What I saw outside the bus window looked disturbingly familiar: rocks and boulders and mud piled on the windy road´s edge at the base of fresh erosion scars in the mountain. The driver had to steer wide to avoid the hazards as we chugged uphill. But in places there were signs that road maintenance equipment had been on the scene. Around several more bends we overtook tractors hard at work, a welcome indication that we probably wouldn´t be stranded if new pieces of hillside lost their grip.
Before long, the route flattened out somewhat. We were no longer hugging the mountain but jetting by farmland on smoother, wider roads. The usual rural sights whizzed by–men and women in colorful dress working, children playing, horses and donkeys standing, dogs lying down, and cows and sheep and chickens and pigs eating. The unfortunate pigs found themselves on display in front of roadside eateries, dead, shaven and basted shiny golden, rotating on spits or dangling from ropes by their snouts.
In the bus, I learned that although I was the only gringo, I wasn´t the only English speaker. A congenial guy named Felix struck up a conversation, which ended up taking as many turns as the bus had, covering such topics as ecology, travel, work ethics, coincidences and bestsellers like The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho), The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown), Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Josh McDowell), and the Bible (God and friends). The time flew by.
Around dusk, there was a new sight in the distance: the volcano Tungurahua. It was emitting a plume of black smoke. A reputation for being tempermental, Tungurahua had severely damaged the nearby town of Baños in 1999. Of more immediate concern, just about two weeks ago the volcano had belched up a fountain of ash so substantial that Baños supposedly had to commence evacuations. But I´d heard from a tourist agency rep and some travelers who had just come from Baños, my present destination, that the town was up and running as usual and safety concerns had subsided. Still, passing the smoke-spewing giant more closely during the final descent into Baños was a tad unnerving, like walking past a growling dog.
Below: In or around Baños–Volcan Tungurahua, a street, the ubiquitous garbage-eating clown, a park.
We arrived on schedule, seven hours after leaving Cuenca. Baños, named after its thermal springs, is on the short list of places to see in Ecuador because of its unique location, situated where the mountainous Andes highlands and the tropical jungle meet. A curtain of steep mountains surround the town, behind which Tungurahua fumes. At night, the basilica glows in neon purple and yellow. Every street seems to have one or more clown-headed trash cans, a pleasant indicator that Baños discourages littering. (I also saw identical cans in many of the towns we passed on the way to Baños.) Monkey murals and oversized toucan carvings decorate the quaint town. Outdoor excursion agencies outnumber the colorful public art displays, vying for the opportunity to take you on a hike or into a cave or river.
Independent of any agency, I spent the day on Thursday, February 21, in the Rio Verde area, a short bus ride away, hiking over footbridges and past waterfalls that plummet over black volcanic rock. In many places along the paths, there were trash cans and signs forbidding littering. Afterwards, several kilometers away, I visited an open-air “cable car” that carries locals (for transportation) and tourists (for fun) across the Rio Verde at a staggering height. That night, I joined a group driving up to the illuminated Cross that overlooks the town. Unfortunately, clouds obscured the view of Tungurahua, but we could clearly see compact Baños lit up below.
Below: the lush Rio Verde area, the Rio Verde, a bridge over the river, the basilica.
The next day (today), I traveled four hours into the jungle to sleep in the penultimate town on my evolving list: Tena. With thick flora leaning in on us from both sides, we jiggled and bounced along the unpaved portion of the road. This was definitely not a road suitable for putting in contact lenses or applying make-up or performing a bris. (All three of which I attempted en route.)
One editorial comment about bus travel in South America–at least Peru and Ecuador. Most of the time, the operators play a video, and all of the time the video is an action film. Two aspects of this irk me. One is that the volume is invariably deafening. Yelling, guns firing, tires screeching are not at all conducive to sleep or reflection anyway, let alone at such an unbearable volume. The other irksome thing is that these films inevitably contain a graphic sex scene. That means that all of the wide-eyed underage passengers are exposed to a sort of sensory overload they are much too innocent to see and hear. If you´re planning a family vacation to South America and intend to take children along, don´t travel by bus.
Okay, got that off my chest. I arrived in Tena a few hours ago. The dense foliage, humidity and occasional squawking of an exotic-sounding bird indicate that this is, in fact, the jungle. I have yet to look around much, but my first impression as the bus entered town was: Am I in Jurassic Park?
I came down with a cold yesterday, but if my health permits, tomorrow I hope to go river rafting, the most popular recreational activity in these parts. In the meantime, mucho orange juice and an early bedtime. By the way, Hall´s throat lozenges now come in blueberry.
Tags: 1, Baños, Ecuador, Rio Verde, South America, Tena