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A very long entry on buses in Ecuador and Baños (August 26-28, 2010)

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While composing this description of our time in Baños, I realized that we took very few pictures in this tourist city. This makes sense: the city is mostly populated by backpackers and the service industry that has grown up around them, and other than amusing sights the city has little to offer to a photographer. It's a city where you do things: adventures in the jungle, hot springs, nightlife. Most of these activities are not camera-friendly, unless the camera is waterproof.


The Bus Journey
An initial observation on Ecuadorian buses, by way of former transatlantic trips. I have always felt that certain movies should not be shown on airplanes. For instance, I hope that whatever programming genius at Continental decided that Titanic was a suitable movie to show on a London-New York flight was fired in earliest-possible round of layoffs. It's not as bad as showing the first episode of Lost, but still not friendly towards customers who jump at turbulence.

Similarly, if I were to choose two movies not to show on buses hurtling through the Andes--driven by young men who, to judge by their speed and distracted recklessness, had just received a steamily-inviting text message from their respective ladyfriends--I would be hard pressed to come up with titles more inappropriate than the 2008 remake of Death Race or The Fast and the Furious: Indistinguishable Sequel. Yet there we were, alternately leaning into the aisle or towards the window as the bus driver passed slower trucks while navigating blind hairpin turns, all to the accompaniment of a dubbed Vin Diesel threatening dire revenge against someone who had done him wrong.

Ecuadorian buses are not for the faint of heart, the weak of stomach, or the literally inclined. For instance, a stickler might point out that an "express" coach should go direct to one's destination, or a least make a show of only drawing to a limited number of pre-determined stops. Ecuadoran buses do not do this. No, an Ecuadorian coach will take any opportunity to pause at a random intersection to pick up additional passengers or to allow aboard vendors offering you ice cream, water, fried and dried plantain, candy, an RIAA-lawyer's nightmare of pirated CDs or DVDs, or any manner of other swag that can be borderline-comfortably hauled down the narrow aisle in the center of a bus. Sometimes the vendors stick to clear and straightforward cries of "agua, agua," and sometimes their walk of sales is preceded by a six or seven minute diatribe comprehensible to anyone, no matter how poor his Spanish, who has ever ridden the New York City subway. It's the "I am raising money for my education/sick mother/sister with rare and expensive disease" speech, and I suspect the odds that the speaker is telling the truth are no higher on the Pan-American highway than on the 1 train.

Despite the coachmen's breakneck highway pace, they are perfectly happy to take time off for the vendors, because every one (or perhaps just every one that makes a sale, I couldn't tell) tips the driver a few coins. The trouble is that guidebooks, travel sites, and backpacker forums are full of tales of sleeping or inattentive travelers whose possessions were liberated by "vendors." Thus, these sources advise travelers to keep their possessions clutched in their laps at all times, which is as comfortable as it sounds. Locals followed the same procedure, lending credence to the warnings. [1] And even without the worry that every DVD seller is a secret predator, it's hard to relax in an aisle seat when he sits on your armrest for half an hour hawking the top 40 to the passengers across from you.

This is not to say that Ecuadorian buses are not fun in a perverse way, at least to those who are not subject to carsickness. I'm sure that they are safe in a statistical sense, in that they can't all fall off the road. But the perception that they could plummet over the side at any moment gives a amusement park thrill to the three hour journey from Quito to Baños. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, however, a private van from Baños to Quito will run you around $80-120. This isn't cheap, but it's considerably more comfortable if you can get a group together, and saves you the $6-10 taxi fare from the bus station to your hotel. (Having met up with some lawyers on vacation during our stay, we took this option on the way back to Quito.)

Baños itself
Baños, plunked down in a valley between half a dozen lushly-green Andean peaks, revolves around the busloads of tourists who arrive and depart each day. The average age of a Baños backpacker is young enough to make me feel old. The multitudes are drawn by very cheap (about $7/person for a nice hostel room) lodging, abundant nightlife, and more adventure tour options than I have seen in my life. The city's name, however, suggests the draw for older tourists: Baños is home to famous hot springs, which we didn't manage to visit, unfortunately.

We only stayed in Baños for two nights, at Hostel Princessa Maria, recommended to us by other backpackers at the Secret Garden. As hostels go, it wasn't bad: clean, with a nice bathroom, and a very small balcony that would have been perfect for smoking a cigar in the evening, had I had one.

Walking through the tourist section of Baños takes about ten minutes: there are two principal squares from which most of the main streets radiate, and these streets are filled with bars, shops, internet cafes, restaurants and tourist agencies. The largest number of adventure activity agencies seem to be based around the corner of Martinez and 16 de Diciembre, and they offer everything from volcano hikes, white water rafting, city tours on go-carts, trips into the Amazon, and "canopying." We only tried the rafting (and only on class 3 rapids), but the other members of our boat had tried the canopying earlier in the day, and told us that the treks feature ziplines, rappelling, and gliding over the jungle attached by your back to a rope. It sounded like quite a lot of fun. [2] Most of these adventures take place in the jungle about half an hour to an hour drive from Baños.

Our tour operator, Motosport Adventure, also provided lunch on the way back from the river at a small roadside eatery. Everything was cooked by a woman standing in front of a giant wok of pork fat. Some of our fellow travelers did not enjoy this so much, and in truth it didn't look particularly salubrious. I enjoyed it, however: how can pork-fried everything (including banana, potato, and of course, pork) be bad? And it can't be less healthy than Taco Bell.

We spent a rainy Friday night dancing at the Leprechaun Bar, which features a covered back porch, a roaring fire, and free popcorn. One more sign that this town is too young for me: we were one of the first on the dance floor, which doesn't really start bouncing until about midnight. We did not try the "Flaming Bob Marley" shot, which is apparently a signature drink but sounds godawful. Another fun bar--with cheaper drinks than most--is the Jack Rock Cafe, which apparently [3] was called the Hard Rock until the copyright police clamped down.

If I had it to do again, I would have spent more time in Baños and less time in Quito. For one thing, the cost of living is much cheaper. And while Baños lacks the cultural interest of a city like Otavalo (which we will be writing up shortly), given more time it would have made a good starting point for a journey into the Amazon.

[1] On the other hand, the woman in the seat next to us on the bus to Banos calmly set her newborn on a blanket on the seat next to her and commenced a marathon cellphone conversation. Given the way the bus was starting and stopping, I was seriously concerned that the tyke was about to hurtle forward into the barrier dividing passengers from the driver. (We were in the first row.) This is not to say that she was a bad mother: she apparently knew the route and when to pick up the child before a sharp corner. But for someone like me, who believes babies are far more fragile than every mother has ever told me, the trip entailed prayers to heretofore-unknown Incan baby gods that the child was somehow velcroed to the chair.

[2] The other rafters were, incidentally, lawyers from Hong Kong and a financial worker from New York. It's a small world.

[3] Our old Lonely Planet guide calls the place the Hard Rock Cafe, and local lore confirms that the name was changed at the insistence of a more famous and heavily-lawyered institution.

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