On the Road Again [to Banos]

jettatura v. The casting of an evil eye.

After nearly a month of sitting still, Chris and I found ourselves on the road once more, crammed into an overcapacity bus and forced to share a seat with two little girls who sat on top of each other to make room for us and offered us pieces of their candy.  Even with all the bad luck with people we’d had in Ecuador, there were still small restorations in our faith.  We smiled at the little girl and her younger sister on her lap, digging out two of our precious Tango biscuits (a new favorite Ecuadorian snack food we had discovered while working at the hostel) and gave them away.  Things were looking good on the round to Baños. And no, I don’t mean the bathrooms. 

Baños, short for Baños de Agua Santa, is so named not because everyone urinates in the streets and defecates behind trees. Rather, it gets its name after the public hot spring baths, or holy water, in the town.  Baños s is a sacred and holy place and the locals believe their town is blessed with these hot springs.  Of course, the hot springs have made it so that they are indeed blessed with a boom of tourism.

That fact quickly became apparent to us as we made the short trek from the bus station to our hostel, passing hostel stacked upon hostel along the way.  Honestly, according to the signs, pretty much every building was a hostel or guesthouse in some capacity.  Finally, we arrived at our hostel, the Hotel Canalimena.  As usual, we had booked it because it was the cheapest we could find online, at $38.70 for 3 nights.  Spending money at all felt strange to us once more after having lived cost free for a month. But the second we threw our packs down in the private room hardly lager than the bed itself and started rooting through them for the things we needed, it felt like we had never left the road.

Since our varied methods of transportation that day had been remarkably expedited with swift changeovers, we had arrived in Baños in the early afternoon, with plenty of daylight ahead.  Since climbing is the first thing Chris and I gravitate toward, the climbing walls outside Baños seemed like a logical place to start.  We grabbed the rope bag and some leftover snacks from the hostel and headed out.

While walking through town, I noticed something a little odd.  Despite its status as a tourist hub, the town itself was surprisingly lackluster.  While its steep green hills rising sharply on all sides were undoubtedly beautiful, Baños’ buildings were drab and even a little ghetto.  Definitely not what we had expected of the one place we simply “had to go to!” in Ecuador.  Then again, Chris and I were more interested in coal than we were in diamonds.

The climbing wall itself is small, maybe 60 meters wide, with two main belay levels separated by a precarious looking but seemingly stable log jam built up by the jungle river.  There are somewhere between 20 and 30 single pitch routes, ranging from 5.7-5.13 (though most of the routes lay around the 5.10 to 5.12) and a couple multi-pitch routes.  When the water of the river is too high, however, the lower half of the crag is all but impossible to access.  Even when we were there, a few climbs on the far right side scrawled up the face right above the swirling rapids as they angrily funneled in a narrow slot canyon.  I had always wanted to try deep water soloing, but here definitely wasn’t the place to do it.

As we geared up and got on the wall, we quickly discovered that the already polished basalt was also coated in fine ash from the nearby Tungurahua volcano.  With these things together, getting a grip on anything was pretty much impossible.  Climbs were easily one to two grades more difficult than their rating simply because of the nature of the rock itself.  And since there already wasn’t a lot of easy climbing there, I was pretty much out of luck.  We played around for a little bit, but quit far sooner than we had originally planned, leaving disappointed that the climbing there was hardly worth our time.  The only thing we had really gained, were a couple dozen sand fly bites around our ankles.  For being “Ecuador’s best crag”, it sure wasn’t anything to write home about.  As we returned to the hostel for the evening, our thoughts had turned to finding something new to do for the rest of our time in Baños.

Aside from its hot springs and famous taffy production, Baños holds the name “Gateway to the Amazon” and boasts a host of outdoor activities as such.  On any travel and tourist website, Baños is described as “THE adventure sports destination in Ecuador”.  Of course, “adventure sports” to most people means safe, easy activities like zip lining, rafting, or cycling… nothing I would exactly classify as extreme.   Compared to a lot of tourist destination, Baños does offer a plentiful bounty of outdoor activities, from the 60km Puyo cycle route to the ruta de las cascadas hike leading to El Pailon del Diablo waterfall.  For Chris and I, however, it left a lot to be desired, especially after our disappointment with the climbing area.

Which is why we set out sights on the one extreme (and slightly illegal) thing to do in Baños :climbing Tungurahua. Tungurahua, named after an ancient Quechua word meaning throat of fire, is a still active volcano 16,480ft. just outside Baños.  While usually shrouded in fog and dark storm clouds, on a clear day, Mama Tungurahua looms ominously over the town, rising high above the dense green hills at her base.  The mountain had seen several major eruptions since 2000 and its peak spits smoke and ash on an almost daily basis.  The locals think of “Mama Tungurahua” as a hot and bothered mother to the town of Baños, whom she now protects.  I, however, didn’t really see the connection considering the town has faced several evacuations since her reawakening in 2000.  Then again, mothers can be explosive.

The next day, we set out into Baños to gather as much information as we could about Tungurahua.  How would we get there?  Was the route difficult?  How many days would it take?  What should we even expect of the mountain?  Throughout the day, we bounced from guide shop to guide shop, inquiring about all the necessary things involved in hiking the volcano unguided.  Our biggest concerns were legality and punitive consequences.  Trekking unguided in Ecuador is a risky venture legally.  Ever since a few foreign climbers died while attempting to summit Iliniza Sur, a highly technical mountain near the Quilotoa area, the Ecuadorian government all but made it impossible for people to summit any mountain beyond the point of 17,000 ft.  Dead tourists don’t look good for a country trying to promote its tourism industry.  However, since all the mountains Chris and I wanted to summit were not technical and posed little risk outside your basic altitude sickness concerns, we didn’t see hoe that was fair and didn’t want to pay an extortionate amount for someone to walk us up something we could just as well do alone for free.

While a lot of the technical details varied a bit as we inquired about the volcano, the general consensus was the same; we were allowed to hike the volcano… as long as the government didn’t find out we actually summited. The hike would go like this: We would take a taxi to the village of Pondoa, just northeast of Baños, and from there we would starting hiking, past one refuge and to a second one.  It is legal to hike up to the second refuge, no longer so much a refuge as an old building shell people can camp around, but illegal to hike beyond.  But the upside was that authorizes never patrolled the mountain and there was virtually no way for them to catch you summited it (unless you got lost and needed to be rescued, that is).  We would camp at that refuge and summit early the next morning, then descend back to Pondoa.  Despite the active status of the volcano, guides assured us that the hike was pretty safe as long as were comfortable navigating ourselves through ash fields between the refuge and the summit.  It sounded good enough to us, and we even prepared for our hike by purchasing a small 15-liter summit pack with which to make the summit push.

While we were in information mode, we also decided to ask about something that had been laying uneasily in the backs of our minds since we had arrived in Ecuador, gnawing at our thoughts with its very presence: Chimborazo.  Chimborazo was not only Ecuador’s high point, but technically the highest point from the center of the earth. You see, the earth is not a perfect sphere, but instead resembles any middle-aged man with a slight bulge around the center created by centrifugal forced from the earth’s rotation.  Near the equator, sea level is actually several kilometers higher.  So while Everest, standing at 8,840 meters, is the highest point from the malleable ocean, Chimborazo, at 6,268m, is about two kilometers taller when measured from the earth’s core.  Sure, climbing Chimborazo might not be regarded as even half the feat that climbing Everest is, but saying we had stood at the highest point from the earth’s center sounded pretty cool to us. 

The only problem as that we had heard the mountain restrictions were intense.  Unlike Tungurahua, they patrolled Chimborazo, and you weren’t even allowed to set foot on it without a guide.  Nevertheless, we had been holding out a small sliver of hope, planning to head to Riobamba after Baños and investigate further.  Our only hope was in Chris’ America Alpine Club membership.  Since the AAC is a UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation) affiliate, its members are often allowed greater access to international mountains.  Alas and alack, our hopes were dashed once again, as the guides in Baños told us that no one would let us on the mountain, even with proof of UIAA membership.

With the rest of our day, we wandered to the outskirts of Baños and found ourselves at Baños de la Virgen, a stunningly tall waterfall named after the Biblical sightings of the Virgin Mary by a waterfall.  Set against a bright background of dense green foliage, the water falls 260 feet before crashing into a rocky stream bed running right next to the road.  A statue of the Virgin Mary guards a small cobblestone path that leads right up next to her freefalling waters.  If you’re not afraid of getting a little white and slimy, as I wasn’t, you can cross a slick area of the path coated in slick green slime and actually climb right up next to the falls. 

Next to the waterfall are Las Piscinas de la Virgin, Baños; most popular natural hot spring.  From my perch at the edge of the waterfall, I could see over the edge and into the bath, crowded with all manner of people hoping to soak their troubles away.  Personally, I didn’t see what could possibly be relaxing about soaking my body in a greenish brown pool.  Supposedly, the water is colored that way because of the minerals, but I wasn’t too sure it had nothing to do with other peoples’ filth. If you’re not afraid of contracting a bacterial infection, however, you can gain access to these pools for a scant $3 plus a compulsory $1 swimming cap rental. 

The next morning, we had planned on going white water rafting, after contracting a reservation with one company for only $20 each.  That struck us as a crazy good deal for white-water rafting and we actually dared to let ourselves get a little excited.  Once again, disappointment cash her dreary spell on the trip when we woke to a downpour of rain.  Our excursion was meant to begin at 9am, but after five solid hours of torrential rain with no sign of letting up, we decided there was no point in going.  A drizzle or even a light shower would have been one thing, but a hard downpour was another.  Not only would we be wet and cold, but the idea of careening down a narrow, high-walled canyon with a now higher volume of water than usual seemed plain stupid.  The river had already struck me as extraordinarily violent when I had seen it two days ago.  I couldn’t even imagine the tours would operate on such a day.

The soaking wet ground, dark clouds overhead, and prediction for this weather to continue also meant something else: no Tungurahua for us.  Thwarted yet again.  It was a wonder why even bothered to plan and hope for anything on this trip anymore.

With all our plans dashed, we spent the morning making hasty adjustments to our itinerary, planning to leave Baños the next morning, skip Riobamba, and head straight down to Cuenca, our last destination in Ecuador before fleeing to Peru. As the day wore on, the rain let up ever so slightly and allowed us to leave the hostel to run a few errands.  One thing on our list was to return the summit pack we had purchased for $40 the previous day.  Seeing as we no longer needed it to summit Tungurahua, we didn’t see the point in lugging around extra baggage when our packs were heavy enough as it was.  I explained all this to the shop owner (who thankfully spoke decent English) we had purchased it from the day and asked if we could return it.  He shook his head. 

“No returns.  Only exchanges.”  I asked him why that was so, trying to reason with him that we had just purchased it yesterday and hadn’t even used it.  His explanation switched from “store policy” to “because the tag is frayed” (which, I might add, it already was when we purchased it) and my defense went from reasoning to pleading. As the argument progressed, I pushed harder and harder, getting more and more frustrated.  It wasn’t pretty.  By the end, I was sobbing and thinking about all the money we had wasted on the pack for a hike I couldn’t even experience because of the stupid weather (again). 

Finally, I surrendered and started looking around the store for something I might want to trade the stupid ugly black and yellow pack for.  As I was browsing through the clothing racks, a jacket slipped off its hanger and fell to the floor.  The shop owner stormed over to me, backing me into the glass counter. 

You throw my clothes on floor!  You are crazy but I can be more crazy!” he yelled at me, as I had nowhere to go.  Chris immediately came to my side, putting himself between me and the man and led me out of the store.

“Come on.  We’re going to the police,” he said.  “He threatened you.”  Too shaken from the whole incident to really respond, I just nodded and followed him through the town.  After a lot of getting lost and asking directions, we finally found the police station.  Inside, we explained the situation, not without difficulty.  Funnily enough, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of Spanish words associated with being threatened and afraid, so my ability to explain was limited.  Eventually, I was ushered to a computer where I typed with shaking hands, a translation of the whole situation.

Once they understood, the police ushered us into the back of police car and drove us into town to the shop.  On the ride as I looked through the scratched and slightly opaque shield of thick plastic separating us from the officers, I thought about how I had never ridden in the back of a police car, and I sure hadn’t imagined my first time doing so would quite be like this.  I imagined it would be after doing something cool, like breaking into an amazing abandoned facility, as I have been known to do.  Definitely not because I had gotten into a fight with a mean shopkeeper over $40.

Back at the shop, the chaos continued.  The shopkeeper had the advantage of actually speaking Spanish in order to plead his case to the police, whereas I could really only point and yell like a gorilla.  Another couple from Canada was browsing around the shop at the time of this second occurrence.  They asked us what was going on and we explained the situation.  They immediately turned on the shopkeeper with disgust, asking him why he wouldn’t refund us. 

“The tag is frayed,” he offered smugly.

“Oh the tag?” the Canadian guy asked incredulously.  “This little piece of string?  How much does this tag cost?  I will pay the cost of the tag.”  Had the situation not been so tense and I hadn’t been flanked by police officers, I might have laughed.

“She is rude.  She should be arrested.  She said, ‘fuck’ in my store.  I know what that word means,” he spat at me.  Well hell, if I were to be arrested every time I cursed, I’d be serving a life sentence. I wondered vaguely if 1984 had ever been translated and printed in Spanish and whether he had read it. 

Eventually, the pointless squabbling came to an end and the police asked me if I wanted to file a report.  I asked what that would entail and they said it would mostly require me to stay in Baños for five days while the paperwork was processed.  I weighed justice against having to stay in this stupid disappointing town for five more days and justice lost.  I told them we couldn’t stay long enough to file the report and thanked them for all their help.  They offered to give us a ride back to our hostel and we climbed back into the back of the police car.  As I prepared to get out in front of our hostel, crying again, the officer driving opened the door for me and said, “No llora.”  Don’t cry.  “It’s okay,” he said.  The police may have been useless, but at least they were kind and well-meaning.  I felt bad about wasting their time and stupid that the whole ordeal had been for naught.  There was at least the small comfort in the fact that I, if nothing else, had cost the awful shopkeeper the business of the two Canadians, who had stormed out and said they were planning on buying something, but weren’t anymore.

So anyway.  That’s how I ended up riding in the back of a police car in the middle of Ecuador.  I couldn’t say Baños had been a positive experience, but I could at least say that.

My shitty proof that I was actually riding in the back of a police car in Ecuador.