Quaint street. Cobblestone. Sunset. Vintage carpets.
When I was a kid, we spent many a long weekend in the town of Baños, which lies under the shadow of one of Ecuador’s active volcanoes, Tungurahua. It was probably one of the only towns near us with a tourist industry to speak of at the time. Ecotourism wasn’t a thing yet, and Ecuador’s jungle region remained undeveloped.
When we met my grandparents there, we’d sometimes stay in a stuffy guesthouse called Gertrude’s. The waitress wore a French maid-esque black dress, frilly white apron and starched white cap. I didn’t like the food, probably because there was always a soup course, and my parents were always stressed out that my sister and I were being too loud or too wild for the old, staid owners.
My dad LOVED to joke about how the sign for the pool was missing a ‘p’, because “there’s no ‘p’ in the pool!”
It’s still not funny.
Later, we often stayed at the Sangáy, a typical hotel with a pool, tennis courts and a billiards table. The Sangáy was near the hill overlooking the town and the waterfall that trains down its flank. Here’s where the town gets its name: the Baths. There’s a big public pool at the base of that waterfall.
In the 80s, Baños was a quiet town with an ice cream place, a sugar cane industry, a zoo, and a few adventurous German backpackers.
These days, it’s transformed itself into a eco-paradise with a side of spa-town. I was super surprised when I visited in 2008 to see the zip lines, rafting, mountain biking etc., etc., etc., places with locations along the road outside of town, and offices lining the main streets in town. Every hotel offers a spa, and every block offers quaint little restaurants.
All that to say, if you are visiting Ecuador for the first time, please make Baños one of your stops. There’s something for everyone.
We didn’t have much time there this time around. We stopped for coffee and a wiggle break atone of the many parks on the way down to the jungle.
We intended to spend a little more time on the way back, but then this happened:
And I’m sorry it happened to him, because he felt miserable, but it was hilarious having to rush to the public restroom on the plaza, scrounge for change to buy toilet paper, then have him throw up again when he came out, right into some lady’s trash can. I’m so glad I took a picture. #heartlessmom
We popped into this Catholic church on the square that has been beautifully restored since I was there last. It’s attached to a museum and has a section on the side where people donate their crutches and other artifacts after being “healed” by using the church’s holy water.
I remember being in that church as a kid and watching a priest with a bucket at the front. Desperate people waved cash above their heads, which he deftly collected before sprinkling them with water from the bucket. They hoped for a miracle, he gave them tap water and false promises.
Sadly, I was unable to introduce my kids to Baños’ greatest attraction for me as a kid: the promise of a warm, sickeningly sweet lump of sugar cane taffy.
I don’t know why, but Baños is Taffy Town. Nearly every shop has a worn smooth piece of wood mounted to the door frame, where a young man strains to stretch the golden strands of taffy before quickly looping it back over the hook for another pull. For a little bit of change, he’ll break you off a piece and wrap it in colored wax paper, so you can gum it all day as you explore the shops.
Or, you know, window shop.
Or pet puppies.
As a kid, I loved that stuff. (The taffy, not the puppies.) And my mom would always complain about how bad it was for my teeth. But my dad would sneak me a couple of hundred sucres (RIP old currency) so I could get some.
They also sold sugar cane juice on the street corners by the bus station. And little bags of freshly cut and peeled sugar cane that I loved to gnaw on.
Hmmm. In writing this, I’m suddenly realizing I exposed my children to none of this. Our fru fru lunch in a trendy coffee shop with boutique coffee from an eco farm and a trickling fountain in the corner did not expose my children to any of these glories.
We also had to skip the zoo, which since my childhood has been transformed from a sad little spot at the top of the town to a somewhat magnificent animal sanctuary on the side of one of the ravines overlooking the river. You can literally watch the condors (Ecuador’s national bird, with a wingspan of 25 feet) soar.
You’ll also make friends with the monkeys, jaguars, toucans and Ecuador’s most famous residents (apart from Julian Asange, I guess): the Galápagos turtle.
When I was a kid, these roamed free in the dirt-packed center of the zoo. For a small fee, you could sit on its back, and a “trainer” would coax the turtle forward by stringing it along with a piece of pineapple. Unbelievably cruel, I’m certain, but very fun to say you’ve ridden a turtle. Today, the turtles are safely behind a fence, and no pineapple inducements are allowed.
Make Baños a part of your Ecuador itinerary. There’s plenty of lodging, and definitely look into all the adventure tourism options around. And I suppose you could spend a little spa time, as well. There are tons of things to see, do and experience.
The 50 kilometer/31 mile road between Baños and Shell was a big part of our lives growing up. My parents and their friends had t-shirts made up saying “I Survived the Shell Road.”
The road was a dirt track, cut into the sides of the mountains overlooking the Pastaza river, an Amazon tributary. The road was bisected multiple times by streams, which meant using the concrete, single lane WWII-era bridges or driving through several inches of water.
In many places, the road wasn’t wide enough for two, so if you met someone coming the opposite way, whomever was smaller was obligated to back up to the nearest wide spot in the road. My dad made it a practice to honk around corners, letting drivers know he was coming and thus avoid a head-on collision. There was a tunnel cut through one spot in the mountain, and the whole thing was pitch black. That was another spot my dad honked all the way through.
The pot-holed road was an instant car-sickness initiator, so my sister and I spent those hours under the influence of Dramamine (or holding our heads over plastic shopping bags).
Frequent landslides would close the road, or if you were unlucky enough to encounter one as you were driving, might push your vehicle over the cliff into the swirling brown waters and rocks below. The landslides would either block passage with building-size mud and rocks, or they’d melt the road away into the Pastaza.
Or your bus driver might be drunk, or sleepy, and miss a crucial turn.
That would land you in the river as well. I remember one night when my dad was called to help search for another expat who simply stepped off the cliff while stretching his legs. The men recovered his body down river.
Those drives to Baños were stress-filled for my parents. I have a clear memory of my dad edging the car forward on the cliff side of the road to get around a landslide and a stopped bus. My mom stood out front, guiding him with hand motions. Her pain-filled expression told me that she was convinced her family could tumble down the side to their deaths at any moment. When we got past the spot and picked her up, she told us that at one moment the tires of our car were just three inches from the edge.
But in truth, the drive could be beautiful as well. The 25-feet of rainfall each year makes the the vegetation lining the road lush and beautiful. In certain seasons, the sides of the mountains are alive with velvety white and purple orchids with stiff folded fan leaves. Several sheer white waterfalls plunge into the Pastaza along the way.
Cue the screeching brakes sound:
All that is different today.
The road is paved. It is smooth, it is wide. There are guardrails, and several tunnels (maybe eight? we lost count) avoid the most treacherous areas. (In the photo above, the old road heads off to the right of the tunnel.) Bridges have been updated, rivers no longer traverse the road. There are official-looking road signs and painted traffic lines. It’s almost a boring drive these days.
The quaint, undiscovered territory feeling may be gone, but the beauty remains.
Most photo credits in this post go to my husband, who was sitting in the front seat.
A couple days after Christmas, we made the pilgrimage down to the jungle town where I spent the first 12 years of my life.
My mom hadn’t been back for something like 17 years. (I went back about 8 years ago, to apply for Ecuadorian citizenship so I could get a passport.) It was a crazy process that entailed finding some old records office, having them pull out the dusty physical book from 1979 where the documentation of my birth was handwritten, and photocopying the page.
I’m very biased, but as we made the 3-hour journey east which drops more than 4,000 ft in elevation, I was reminded again about how lovely this tiny little country is.
Rugged mountains, green fields, white-washed mud homes with thatched roofes, the vegetation and the patchwork quilt effect of the cultivated fields.
And then there’s the beautiful sight of an energetic three-year-old passed out in her car seat:
The day after Christmas, we headed 18 miles north of Quito to the town of Calacali. The drive takes about 40 minutes depending on traffic and which part of the city you leave from. But even with the relatively short distance, the landscape changes dramatically.
Quito’s green-topped mountains and lush parks give way to arid high altitude desert. You’ll spot Pululahua, a dormant volcano surrounded by a national park.
[If I need to state the obvious: Ecuador takes its name from its geographic location at the center of the earth, aka the equator. The Mitad del Mundo campus is a monument and museums to Ecuadorian culture and history. The line was first measured in 1736. Centuries later using modern GPS units, it was discovered that they were off by 240 meters. But STILL! They had no modern technology, using math and the stars and best guesses were able to come very, very close. When my dad’s company first got GPS units for the airplanes in the 90s, we took one out there for fun. Yep, it was off, and we trekked out into the field near the Mitad del Mundo and giggled that we’d found the “real” middle of the world. Today, that area is occupied by the Intiñan Museum, which explores the fun little physical quirks of either side of the equatorial line. We didn’t do it this time, but you should.]
We were headed for Hacienda El Refugio, an outdoor adventure training and retreat center.
My sister and brother-in-law’s organization runs the place, and they wanted us to see it.
The grounds are lovely, so we spent some time wandering and enjoying, but we headed pretty quickly up the eucalyptus-lined trails winding up the mountain on either side of a ravine. There was some stick gathering and throwing.
We passed the rock-climbing wall and the zip-line, and headed straight for the top and the tree house.
This is the stuff Swiss Family Robinson Dreams are made of.
Ladders, bridges, platforms, trap doors all strung between fragrant eucalyptus trees with peeling trunks.
Hiking at that altitude when you aren’t used to it is taxing, so we relaxed while the kids played.
While the tree house stretches over a drop of more than 100 feet, we felt totally secure letting the kids climb around. The whole structure is encased with netting and everything is anchored really well.
We finally made our way down the dirt trail to the retreat center, after more stick and rock collecting along the way, and we made sure to stop and spot the llamas.
Then, with our tummies rumbling for lunch, we piled in the cars to head for a friend’s house for Christmas leftovers.
That was something we could all agree made us happy.
This lady rises above the city of city from the peak of her round hill. The hill reminded the Spanish of a bun, hence the name “Panecillo”. According to my history teachers, the hill was the former site of an Incan temple and possibly a burial ground when the Spanish laid eyes on it.
The woman on top crushes the head of a serpent which she drags by a chain. Some say she’s the only Madonna in the world with wings. According to a plaque on the statue, she’s supposed to be the woman of the Apocalypse from the book of Revelation.
In any case, she’s the personification of the spirit of Quito, and whenever I arrive and spot her figure from the plane, I feel nostalgic.
To get to the Panecillo, you wind up the tight spiral of road until the crest of the hill. There’s usually plenty of parking if you drive or a taxi will take you up for a couple of dollars.
You can get your tourist handicrafts at any one of the stalls.
Or there’s always the option of lunch or dinner.
As you can see, these are popular with the locals.
Entrance to the area is free, but there’s a small fee to climb the old metal staircase that circles around inside the base of the statue. From there, you can take in views of the city from Mary’s feet. We usually skip that and opt for the equally stunning views from outside the statue.
This year, there was a guy there with and iPad and a drone who would take a 30 minute video of you or your group at the top of the statue with Quito as your backdrop. For $8! What a unique keepsake. I totally would have done it had it not been a few minutes after sunset and the family dispersed all over the hill when I discovered the drone man. Also, I was kinda worried about one of the kids stepping on the drone.
We were there because it was a few days before Christmas and the Panecillo was all decked out with a manger scene of lights. According to my sister, this is the world’s highest manger scene (nearly 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters above sea level).
In all my years of living there, we’d never been to that particular event, though it’s entirely possible that it didn’t exist 20 years ago.
Two of the “kings” from the nativity scene and the food area in the foreground.
I already mentioned this deliciousness in the food post.
There were special food vendors on the south side of the hill, picnic tables and a stage set up under a tent with heaters and a choir singing Christmas songs.
It also happened to be the night of the Christmas parade featuring men and women in traditional dress as well as Mary, Joseph and the baby on stilts. And a camel, I’m pretty sure.
Why were they on stilts on cobblestone? We’ll never know.
Side note: The manger scene took me a bit to figure out. There were 3 tall figures with crowns (aka: the wise men or kings). Strung between two poles was a hammock-looking thing that was the baby (see the second photo in this post). But I kept asking Kelley: “Where’s Joseph?”
“Right there!” she’d say, over and over.
Finally, I got it. See the faint white round shape to the right of the statue, aka Mary? Yep, that’s him. As my sister said, “Smaller, subservient and pushed to the side.” The Madonna is the big deal in this country. Forget about the other characters.
Before long, it was cold and the kids were ready for bed. But it was a fun evening enjoying Christmas at the Panecillo with my beloved Quito in the background.
On a foggy day, the church in Guápulo is completely hidden by the mist that covers the valley like a pot lid. But if you dare to descend the Camino de Orellana that winds through the village like tightly-spun yarn, you’ll be rewarded with the stately sight of the Sanctuario de Guápulo.
The church is Quito’s oldest colonial church, founded by Spanish explorer Fransisco de Orellana in 1541. The plaza in front of the church bears his statue. And also, a few guys shooting the breeze on a bench.
The colonial churches in Quito always amaze me with their attention to detail.
And this grand old woman has recently been restored.
One of the caretakers was busy giving this lady a bath with a scrub brush and a bucket.
He told us we’d missed out, though, because while we were playing in the park, they’d taken down the gold statue in the centerpiece of the altar to clean it.
(Side note: my sister is pretty.)
But our bellies were rumbling and the kids were whining. As beautiful as it was, it was time to go.