Every morning before the sun rises, 25-year-old Carlos Sánchez says a prayer in his one-room hut, grabs a pair of binoculars and slowly climbs up into a lonely treehouse that leans precariously over the edge of a mountain.
From his perch high above the misty folds of the Ecuadorian Andes, Sánchez peers across the emerald valley’s patchwork fields towards the towering 5,023m-tall crater of Tungurahua, a wildly active stratovolcano whose name means ‘throat of fire’ in the local Quechua language. He then scans the deep ravines and twisting chasms that shoot dangerously down Tungurahua’s slopes towards his family’s hometown of Baños, until they disappear into the clouds below.
“Right now she’s taking a rest,” Sánchez said, turning away from the crag and carefully bending his bad knee down the steps. “Better feed the chickens before the whole world arrives.”
Tungurahua remains one of the most active volcanoes in the world (Credit: Juan Cevallos/Getty Images)
Known in Baños as ‘the volcano-watcher’, Sánchez is the oldest member of Ecuador’s national Geophysical Institute and the only person in the world who operates a seismic monitoring station from the branches of a tree. For the past 18 years he has lived all alone on this remote bluff, bound by a promise that he made long ago to serve as an unpaid volunteer just 2.5km from a crater that has been periodically spewing fire, smoke and molten lava since 1999.
But in the last few years, something strange has started happening: people from all over the planet are coming to what was once a quiet cow pasture to find Sánchez’s monitoring station – all because he decided to dangle a wooden swing from his treehouse in hopes that his grandchildren would come visit.
They did. Soon, a few strangers began showing up to ask if they could go for a ride, too. Then in 2014, two members of a visiting group of tourists were taking turns on Sánchez’s swing when Tungurahua suddenly erupted. The pair bolted down the mountain, but not before one snapped a photo of the other gazing up at a surging 8,000m-tall ash plume while appearing to swing over an abyss at the edge of the Earth.
The image received international recognition in a and quickly spread around the world. Now, hundreds of people every day are following the trail at the edge of Baños, hiking 2.5 hours up the sharp side of a mountain and pushing each other off a 30m ledge at what has become known as La Casa del Arbol (The Treehouse).
“The swing just started as a simple idea to help bring my family together on the weekends,” Sánchez said, looking out from his chicken coop as the day’s first throng of tourists arrived. “But sometimes things explode unexpectedly.”