Devil’s Backbone

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As we drove past it, I inadvertently gasped. There it was, jutting out the hill and scraping the sky like a claw.

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It turns out the Devil’s Backbone was just next to our Airbnb. We didn’t have much time, but we made time to hike it.

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I was hoping to scale the rocks, but it turns out they’re too fragile. So we were limited to the trail that winds around beside this incredible rock formation.

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The only time we had was on a gray rainy morning, and since I’m the queen of not being prepared for weather, We started out the hike with trash bag rain gear. Because we’re classy.

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And that’s why these are all iphone photos: I wasn’t willing to haul my SLR out into the drizzle.

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It was a great, easy hike with the kids (though they whined plenty), and I could have gone much longer.

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But we had to rush back, since we were late for lunch at the Silver Grill.

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Where to Shop: Quito

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Now, if you’re doing the full-blown Ecuador tour, you should go to Otavalo. It’s about an hour north of Quito, and it really is the centuries-old marketplace for the indigenous people.

The central square is lined with booths with artisans selling just about everything under the sun. On some weekdays, there is livestock and fruits and vegetables. But all the time, you’ll find all the scarves and handicrafts to satiate your soul. Be sure you bargain; they start at the tourist price. You can get there by bus or private car.

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But imagine you’re on a really tight schedule, or you don’t want to take the time to go out to Otavalo. Then, my friends, Quito has you covered with the Mariscal market. The city built market stalls on a small city block downtown, off Amazonas street, the main shopping/business drag. You can get there by trolley, bus or taxi.

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Mariscal market is all of tourist-loving Otavalo plus a few inauthentic girls dressed in indigenous-wear selling organic chocolate. But who cares?

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This time, I loaded up on colorful blankets, a poncho for my daughter, a flag, a traditional gold necklace, some jewelry for friends and probably more things I forgot. In the past, it’s been watercolors, scarves, more jewelry and leather goods.

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There’s also ceramics, wooden artifacts and plenty of tchotchkes.
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Make sure you tell everyone that the so-called “Panama hats” are really made in Ecuador. Seriously, check the label. They were popularized by men digging the Panama canal, and so got their name. But these babies are Ecuador-made.

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This girl sold me my necklace. I asked all the vendors for their best price, and she not only gave me a discount, she left her stall to go get the exact style I wanted from somewhere else. There it is to the right; she’s wearing a similar one in the traditional style.

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The legit Otavalan vendors drive in from their homes outside the city with all their goods. The Otavalan people are born entrepreneurs. I’ve see them all over the world, from Sweden to my little podunk Oklahoma town. And they always have those sweaters and blankets and purses, handmade in Ecuador using ancient techniques and Ecuadorian wool and alpaca.

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Let me give you an idea of prices:

-$10-20 for a handmade necklace

-$5 for an Ecuador flag

-$20 for a queen size wool blanket

-$25 for a 11×14 watercolor

-$8 for a scarf

Obviously, barter with them for the best price, but don’t be rude.

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I bought a blanket from this sweet lady, and she really wanted me to take more. That top photo of her is also now enlarged on a canvas and hanging in my living room above my fireplace. Every time I sit on the couch and study her face, it makes me happy to have a little bit of Ecuador in my home, through her shining eyes and high cheekbones.

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.

The Jungle Road

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Most photo credits in this post go to my husband, who was sitting in the front seat.