If you’re traveling in the Sierra, you are likely to hear legends about the ancient spirits, or apus, of the region. These deities, like the Taita Chimborazo, are named for the high Andean Peaks that run the spine of Ecuador.
Like the ancient Greek and Roman gods, the apus live in dramatic fashion. Each mountain is either a man, usually called Taita which means father, or a woman, usually Mama. And like men and women in real life, these god-like figures wreck havoc when angered or upset.
The apus cause earthquakes, volcanos, landslides, and even bad weather. High Andean peaks surround the people of the Sierra and it seems only logical to them that the mountains and volcanos control not only the earthquakes and eruptions but also the weather and the harvests. The apus explode in anger or cover a mountain in sad fog not only because they are unhappy with the people who live there but because of their unhappiness with each other.
The origins of these ancient legends are lost in time but likely pre-date the Inca invasions of the late 1400’s. Today, people still revere apus and love to share stories about them. The people compare the apus to the angels in Christian religions and have found a way to incorporate their existence so that the ancient culture is respected while Catholicism is practiced.
A favorite legend is that of the battle between Taita Cotopaxi, a currently active volcano with a history of recent eruptions, with Taita Chimborazo, the highest mountain in all Ecuador, for the love of Mama Tungurahua, the most active volcano of them all. The story changes slightly depending on the people telling it.
Near the town of Píllaro, the people believe that Taita Cotopaxi was married to the beautiful Tungurahua but that the marriage was not a happy one. Cotopaxi hid the beautiful Tungurahua and committed bigamy with another mountain, Tionilsa, the smaller of the twin Ilinizas. But rather than stay hidden, Tungurahua decided to have an affair with the stately Cillcay, also known as El Altar, an extinct volcano that last erupted in grand fashion in 1490.
One day Iliniza and Tionilsa went to visit Chimborazo and, when passing, were attacked with fire and ash from the jealous Tungurahua. The attack left Tionilsa damaged for the rest of time. Even today, the smaller peak is rarely covered in snow while her larger twin is home to an icy glacier.
More about Taita Chimborazo
Other versions tell of a Taita Chimborazo who was so in love with Mama Tungurahua that he fought all of her lovers, leaving them diminished in size as they fought back and lost. He proved his strength and finally, Mama Tungurahua agreed to marry Taita Chimborazo.
The two were blessed with a baby, the Guagua Pichincha, the smaller peak of the volcano that towers over the capital city, Quito. Legend says that when the baby cries, the mother always answers and there have been moments when both volcanoes are active at the same time.
But the marriage between Mama Tungurahua and Taita Chimborazo was not always a happy one. Chimborazo slept with women who found themselves on his slopes and proof of his infidelity were the children these women bore nine months after seeing him. These children were always pale, with white gold hair, and bones made of ivory.
The myths and legends of Taita Chimborazo and Mama Tungurahua repeat the adage that women are unable to control their emotions, that men cannot control their temper, and that both are equally able to hurt each other. There does not seem to be a moral to these stories. Rather, these myths exist to explain why these range of mountains on the Ring of Fire are in constant action, even today.
Much of this information I have learned from different guides and friends in the region. I also confirmed the stories using these websites: