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:
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.
Guápulo is technically part of Quito, but it feels worlds apart. Quito lies in the narrow valley between two mountain chains. Guápulo is on the other side of the northern mountain border, on the way to Cumbaya, one of Quito’s suburbs on the plains outside its narrow valley.
The town was established by the Spanish and later incorporated into Quito. But on this sunny December day, we headed for a new public park on the far side of the village. We would never have known about it if my sister and brother-in-law didn’t live there.
According to the security guard who my dad made friends with, the land was formerly owned by the owners of one of Ecuador’s major banks. (UPDATE: Banco Popular.) They stabled their horses on the land. When things got bad with the economy (or they were about to get caught embezzling), the owners left the country (with all their millions, of course), and the land was seized by the government.
Today, it’s a lush hiking, picnicing and leisure area.
After a stop for croissants, our gang descended Guápulo’s winding Camino de Orellana through the town, then up again to the park entrance. The path into the park was steep, but even the kids and grandpa could handle it. And everything was green and lovely, with eucalyptus trees lining the way, providing a soundtrack as the wind ruffled their leafy limbs.
We stopped for breakfast at one of the picnic areas, and lazed about, enjoying the deep blue skies and warm sun on our faces.
[Spoiler alert: I should have worn sunscreen.]
But we were ultimately headed for the playground, so we continued on.
It turned out to be one of the coolest playgrounds I’ve ever seen, with wooden structures, a zip-line and all the things, plus views of Cumbaya beyond.
My dad always says he’d never want to be in one of the high rises peering down from the mountain ridge during an earthquake.
We played hard (even grandma went down the zip-line!), and too soon it was time to head home for lunch and naps.
So we climbed back up the path (those of us who don’t live at 9,200 feet altitude took it slowly). And we certainly were only able to scratch the surface of all the fun to be had at Guápulo.
We rushed down one evening to the old city to stroll along La Ronda, Quito’s oldest street, and find some empanadas.
I could wander around that area for ages, but between the narrow streets, the traffic and the cobblestone, it’s not something we wanted to do for long with the little people.
We ran into a Christmas parade, with a high school band playing off-key and loud Christmas tunes.
The kids loved watching and dancing to the beat.
La Virgen watches over the city from her perch.
On another hill, colorful homes cling to the side while the museum of the eternal flame stands proud (but sometimes the flame is out).
And the building tops were lit with the last rays of the sleepy sun.
Restless children were persuaded to briefly pose.
Empanadas procured, we took in some music.
And charmed the band into teaching the kids some tricks.
Hearts and bellies full, we piled back into the cars to head for home.