Adios to Banos

The volcano
was angry last night. On our last night in Banos, through a light but
persistent drizzle, the loud booming blasts echoed up and
down the valley as Mount Tungurahua, still in activity although not immediately
dangerous, let off gas and smoke in a sort of geophysical indigestion.

A least a dozen times during the night the powerful explosions shook
the Andean air, louder than dynamite, keeping us awake in anticipation
of our dawn departure back to the coast of Ecuador. At 6 am we gave up
on sleep, rose from under the comfortable covers in the pool-size cabana
in the Hotel Sangay, downed our daily dose of pharmaceuticals (Lipitor
for cholesterol, Atenenol and Lisinopril for hypertension, a Mega
Vitamin with anti-oxidants called "Super Crusader" and a healthy dose
of codeine in anticipation of the all-day bus trip down to the Pacific
Ocean), and headed across the street to the Ba?s of the Virgin.

Even at that hour the baths, located directly across from the Sangay
and under the veil of a hundred-and-fifty foot waterfall, were full of
locals and vacationers getting an early start on the day. They open every
morning at 5:30 and cost $2 for foreigners like the Dowbrigade, $1 for
Ecuadorians and 50 cents for kids and seniors. Without a comment on the
inherent discrimination we plopped down a couple of Sacagawegis and headed
for the hottest of the half dozen pools of mineral water.

The steam rising from the pool blended imperceptibly with the smoky
fog from the low-lying clouds that blanketed the town.  We were
the only Gringo at that early hour, but over a hundred Ecuadorians were
easing into the pools, showering under the icy fresh water streams diverted
from the glacial runoff, or chatting on the cement benches around the
perimeter of the establishment. However, only a half-dozen were in the
pool we entered, the hottest of them all.  It was obvious why; the
water was just at the borderline of tolerable.  We felt our skin
turning red and imagined this was what it was like to be a lobster at
a New England clam bake.

As we gazed out over the town and mentally bade it a fond adieu, as
always just until we could figure out a way to get back here, our glasses
started to steam up and we grabbed them from our face, with a bit more
force than intended. One lens popped out as we fumbled to catch them
before they disappeared into the murky green pool.  Luckily we were
successful; otherwise we would probably still be there searching vainly
and waiting for them to drain the bath. We decided it was a good time
to pack up and hit the road.

A quick cold coke to replace some of the bodily fluids the baths leeched
out, and back across the street to the hotel, more clearly visible now
in the early morning light and lifting fog. In the hotel parking lot,
which had been empty when we arrived last Tuesday, there were now several
dozen cars, trucks and vans, including one giant tour truck belonging
to a European climbing expedition, 30 feet long and packed with tents,
pitons, ropes and assorted other mountain gear, a Land Rover pulling
a trailer with three Moto-cross type bikes, mud encrusted and dangerous
looking, and a number of vans from tourist agencies in Quito, the capital,
three hours away.

We rinsed off in the shower of our room.  Norma Yvonne had the
bags packed, so all that remained was to lug them to the dining room
for the excellent breakfast; cheese and vegetable crepes, melon, watermelon,
apple and pineapple slices, fresh-baked bread with honey and guava jelly,
papaya and passion fruit juice, coffee or tea with water or milk.Then
down to reception to pay the bill – $160 for four nights, four breakfasts,
two lunches and a dinner, numerous phone calls. Use of the tennis courts,
whirlpool, sauna, turkish bath, home theater and computer center included.
About what we had expected, although we had forgotten the 22% tax and
service charge, bringing the total hit on our Visa to $195. One of the
few tourist towns in the world where we can afford to stay at the best
joint in town, we thought as always.

Taxi to the terminal, and an hour-long bus ride to the regional crossroads
of Ambato, arriving there at 9:15.  After half an hour wait, an
ancient but serviceable Mercedes Benz touring bus, probably retired from
some more civilized route in the Alps and imported as junk into Ecuador,
pulled in and we got on. This would be our viewing platform for the harrowing
descent from the heights to the sea for the next 12 hours.

Very soon after leaving Ambato we crossed the Continental Divide, which
is only a couple of hundred kilometers from the Pacific Ocean in this
part of South America.  Everything east of the ridge of the Andes
flows down into the Amazonian jungle, and eventually, several thousand
kilometers later, into the Atlantic Ocean. We settled into our seats,
ready to be enthralled as always by the panoramic views, the glimpses
of life in the Andes, the quick succession of climatically and culturally
distinct zones as we lose altitude, and the amusing graffiti scrawled
and painted on walls and rock faces along the highway.  Why, just
in the first 30 minutes we saw "Lucio (the President) – Traitor", "Legalize
It (no clue as to what "it" was), and "Yankees Out of Iraq" (probably
not the baseball team).

We are back on the beach now, sweating up a storm and looking forward
to tennis with the Mayor tomorrow morning.  But we know we will
be back in Baños soon, as we have been constantly returning since our
first visit 32 years ago. Anyone with a chance to visit this little piece
of heaven on earth would be a fool to pass it up.

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