Volcanoes in Ecuador: Taitas y Mamas
Ecuador has, despite being a relatively small country wedged between Colombia and Peru, a total of 48 volcanoes. 15 on the Galapagos Islands and the rest on the mainland.
They can be categorized as ‘extinct’ or ‘sleeping’, which means their last eruption dates back more than 12000 years, before the Holocene Era began.
Every volcano that erupted after that is considered ‘potentially active’.
The status ‘active’ on the other hand suggests an eruption in the last 500 years, after the Incan Empire was conquered by the Spanish in 1532.
And finally, there are the currently erupting volcanoes, like Cotopaxi, Sangay, Reventador or Tungurahua. Their eruption phases sometimes already last for years, with more or less regular outbursts of ashes, gases, stones or lava.
Sangay and Reventador being the ones with stronger and more recent activity.
The Galapagos Islands
This archipelago, with about 20 million years of history being relatively young, lies between 2 tectonic plates in the pacific ocean.
Under the pressure and movement of these plates, the islands rise above the water in the west and, millions of years later, dive down again further east.
All of that under constant volcanic activity, making the western islands the ones with more active volcanoes. The process of course takes millions of years, making the oldest islands in the east, like San Cristobal, roughly 4 millions years old, the younger ones in the west, like Fernandina, around 700,000 years old.
With Sierra Negra on Isabela Island, the Galapagos have one of the largest calderas in the world, with a diameter of roughly 9 kilometers.
The volcanoes on the mainland are mostly within the famous Avenue of the volcanoes, a strip of land that stretches 300 kilometers north to south from Tulcán to Riobamba, the capital Quito being right in the middle. Riobamba itself is surrounded by 5 volcanoes.
Here in the Andes, the highest mountain range outside of Asia, 22 of Ecuador‘s volcanoes are located, including the mighty Chimborazo and the not less impressive Cotopaxi.
The following map gives you a great overview of Ecuador’s major mainland volcanoes:
In Ecuador, volcanoes have gender
The indigenous people of the country refer to the volcanoes either as ‘taita’, meaning father, or as ‘mama’.
In pre-columbian times the people already knew which areas of the country were the most fertile and guaranteed the best harvest.
The mama volcanoes, which produce ash and thereby help fertilize the soil, have rich surroundings for agriculture, whereas taita volcanoes only leave worn-out soil after eruptions not suitable for growing plants.
Mama Tungurahua for example erupted numerous times in the past, which meant the loss of harvest and income for the people. Still, they continued working on the land for its fertile soil.
Taita Cotopaxi on the other hand has left little more than wasteland after eruptions, which makes its surrounding national park strangely beautiful and perfect for adventurous travelers, but almost useless for farmers.
A Volcanic Love Affair
There are many legends and myths about the volcanoes here.
A famous one is about the love between taita Imbabura and mama Cotacachi.
Imbabura was often walking at night, hoping not to be discovered and criticized for not being at home. One night he met Cotacachi and they started walking together.
After a while, they confessed their love to each other and had a son, Yanaurcu, who sits next to his mother. Legend has it that when Cotacachi is snow-capped in the morning, Imbabura visited her during the night.
To this day, the indigenous make offerings to the two, hoping for a rich harvest.
In another story, taita Chimborazo destroyed taita Carihuairazo and taita El Altar, both of which are volcanic calderas, in a fight over the favors of mama Tungurahua.
He then continued his feud with taita Cotopaxi, who was also interested in Tungurahua.
In the end, she gave her heart to Chimborazo, they got married and had a son, Guagua Pichincha.
Cotopaxi fell into deep sadness.
According to the story, he will wake up over time when he feels that his love can be reciprocated again.
Until then, Cotopaxi remains one of the most beautiful volcanoes in all of South America, with a stunning national park surrounding it.