Ecuador: The recap, part 3

I know, I know. You totally don’t care anymore, can’t even remember where I went, barely recall who writes this thing in the first place. (That girl? With the blabbering? Didn’t she just go to India?)

But I’m here to correct you and insist you take a seat and listen to some final thoughts on my trip to Ecuador, that country in South America, where I journeyed ages ago. I can even refer you here and here and maybe even here if you need some background before we proceed. No worries, I’ll wait. After all, I made you wait, um, over a month, for this last piece. I’m terribly sorry about that.

Really.

But I think I’m ready now.

So. When we last left our reluctant, nature-phobic heroine, she was in Quito, soaking up all the cobblestone-lined streets, banana milkshakes and fog-rimmed views the mountain-enclosed capitol has to offer. And it was…well, it was okay.

To be honest, I was a little bit underwhelmed by Quito. Maybe it was because our tour guide had conveniently high-tailed it to Wisconsin or because our Spanish was embarrassingly bad, or maybe I was just unaccustomed to traveling without the constant sense of dread and anxiety that had accompanied so much of my India trip, but I just couldn’t get that excited about the city. It was new; it was different; it was fine – but I just didn’t feel like there was that much to see or do or, most importantly – let’s be real, eat there.

And then we went to Banos. And my trip was made.

Banos – pronounced Bon-yos, with a tilde that I can’t figure out how to add on wordpress –  is about a four-hour ride from Quito, up and down windy roads that cut away to deep ravines and rivers on one side, mountains stretching upward on the other. It was a multiple dramomine kind of trip. But once you get there…well, it’s worth it.

Very Jurrasic Park, no?

We stayed at a hostel that charged us $9.50 a night for a room with two sets of bunk beds, a shower with an ample supply of hot water and, unbeknownst to us at first, a massive spider that looked more like a furry mammal than an insect. Our confrontation with said spider resulted in me screaming so loudly that several people on our floor I was being raped, Ben sequestering himself in the computer room with the alibi that he was googling “tarantula and Ecuador,” and an employee eventually killing it with a shoe, while assuring us, “no es una tarantula.” I invite you to be the judge of that.

The hostel also had a rooftop lounge where we spent most of our time in the evenings, reading books (Eat, Pray, Love for me; something so complex and science-y I can’t even describe it here for Ben; Cavalier and Clay for Chels) and playing card games (well, playing card games for Ben and Chels, getting killed in said card games and then whining about it for me.)

The evenings were relaxing and easy, a perfect compliment to days full of, well, adventure.

My most favorite activity of all was a bike ride we took down a popular path in town, which leads you through a series of waterfalls, or cascadas. It was totally downhill, and I was wearing a horseback-riding helmet, which is to say it was as far from a legitimate physical activity as you can get. But I managed to get some sort of massive endorphin kick out of it nonetheless – probably further evidence of how activity-starved my gym-avoiding body is – and, cycling past the scenery with the sun burning my shoulders and my little helmet bobbing up and down on my head, I was really, truly ecstatic.

I remember repeatedly shouting “This is SO MUCH FUN!” over my shoulder as we wove our way down the hills. I remember making Chelsea take a picture of me in action. I remember stopping so much that at one point Benjamin got worried, but I just couldn’t let it all go by so fast.

By the time we reached our final destination, a massive, pulsing, shooting stream of water catapulting itself over rocks faster than anything I’ve ever seen, I was oh so happy.

We hiked down a path carved into the shrubbery until finally we reached a drawstring bridge with a sweet view of the waterfall. Still happy.

And then we paid a few more bucks to access several balconies that have been carved into the side of the canyon over the years, slippery, rock-covered platforms suspended over and in the rushing waters that, if you’re brave enough, will take you right there. In it.

Chelsea was the first to insist she was going, descending the wet stairs to look the thing in the eye and feel it all. Per usual, I volunteered to hold her camera. I’d be fine up here, I said. Like I mentioned, already totally happy. No need to go throwing myself into a waterfall for the full effect!

But she went and she didn’t die and she came back up soaking wet and laughing hysterically and insisting that we go back down, with the camera too, and was I coming or not?

So I went.

And I’m very glad I did.

Guess what? Still happy. As if you couldn’t tell by their smily faces.

And then they saw the other balcony.

The one where you had to slide on your stomach up a tunnel carved into the side of the hill, pushing yourself up against the smooth rock until you finally emerged…where? Somewhere, up there, in it.

This time, I volunteered to hold the backpack. Someone had to do it, I argued. Can’t get all our stuff stolen in South America! Can’t shimmy up a three-foot-diameter cylinder with that thing strapped on!

So I woosed out, momentarily, and they went up and scoped it out for me, and came back and said it was amazing, awesome, I had to go, and Benjamin would help me. So he did, and I did. And I’m glad for all of it.

We climbed back up the path, soaking now, but happier even still, to find that it had started to rain for real, up there, in the real world. We didn’t even care, pedaled through the gray and walked our bikes up to a bus stop, where a local bus eventually came by and picked up our dirty bikes and dirty bodies and ferried us back the way we came, up the mountains this time, to Banos.

Where we decided it was time for some food. Strangely enough, the town has a creepily high concentration of restaurants featuring international cuisine: Mexican places and red-and-white-checked-tablecloth-bedecked Italian eateries, Argentinian steakhouses and French bistros. We covered a decent amount of ground over our three days there, indulging in the “meat platter” at the Argentinian steakhouse – which was really a series of platters stacked high with sausages and filet and pork loins and other glorious, bleeding delicacies; tostadas and burritos at the Mexican place; and cheesy baked pasta dishes at the Italian restaurant, plus a pizza with a fried egg in the middle. We also had our share of gigantic, cheap breakfasts, complete with eggs and toast and hot chocolate and fresh-squeezed fruit juices, all for a couple bucks. South America, my cheap Jewish heart salutes you.

While we’re on the subject of food, I should probably tell you about the little obsession Chels and I developed in Banos.  We discovered galapaguitos, the objects of our affection, while on a lazy stroll through the grocery store in town, and instantly fell in love. Small vanilla cookies coated in chocolate and finished with a layer of crunchy, round, multicolored sprinkles, these things were delicious and adorable and hilarious. Let’s be honest: traditional Ecuadorian food they were not, as evidenced by the big Nestle logo stamped on the back, but I really couldn’t have cared less. Coincidentally, we made several repeat trips to the grocery store, where I had a habit of clutching the single-serve pouches to my chest.

And stocking up on an embarrassingly high number of bags. For gifts, of course. Galapaguitos: make a great souvenir from your Ecuadorian adventures! Especially when you’re too cheap to actually visit their namesake.

Lest you think our vacation was all food and fun, let me assure you I did my fair share of hiking.

And by that I mean I took a gondola-type thing to the top of a peak bordering Quito, walked a few hundred feet, decided I had altitude sickness, and went back to the lodge for a snack while Ben and Chelsea fended for themselves in a freak hail storm.

But that was back in Quito. In Banos, fueled by a waterfall high and freshly-squeezed blackberry juice, I actually made it to the top of a few walks that involved the vertical.

I laugh in the face of danger (peligro!), obviously.

Despite the time that I valiantly spent in sneakers, I should admit that the hot baths were really more my thing.

Banos is built on hot springs that pump naturally warm and mineral-rich water into several man-made pools, where you can soak and sun yourself and pat yourself on the back for that half-hour-long hike you did in the rain that morning.

It was relaxing and lovely while still being different and new and maybe even a little scary at first. Actually, I’d say the whole trip was kind of like that, when you stack everything up, side by side, activity after activity. And every time I do, I come to the same conclusion. Totally worth it.

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