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Latacunga, Ecuador

It is a city that lives in the shadow of a volcano. A city of sharp contrasts. A city that is politically radical and socially conservative. A city that met me at the right time, when I was ripe to fall in love with a place.

When I arrived that first time, more than a decade ago, it was dark and I went straight to sleep. In the morning, I walked to the roof of the hotel and looked north. Cotopaxi, one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes, towered over everything else. The near perfect sphere had a gravity to it that seemed to pull the earth up to accommodate its snow-capped peak.

Cotopaxi is the God of Latacunga. It is what created life, and what will take it away. In Quecha, the indigenous language of the Inca’s that is still widely spoken in Latacunga, Cotopaxi means ‘throat of fire.’ The volcano has blessed the surrounding soil with nutrients and the equatorial glacier at its top, up to 1,000 feet thick, has spurned a series of streams created from ice-melt. Latacunga is divided nearly in half by Rio Cutuchi, the largest of the fresh water streams that flow down the volcano, and the city acts as a trading post for an explosion of colors from the countryside—buckets of orange tree tomatoes, piles of dark green broccoli florets and vibrant red roses.

When the volcano erupts again, it will kill Latacunga. A flash flood of melted ice will mix with gravel and ash to form a tidal wave of wet cement and bury the city. It’s happened three times before and it’s only a matter of time until it will happen again. Each time, Latacunga is rebuilt from it’s own ashes. The current municipal building is the only one in the world constructed entirely from pumice—a material formed by cooling lava. The same water, ash and gravel that periodically washes the city away also makes the cement that many of the houses and businesses are made with. It is a city literally born of its own destruction.

Latacunga is socially conservative to the point that any attempt at establishing a brothel downtown—a legal business in Ecuador—is inevitably met with an angry mob that will burn it to the ground. Vigilante justice is also served if anyone dare steal and unknowing tourists who expose their feet in sandals are met with scorn. Yet, it’s citizens also laid siege to the construction of a prison and demand universal education (they won) and the city is the powerbase of Marxist politics in Ecuador. It is a city that struggles with racism, sexism and homophobia but considers the greatest honor, reserved for one male each year, to dress as a black woman (who is purported to have prayed to the Virgin during the last eruption and was saved when lava flowed around her).

It is a place I never tire of learning about and with.

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