I’ve traveled to the middle of the earth, and I’ve swung off the end of it.
When I look back at the Lucy that arrived in Ecuador in early January, I realize she had no idea what she was stepping into. Of course, any person who spends time abroad has this same cliché realization. The difference for me is I was confident I was more prepared than the others, because I had been planning the details of my time in Ecuador for more than 15 years. I’d done my research. I knew about the current government, I knew about the different landscapes, I knew about the food they ate and the god worshiped. Before boarding that 10+ hour flight, I thought I had expectations of what the next five months of my life would look like.
What I’ve realized since then is that, while research and desire are a deadly pair, they simply don’t suffice. The fleeting images in my head I had confused with knowledge and expectation were too simple, too black and white. I had “expected” to see cool views. Check. I had “expected” to eat exotic fruit. Check. I had “expected” to be a little scared, occasionally overwhelmed, and perpetually in awe. Check, check, check.
But here’s the thing. “Cool views” and everlasting states of “awe” don’t cut it here on the equator. I think that’s why I’ve struggled with writer’s block more with this blog than with any other piece I’ve written. This country is so much more than words on paper and moments captured in frames, and I’m not quite sure how to tackle my memories here without diminishing them to subpar highlight reels.
I just returned from another weekend adventure that blew my mind, and I don’t know how to do it justice… Stick with me if you want to see me try.
And remember, while Ecuador’s national motto, “Ama la vida,” is perfect, its subheading should be “Pictures don’t do it justice.”
Baños de Agua Santa is a small tourist town nestled in the northern region of the Andes Mountains. It’s built in a valley, so when you step off the bus, a bit under a four-hour ride from Quito, you feel like you’re in a fish bowl. Except, this fish bowl is made of the world's longest continental mountain range and you are officially the luckiest fish on the planet.
We stayed in Hostel Errupcion, and for $7 a night we were given a twin-size dorm bed, hot water, WiFi that actually loads your emails (a gift I previously took for granted), and a birds-eye-view of the town.
As we checked in to our room for the weekend, we heard drumming and singing coming from the streets outside. We threw our backpacks on our beds, locked our door with the llama shaped key, and booked it to the rooftop, where we were greeted with a parade of dance groups, old trucks blaring music out of speakers balanced on the sides of their beds, and men carrying over-sized statues of saints dressed in robes and covered in beads. The first group that passed below us was dressed in furs and knee-high boots and seemed to be performing a traditional Russian dance, full of claps and high-kicks. The next group was dressed in elegant white shawls and colorful skirts that turned the pavement into a quilt. Following them came children in tight blue and purple body suits, covered in sparkles, jumping all over each other. Then a dance crew made up of grandparents, each man with a thick black braid that blended into his dark blue cape, until that cape was pulled off his body and became the grandmother’s skirts. Like I said, expectations don’t suffice.
Everyone else in the town seemed to know exactly what was going on. We had no idea what was happening, and we loved it.
(I think that last sentence sums up 90% of my time here.)
Like I said, this town is surrounded by mountains, so naturally the locals built a massive swing set at the top of one and turned it into one of the most iconic attractions in Ecuador. To get up to the swing, you can board a Chiva bus for about $4, or a typical transit bus for $2. Chiva buses are more like brightly painted wood trailers lined with benches. Instead of windows, the chiva is left wide open and reggatone is blasted through speakers. It may go without saying, but getting up the mountain, sliding across the benches into Ecuadorians who seem to have an impossible way of keeping their balance as we’re whipped around narrow, 100 degree turns on old mountain roads, was an adventure in itself.
About 40 minutes later, we reached the top, and payed $1 to enter the park, Casa del Arbol. Inside the park, there’s small zip-lines, swings of all sizes, logs to climb on, and a small cafeteria. The main attraction, a swing that propels you off the end of the world, was manned by two men in bright yellow t-shirts. They are literally professional pushers. They’re the guys kindergarteners dream of.
Actually, this whole park seemed to be pulled straight from the brain of an exuberant 5-year-old who just wants the world to remember what it’s like to lose yourself on the swing set.
Before we left our hostel, our host had told us about a hike you can take that leads you back down the mountain. After exploring the park, we decided to skip the bus-ride back down and find this mountain trail instead. We asked a couple locals how to get to the trailhead, and after a few sets of arbitrary directions that seemed to point us in the same direction (“walk about 10-20 minutes down the road, then turn left at the telephone pole” or “go straight when the road turns right at the bottom of this hill close to the wires”), we headed off. A few wrong turns and two locals later, we found our trail.
And I spent the next few hours on the most amazing hike of my life.
I would hardly consider the “trail” a trail, it was more like a foot-wide clearing farmers who lived on the mountain’s ridge had kept only slightly visible as a top-secret shortcut. And so, with no map and not nearly enough water (my dad is going to kill me when he reads that), we embarked down the ridge of the mountain. We didn’t even know if we were on the right path until we came to the virgin statue that marked the end about 3 hours after we had left Casa del Arbol.
The hike was like nothing you would ever find in the US. It took you through farmland and across wire fences you had to climb under. The path was steep, like unrealistically steep, to the point where we had to sit on our butts and slide. My friend Emma eventually got so sick of falling, she did at least a mile without standing up at all. There were no switch-backs, no sign posts, and no one else on the entire trail except for an elderly Ecuadorian couple who passed by us carrying a pot full of something, my best guess is soup… The hike wrapped up at a white-marble statue of La Virgen and what felt like 500,000,000,000 marble steps that led us back into the heart of the town.
Aside from the swing-set, Baños is also known for El Pilon del Diablo, a massive waterfall a few miles outside of the town. This time, instead of jumping on one of the many chivas that delivered tourists to the falls, we hunted down wheels of our own. For $5, we rented mountain bikes (and yes mom, we also got helmets) from a tourist company near our hostel and took the scenic route, which thankfully was all down hill.
The ride was a blend of tranquility and terror. We would go forever on cobblestone streets that wind through the mountains with views of rolling green hills and the raging river below that made us feel like we had biked to a different planet. That state of peace would then be shattered by the blaring horn of a bus that sped past us, giving us less than a foot of asphalt (no such thing as bike lanes here).
The waterfall itself was a different type of adventure. There were hundreds of people swarming the trails and viewpoints, and navigating the chaos felt like a real-life video game. This place makes Multnomah Falls seem top-secret. There were selfie-sticks and cigarettes wherever you looked, mothers cradling screaming children and siblings crawling between stranger’s legs. We climbed through caves to get closer to the falls, and hit a serious traffic jam of Ecuadorians on their hands and knees on our way back down.
Keeping in trend with our down-hill only weekend, we threw our bikes in the back of a camioneta and enjoyed a bumpy ride back to Baños in the back of the truck.
And now, for the most unforgettable part of the weekend…. We found the world’s BEST burger, and it was only a 2-minute walk from our hostel. Unfortunately, I don’t know if this hole-in-the-wall “restaurant” had a name, but I do know I will never forget every detail of this place. We sat at their bar, right on the sidewalk, and watched the cook whip up the most delicious shawarma burgers on a small grill. The kitchen itself was wide open and no bigger than your average picnic table. A sign on the inside read “No tenemos WiFi, pero hay cerveza que facilita la communication,” which reassured us this guy had his priorities in line.
If nothing else in this blog inspires you to get to Ecuador at some point in your life, I hope this shawarma does the trick. Forget the waterfalls and mountains, this restaurant had the best guaca-burger en el mundo.
After soaking in the sunset from the rooftop, we spent our evenings wandering the Calle de Baras, wading in the hot-springs, and working on our card game skills.
On Sunday afternoon, we filled our backpacks with fruit for the bus ride and spent four hours munching on strawberries and drifting in and out of dreams of mountaintops and shawarma.