21
Aug
08

Baños: A Tourist Trap on Eruption Alert

“You see the volcano?” My companion was pointing at Tunguruhua, which towers commandingly over Baños. Even in the pitch darkness, the moon reflected its snow-covered peaks back to where we sat drinking canelazo and staring down at the quaint, Andean town. The sight of the snow is disarming; the volcano last erupted in 2006 and we were currently sat in the bowels of the beast. Some nights you can still hear it growling restlessly, like a giant whose sleep is being disturbed by a mouse infiltrating his britches. Seismology units packed with high tech monitoring equipment are situated at vantage points around the peaks, poised for the next eruption, and the inhabitants of Baños are assured that the early warning signal will indeed be early enough.

If you squint and fix your gaze on the amber carpet of lights in the valley, you might be forgiven for mistaking Baños itself for a giant, fiery crater inside a soup-bowl of gargantuan mountains which surround it on all sides. No exit roads are visible from where we sit, but they do exist, and, in stark contrast with the rest of Ecuador’s highways, are smooth and navegable. And rightly so; any sort of roadblock during a major eruption could have a catastrophic effect on the evacuation plan. Of course, all this makes Baños sound like an incredibly dangerous place to live, but the money-making possibilities are endless. Such a stunning landscape twinned with a thriving extreme sports scene is a mouth-watering prospect for tourists looking for something intangible and death-defying on which to spend their hard-earned cash. It’s all here: there’s mountain biking, white water rafting, bridge jumping, canyonning and many other ways to get your (and your insurance broker’s) blood pumping.

To save on accommodation costs, we travel through the night to reach Baños which is less than 300km from Guayaquil. Due to Ecuador’s roads being in such a sorry state of disrepair, a journey which, in any western country would take half the time, takes some 8 hours, only a couple of which afford us the luxury of sleep. There’s hardly enough time to grab breakfast before we’re kitted out in rafting gear and whisked to a remote part of the forest by our pubescent driver Santiago, who, despite being barely able to reach the pedals of our Chevy pick-up, navigates the route admirably, overtaking four cars at one particular chicane and dropping us at a stretch of river right off the set of Deliverance.

We spend the next 2 hours lurching gracelessly about the Rio Negro, beaching our raft on rocks, losing crew members in the foamy surf and pretending our frantic oar-work is any match for the forces of nature. It’s tremendous fun. We high-five with our paddles every time we come through a particularly hairy stretch of river and eventually haul our battered bodies ashore just in time for lunch.

Night falls and the town seems to be emptying. Not because Baños’ adrenaline junkies have had enough for the day, but because there’s only one place to be in the evenings: Punto de la Cruz, which you reach by open topped bus. It’s not until we’re fully clear of the town that we’re allowed on the top deck – powerlines are slung perilously close to the ground here meaning that one too many canelazos (a powerful concoction of Tequila and sugar cane juice) could quite easily lead to a double whammy of decapitation and electrocution.

The activity at the viewpoint resembles Glastonbury’s Stone Circle; people stand watching clowns tussle around a campfire while jugglers flail burning poi just yards from the cliff’s edge. Some are simply content to sit staring into the valley, or up at a star-encrusted sky, or at the sleeping giant away to the left. It’s a curious juxtaposition of frenzy and tranquility. When the raucous applause for the jesters peters out, all that is left is an eerie serenity and the silent menace of Tunguruhua.

Sleep that night, at four hours, is at least a 100% mark-up on the previous night, and by 8a.m. we’re hurtling through the Andean slopes on mountain bikes, stopping briefly for one of the more fatalistic members of our group to pay $15 for the privilege of throwing herself off a bridge. Santiago stands twiddling his keys impatiently at the end of the trail, ready to transport us to Puyo, which is a 2 hour drive to the edge of the Amazon rainforest. It’s more than worth the detour. Our guide, Carlos, immediately proves his bushman credentials by demonstrating the medicinal properties of a certain tree bark. Actually, he prepares and we demonstrate. As instructed, I suck a handful of the foul solution into my left nostril, then immediately start to panic as the blood vessels in my septum atrophy, my vision clouds and a searing pain darts around in my throat. It feels like I’m snorting mace, but Carlos assures me it’s good for my sinuses.

Our trek ends in a secluded part of the forest, where water gushes from an aperture above our heads into a sizeable pool. We’ve no swimming costumes but it’s too good an opportunity to resist. We leave the torrid jungle heat behind us and plunge gratefully into the cool water, which is a grey-blue colour, not from dirt but from a clay substance that is used by indigenous tribes for its exfoliating properties. Later that day, we are lucky enough to meet one of these tribes and learn how they use the same clay to make ceramics. There’s also just enough time for us to meet the village Shaman who thanks us for our visit and even takes the time to treat my sunburn with an aloe plant.

We’re late back to Baños and missing the bus back to Guayaquil is not an option, since the next one doesn’t leave for another 31 hours. I am allocated the job of stalling the driver while luggage is picked up, which I achieve by employing the well-documented and virtually infallible tactic of Standing In Front Of The Bus And Gesticulating Wildly. It works, and as my companions arrives, the mayhem abates and I dive into my seat, I look out of the window, reflect on a perfect weekend and allow myself a huge grin of satisfaction.

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