Vicioso rivers, which cross the caldera to eventually feed the Napo River to the east.
  • Between the Buenavista hill and Quilindaña volcano there’s a magical 2-hectare Polylepis forest.
  • Fauna you may find amid this important reserve for water include Andean bears, Andean condors, pumas, caracaras, deer, foxes…

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