When my family lived in Ecuador’s jungle, it was a five hour car journey up the winding mountain roads to the capital city. We didn’t go often. But when we did, I remember my dad heaving a sigh of relief as soon as we hit the paved part of the road just before the small town of Baños, Ecuador.
Baños literally means “baths,” and it’s named for the natural hot springs that flow out of the rock near the town. Baños is also near Mt. Tungurahua, which has erupted a few times in the last several years, dumping ash on Baños and driving the farmers perched on its slopes away with flowing lava. Because of its hot springs, Baños became a vacation town. When I was young, it was a kind of a hippie village frequented by European backpackers.
When my family visited Baños, we stayed either at Hotel Sangay, named for another snow-capped peak near Baños, or at Hotel Gertrudes. Sangay had a pool, tennis courts and a playground. Gertrudes was built in an old mansion and was very stuffy. The severe-looking dining room waitress wore a French maid’s uniform, and the white-haired owner frowned at my sister and me if we got a little lively, as 5- and 3-year-olds are apt to do. There was a pool across the street, where the sign said “No ‘P’ in the Pool.” Needless to say, we liked Sangay better.
Baños is also a center of sugar cane production. Roadside vendors still sell snack-bag sized plastic bags of 4-inch sticks of sugarcane to passing motorists. You can chew and suck on the fibrous stalk to extract its sweet nectar. After processing the sugarcane, Baños inhabitants make a form of taffy with sugarcane byproducts. Hundreds of storefronts throughout the town have a polished Y-shaped tree branch mounted in the doorway. There they stretch, pull, loop and knead the sticky taffy into submission before snipping off pieces and making different confections. With my huge sweet tooth, I always looked forward to buying a lump of warm, fresh, sickeningly sweet taffy while we wandered downtown.
Another thing we always looked forward to as kids was the Baños zoo. It seemed like it was the only zoo in the country, or at least the only one we ever visited. In the 1980s, the zoo was a sad place where the animals were confined to tiny, dirty spaces. But I didn’t see that as a kid. Instead, we loved that in the center of the zoo was a Galapagos turtle that you could ride. You sat on his armored shell, and a zoo employee coaxed him into moving around the yard by dangling a piece of pineapple in front of his nose. These huge turtles, found exclusively in the Galapagos Islands, are about the size of a Shetland pony, with legs like a basset hound’s.
These days, the zoo has moved to a modern facility on the far edge of town. This little guy stands sentry by the front gate.
The zoo features only animals native to Ecuador, like this leopard. Today the animals have large open air pens where they can get lots of exercise and not have visitors right in their faces.
Facilities for the birds are much better, too. Mr. Tucan now has ample space to fly, with a large net over the top of his area to keep him in, rather than the old 2-foot by 4-foot tin roofed cage where he used to live. Before, some of the birds also had their wings clipped, to prevent them from flying.
We didn’t capture a picture of him, but the majestic Andean condor is also housed at the zoo. He and a mate also enjoy a large pen where they can both soar and hide in the rock wall if they want. These birds, with the largest wing span of any land bird at 10.5 feet, are near extinction.
And finally, Mr. Galapagos turtle now has plenty of room to roam. And instead of being subjected to the humiliating joy-ride for kids experience, he has a nice stone wall to buffer him from would-be turtle jockeys.
Baños is no longer the sleepy little tourist town it once was. These days it’s a bustling center of eco-tourism, adventure-tourism and spas. But the original character remains. My husband and I ran into this little procession coming out of the Catholic church, and we stopped to savor a tranquil, candlelit moment.
Then we turned down the main pedestrian avenue and found a quaint restaurant serving comida tipica (local food). I enjoyed some of the best locro (potato soup from the highlands) I’ve had in a while. It was so good, that I convinced the cook to give me the recipe before we headed out on the bus the next day.
Some things will never change.
[UPDATED: Thanks to my awesome brother-in-law for teaching me the trick to these: ñ.]