I left Baños on Sunday, bound for Guaranda, a small colonial town overlooking Volcan Chimborazo. Guaranda was quaint and beautiful, but more than that, the journey there was worth the overpriced hotel room and drizzling rain and head cold. The road from Baños to Guaranda cuts through tufts of paramo grass and vast hills that rise to soft peaks like fresh whipped meringue and plunge fantastically into sharp crevices. The colors take on a certain Van Gogh treatment—post-impressionistic splashes of electric lime, patches of gold and nutmeg and all the possible hues of green, dotted here and there with the grazing forms of cows and vicuña. It is spectacular.
Monday morning I caught an early truck to the small Andean village of Salinas, where I had planned to stay the night—were it not for the heavy rains and the desolate sort of feeling I encountered as soon as I arrived. Salinas is tiny—population 1,000 tiny. There’s one road in, and while staggeringly beautiful, it’s also staggeringly high, at 3550m above elevation. The view alone was worth the trip, but aside from all that, I found no desire to stay. I knew there wouldn’t be much to do in Salinas before I set out, and I had resigned myself to writing and working—but as I attempted to settle in, I realized I was far more comfortable being alone in a big city than being alone in a cold, wet mountain village. The fog set in thick and low, and I felt increasingly like I had just been dropped into Wuthering Heights, moors and all. I spent some time hiking around the paths through the hills, drinking the local coffee, and doing some meandering, but after a few hours I decided to catch a ride back to Guaranda. From there, I continued onward to Ambato, and then immediately to Riobamba.
Tomorrow: Cuenca, Ingapirca, and other wonderments.
I spent the better part of Satruday once again outfitted in a wetsuit and harness, scrambling around a Baños waterfall, propelling backwards from a rope down the rocks. At one point, I was dangling from a thirty foot drop, easing slowly down behind the spraying water.
It’s always the most remarkable things you do that you don’t get pictures of.
Men here call to single women walking like children who have just spotted their second favorite flavor ice cream, with a sort of pleasure and assurance that even if they are ignored and don’t get what they want, it’s no big surprise and no big deal.
I sometimes glance at these ridiculous peacocks with their caws from across the pavement. I sometimes say hello back. But mostly, I walk nonchalantly, willing the cacophony of solicitations down to a dull timbre, blending in with children’s squeals and peddling from vendors and screeching tire wheels and sizzling corn on sidewalk griddles. It all falls away.
The loudest thing I can hear is the sound of my own footsteps, thin rubber against brick and dirt and pebbles.
I had to ask someone if I was looking at real stars on the terrace of my hostel, as I breathed in oxygen and grass and water and realness. They looked like little sparkling diamonds tucked away in folds of purple-blue-smoke velvet, and I’ve so often been fooled by lights or planes that look like stars that I thought I had better ask someone, just in case.
Every town in South America has a thing. Pelileo, south of Quito, is Ecuador’s “jean capital”, where apparently all jeans cost $10 and the locals will sew on whatever high-end label you like. Cotacachi is Ecuador’s leather town, where if you can dream it, you can make it into leather. I’m in Baños, a small mountainside town famous for its heated thermal baths—obvs.
Baños is fantastic. A little touristy—well, a lot touristy, but not in a terribly obnoxious way—and alarmingly beautiful, it’s popular with Ecuadorian travelers as well as international adventurers. And with good reason: the scenery here is like candy. Great, rolling, bright green hills that stretch and wind like homespun taffy, flowers and plants that burst with flavor like orange creamsicle and raspberry razz, waterfalls that reign down like a spilled bag of pop rocks, steam that reaches lazily up from the forest like misty cotton candy. It’s ludicrously stunning.
The town seems to realize its own sweet value—there’s an abundance of reasonably priced activities to choose from: river rafting, bike rides, canyoning, hiking, jungle excursions, zip lining…. That’s half the possibilities, maybe. I’ve been here four three days, and so far I have managed to pack in this 18km bike ride down to El Pailón del Diablo, a quick zip lining venture, and an exciting river rafting excursion.
The bike ride from Baños to El Pailón del Diablo is mostly downhill, so don’t go getting too impressed with that whole 18km bit (though I was marginally impressed with myself for staying on the bike for the entirety of the ride). The view is, of course, spectacular—tons of waterfalls along the way, deep crevices and drop-offs looking down into even more lush greenery, various opportunities to be a daredevil about it all. For example, zip lining. Zip lining is where there is a long cable attached to two points, generally at one end of an incline, where one or two people are harnessed to the cable and fly from one end of it to the other. I was all high on oxygen or something, and the trip was only $10 across, and it was my birthday the day before, so I decided to test the limits of my stomach and give it a go. One of my traveler friends took a video of me refusing to let go of the bars before take-off, and I promise to post the evidence of this slightly humiliating but also incredible experience once I obtain it. I will say that once I was speeding over the valley below, all terror was lost—I only wish I could have gone slower, taken it all in.
El Pailón del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron) is named so because it is a massive, bubbling waterfall. Once there, we—me and my fabulous new crew of travel pals—locked up our rented mountain bikes and sauntered down a skinny path, scampered up through some slippery rocks and sucked in our stomachs to pass behind the waterfall. Looking down into the breakage, you can imagine all sorts of things.
Then there was river rafting along the Pastaza River. A half-day trip will land you in a big floating thing with a guide and six others. Pastaza River, on the half day trip, is more or less pretty tame—though not without its dangers, as the waters can start swirling angrily and quite suddenly, and there are patches of rocky beach along the way. My two girlfriends and I shared a raft with four Argentinian frat boys (Argentinians and Chileans are on “summer hiatus” at the moment, and an inordinate amount of them are vacationing in Baños—not that I particularly mind all that much) and a ridiculously impetuous guide (Eduardo, who seemed hardly able to contain himself as he jumped up and down on the end, barking commands playfully every few moments). We wore wetsuits—a sight in itself, let me tell you—and got a brief training session (in Spanish) on how to handle falling out of the raft. None of that came in handy when, fifteen minutes out on the water, our group hit a particularly strong current and all but the guide and one skinny Argentinian were thrown into the water. I flailed about, trapped under the boat for what seemed like an eternity but what was probably only about 30 seconds, entirely certain I was going to die, until I resurfaced and the skinny Argentinian, bless him, hoisted me back into the raft, while Eduardo screamed at us to row as we grabbed our lost comrades.
I took the day off from adventures today (though canyoning—propelling down a waterfall—is an absolute must before I leave this town) and started Spanish classes instead. I need a week to brush up on the language before continuing to more remote parts of the country, where I will have to navigate on my own (my lovely traveling pals have continued on, following different routes than the one I am kind of thinking on).
And there is so much more. Pictures tomorrow, plus a full report on food so far.
1. I did not bring enough shoes
2. My Spanish is adequate, but kind of sucks
3. I did not bring enough spandex
4. Argentinian boys are beautiful, and they’re all vacationing in Ecuador
5. The Ecuadorean president is making roads here better than the US
6. I brought too many t-shirts and not enough sweaters
7. Key phrase: “no me jodas” = “don’t fuck with me”
8. Everything here is on time, or pretends to be for the most part
9. A liter of beer costs $1 (glorious)
10. River rafting is no joke
I arrived in this city approximately 24 hours ago. Since then, I have discovered that my skin is not as receptive to sun as I thought it was and that I have packed all the wrong clothes and nowhere near enough shoes. But I am a world traveller, and I will get past that. (Surely somewhere there’s a shopping center. What?)
Quito is stunning. It’s an expansive city nettled away against a backdrop of mountains so green and lush you’d think somebody painted them there. The Old Town is a charming colonial era spread, cobblestone streets and gates and narrow alleys, just a hint of Europe. I met two American girls this morning about my age at the hostel, and we spent the day walking around the city. I’m throroughly sunburnt… The weather here is absolutely perfect, a nice light breeze and about 65ish, so sunscreen seemed unnecessary until I remembered that Quito is literally nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. I’ve never been closer to the sun. And now I look like a piece of strawberry laffy taffy.
The American girls are named Tallie and Eliza. Tallie works on a goat farm in New York, and Eliza is about to move to Boston. They are cool. We spent the day talking about yoga and where we’ve all traveled and pretending we could speak better Spanish than we really could. Tomorrow, I’m traveling on with them to a famous city called Banos, renowned for its hot springs. I envision a lot of sipping piña coladas whilst exfoliating in the nude. I’ll let you know how that pans out exactly.
I will say that after talking up Minneapolis to two strangers who have never given it a second thought, I have a strange sort of love for it now, a fondness that i didn’t realize i possessed before. Maybe because my last few days there were spent with some of my favorite people, and maybe because we haven’t had a winter so I’ve had relatively little to complain about, but really, I’m awful proud of our little slice of the Midwest.
Also, my Spanish—though laughably inadequate—is better than I thought it was. I’m actually getting by. Mostly by pretending I understand everything people are saying to me, but I figure since I do that in the states, it’s no big thing.
I’ll get better at making these blog posts wittier, I promise.