We woke up Friday morning with our bags packed, went to our clinical rotations, grabbed a quick lunch, and then headed to the bus station–destined for Baños, a southern mountain town close to the rain forest. A winding three-hours later, we arrived just before sundown. Stepping off the bus I was immediately struck by the sweet freshness of the rural mountain air, and even though the city is at a higher elevation than Denver Colorado, the descent from 9,000 foot Quito meant that each breath felt twice as rewarding. Relishing in the fresh air we left the bus station on foot—in the wrong direction, of course—and eventually landed in our cozy Hostal Erupción. We dropped off our bags, took a quick shower, and set off in search of dinner.
Though we did meet the occasional American, Baños turned out to be mostly filled with Ecuadorian tourists seeking a respite from the bustle of Quito. This was rather unique to me, as most of my forays from Santiago last year landed me in packs of gringo extranjeros (American foreigners) unceremoniously carted around by local tour guides. And although these experiences were always quite enjoyable, it was rather refreshing to instead rub shoulders with tourists haling from elsewhere in Ecuador.
Even as the sun set, the streets of Baños bustled with activity; nameless restaurants simply advertising “Dinner: $2.00” nestled among tiny tiendas selling alpaca-knit clothing, carved wooden knick-knacks, fútbol jerseys, and fake Nikes. Men hollered from the doors of tour agencies, eager to fill the last vacancies for the morning’s adventures while street vendors offered roasted cuy (guinea pig!). Colorful candy shops offered sugarcane strips and hand-made sugarcane taffey to all passers-by, while stray dogs with crooked tails meandered around the cars bustling down the city’s tiny one-way streets. And everywhere televisions were on, showing the pre-game for that night’s Ecuador vs. Peru World Cup qualifier match. With the two countries’ recent history of military conflict (as late as 1995), the match carried with it an added emotional anticipation–the small city was virtually buzzing with excitement. We found dinner in a tiny out-of-the-way café, and then headed back towards our hostel to find somewhere to watch the game.
Though the game didn’t turn out to be terribly exciting (1-0, Peru—though that one goal was an incredible one), it was an electric atmosphere in the bar where we watched the game, and although their team lost, the patrons shared a certain national pride that couldn’t be blemished by a tough loss. Although as the only non-Ecuadorians in the room, we were obviously out of place, the rest of the bar was cordial enough, thumbs-upping the Selección Nacional jerseys we’d bought on the way home from dinner, and (although we were definitely relegated to the fringes of the excitement) making sure we had a good view of the TV. After the game, we left for bed in preparation for an early morning of activities.
We awoke at 7 to rain and a rather nasty bout of food poisoning that incapacitated two of our four group members and left me feeling rather queasy. Ditching our original plans for a mountainous mountain-bike ride, my friend Sharleen and I left the sicker ones at the hostel and went to meet with another group of friends for white-water rafting. The rafting took us through the misty middle earth-like countryside, and aside from the numbness that set in after 30 minutes, and the rafting guide with the penchant for pushing people overboard, we quite enjoyed the experience. We returned at 1 PM, exhilarated, if a bit blue in the knuckles, and changed into warm clothes for the second activity on the docket.
We had coordinated with the rest of our larger group from Quito to rent a Chivas bus for the afternoon. Chivas busses, essentially freight trucks whose trailer platform has been retrofitted with benches, speakers, and dance lights, are popular in Ecuador as vehicles for sight-seeing without the boring in-between parts (not that there are many of those, when you’re winding around a valley with incredible sheer mountain faces rearing up on each side). Though we knew it was coming, the first stop of the Chivas bus hit us way to quickly. A 300-foot bridge set up for bungee jumping, we all nervously agreed to give it a shot, but then faltered when staring that beast in the face. After watching the guy in line in front of us survive, we decided we couldn’t back out, and one-by-one we stepped up to the edge. On the edge, staring down past my toes at over 300 feet of nothingness, I felt a mix of exhilaration and terror… but before I even knew what had happened I was at the end of the jump, swinging back and forth below the bridge.
In that moment, swinging 150 feet above the water, I felt the most incredible combination of relief (at having managed to jump, or at having survived, I’m still not sure), awe at the rugged gray beauty of the canyon into which I was dangling, and pain at the harness digging not-so-gently into my butt. The memory of that moment will not be one to fade any time soon.
That day was just about over, with 12 of us having jumped, and so we missed out on most of the rest of our mountain tour, but everyone was too exhilarated to care. We returned to town for dinner and then went out for a couple of hours of (watching Ecuadorians be really good at) salsa dancing before bed.
We rose early again on Sunday to head back into the mountains for what we had planned to be our final adventure—rappelling down a series of waterfalls. And although the experience was incredible, high water levels due to recent rainfall prevented us from doing the final 150-foot falls, and so we left an hour early, a bit bummed out. Without anything else planned, the majority of our group left back for Quito, but four of us stayed behind in a last-ditch effort to try to catch the last few vistas that we had missed on Saturday night. We found an ATV rental shop, and the four of us rented two road-legal buggies to go explore.
We took off out the city and motored along the winding mountain roads—stopping about every mile to have our minds blown, again and again, by the incredible scenery. We drove about 10 miles down into the mountains, stopping at miradores to look out over the river, ziplines to cross back and forth across the river, and cable cars to go hover over the spray of the falls. At a certain point, it felt as if my mind was oversaturated by the magnificence that is was constantly trying to process, and when my copilot and friends echoed that sentiment, we turned back, climbing back up into Baños to return our buggies, pick up our bags from the hostel, and head to the bus station for the return trip to Quito.
It was an incredible ending to an incredible weekend, and although it feels like I’ve been in Ecuador for a month already, and that I need a week off to recover from all of the excitement… the new week—my last week in Quito with this group of new friends–has already started, and so the pedal will stay to the metal, activities-wise. I can’t wait.
Thanks for reading!
If you’d like to receive an email every time I update this blog, there is a “follow” tab that pops up at the bottom right hand corner of this blog page. If you press it and enter your email address, you’ll be updated whenever I get my act together and do some writing.
And you can view some more of my photos here if you’d like: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukemayer/