Once I'd finished finding my way north-west out of Catania today, I continued straight up north, into the eastern foothills of the ever-looming Mt. Etna, which watches over the city of Catania and over much of the Sicilian east coast, from its lofty peak of 3,326m asl. While this morning's riding was flat and easy, the afternoon ride through the towns east of Etna was uphill virtually all the way. Nevertheless, the ascent was reasonably gradual, and it was worth it for the rewarding and diverse scenic views. The steepest uphill was actually at the edge of Catania itself; once I was past the town of Sant' Agata li Battiati, I was basically through the worst of it, and also through the extent of Greater Catania. While the immediate landscape did change throughout the afternoon — the populous mountain towns eventually gave way to farmlands, and eventually to forest — the presence of Etna to the west was constant, and the view of it just kept getting better and better.
I quickly ate breakfast and packed up this morning — in my field near Pedagaggi that I camped in last night — then managed to sneak out of the farm unobserved (despite the occupants of the farm going along their driveway again, just before I left). As I continued riding north, downhill out of the Monti Iblei, I was greeted with a bitter morning cold (explained by the fact that I was on the road at 8am), but also by lovely, rolling farmland scenery. The other amazing scenery that greeted me, was that which I first saw yesterday afternoon: the Plain of Catania stretching away below me, and colossal Mt. Etna looming on the horizon. I'm going to be seeing Etna all day today; but regardless, I highly doubt that I'll get sick of the view. Put simply, it's a bloody big, bloody nice mountain.
Once I'd returned to Ferla this afternoon — from my visit to Pantálica — I took the road north out of the "valley of Pantálica" area, and up onto the ridge that comprises the north edge of the Monti Iblei. I'd originally planned to head west to the village of Buccheri this afternoon, and to spend the evening near or beyond there; but upon reaching the north ridge, I decided that it was getting too late in the day (about 4:15pm), and that Buccheri was too much extra ascent (the town is marked on my map as being several hundred metres higher than Ferla). So instead I turned east, and headed along the ridge road towards Sortino. Along the way, I turned my gaze north: and boy, was I greeted with a vista and a half! Spread out below me was the broad, flat expanse of the Plain of Catania; and beyond it, rising up out of the horizon like a stone monster, I had my first sweeping view of Mt. Etna — the highest mountain in Sicily, and the tallest active volcano in all of Europe.
It seems that everyone else around here is doing it, so I thought I might as well give it a shot too. Today I set off with a little group — two English girls, Helen and Amy, and our guide Victor (from Sierra Nevada, the same tour company that I went cycling with yesterday) — to go and climb Volcán Villarrica, the enormous snow-covered volcano that looms over Pucón. At a mere 2,847m asl — and with such a good path, and such good snow-cover, that we didn't even need to use crampons — today's climb was really a walk in the park for me, compared to last week's Cotopaxi climb. Especially since we had a much more fun way of getting down than plain old walking.
At 1am this morning, Tony and myself — led by our trusty guide César — began our climb up Volcán Cotopaxi. Very quick "breakfast" (well, you gotta call a 12:30am wake-up meal something), and then we were on our way. We did our very best: but sadly, fate did not intend for us to reach the summit today. Close — oh, so tantalisingly close! — but no cigar. Ah well — as we say on Earth: c'est la vie.
After visiting Mitad del Mundo this morning, I continued down the road, to the nearby volcano crater of Pululahua. This is a giant volcano, that's been inactive (although it's not extinct!) for several thousand years, and that has a massive crater floor which is filled with populated farmlands. Great lookout at the top of the crater, and it's great to walk down to the bottom, and to hike around through the countryside on the crater floor. Just a quick little day hike (I spent about 3 or 4 hours doing it — up to you how long you want to spend at the bottom), but fun and very scenic.
This evening, Patrick and I went on the popular night tour up to Tungurahua, the volcano that looms over Baños. Tungurahua was erupting last week, and we heard first-hand reports from people who'd seen lava coming out of it. Very cool! Although a bit crazy, since a large eruption is fully capable of destroying the entire town of Baños. Sadly, we didn't see any eruption tonight: but we still got a great birds-eye view of the town, lit up at night; and we had fun drinking a very strong distilled sugar-cane spirit, and watching some top-class fire-juggling up on the mountain. And a fun ride on the roof of the tourist truck, too.
The second day of our salt flats tour, began very early this morning, with a wake-up at the Hotel de Sal at 5am, and a freezing-cold start to the day's 4x4 driving, at 6am. We drove for about two hours, hoping that our feet wouldn't completely freeze in our boots before the sun rose (which it did, thank G-d, during the drive); and then the first sight of the day was the famous Ollagüe volcano. Although you can't see that much of the volcano — since it sits on the Bolivia-Chile border, and since most of it is on the Chilean side — you can still see the smoke rising out of its active cone, from which lava apparently spews quite regularly.