Taffy Town

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Swing at the edge of the world. We didn’t make this one, but my sister was there a couple of weeks ago. Photo courtesy of Kelley.

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.

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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.

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We intended to spend a little more time on the way back, but then this happened:

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Car sick.

I think.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Or, you know, window shop.

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Or pet puppies.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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En la Via

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Some things will never change.

 

[UPDATED: Thanks to my awesome brother-in-law for teaching me the trick to these: ñ.]