May 26, 2019
On Saturday night, my first night in Cuenca, I was awakened by an earthquake. It gently but insistently shook my bed and made one door of the armoire click open and closed, over and over. The lights came on throughout the hotel and I could hear excited voices from neighboring rooms. The news on the following morning said that the epicenter was 300 miles away, in northern Peru, and that its magnitude made it 2019’s most powerful earthquake to date. Shortly after leaving the hotel on Sunday morning I saw that a road had been cordoned off with caution tape and that emergency lights were flashing in the distance; thinking that some large object might have fallen into the street during the gentle shaking, I followed the lights. They turned out to be the police motorcycles and support vehicles that were acting as sweeps in a road race. The last runner was an old man whose left foot was turned in at an impossible angle and who was running at a pace that I easily outstripped on the sidewalk as I walked beside the slow-motion commotion. I admired everyone involved, except perhaps for the guy who ran out from the square with a bottle of water and dumped it on the runner’s head, shouting encouragement. It was 60 degrees out and had been raining all morning, you well-meaning fool.
I am experiencing that sensation of time compression that is so familiar to travelers; everything is happening so quickly that, when I look back at the week that has just passed, it seems incredible that I was the actor in all these memories. That was me on that overnight flight to Quito. Me in the spire of the church overlooking Old Town. Me staggering up the hill with a watermelon. Me vomiting out the window of the bus in Baños. Me standing under the waterfall at the Pailón del Diablo. Me staring out the window during the eight-hour bus ride from Baños to Cuenca, while countryside rolled by that reminded me of England’s Lake District except that it was far more vertiginous and was dotted with decrepit shacks instead of cute little cottages. As these things were happening they didn’t seem to be sped up at all, but in retrospect, it’s dizzying.
I’ll try to keep this short.
The sky in Quito is a startling shade of blue. At 9,300 feet, there is less air between the visitor’s pupils and the blackness of space than in any other city I’ve ever visited. I remember skies like that from the John Muir trail. I didn’t notice that the altitude had any effect on my stamina, but this could easily be due more to my habitual inattention than to some kind of superhuman disregard for thin air. The streets leading down the hills that surround the Old Town are so steep that climbing them would have left me out of breath even at sea level. The cobbles in these streets seem to be hanging at the angle of repose. On the taxi ride from the airport to my Airbnb, I could hardly believe that the driver was willing to attempt them; it was only the certainty that this was routine for him that kept me from rummaging through my infantile Spanish to protest. “¿Muy peligroso, sí? ¿No tienes temor?” My Airbnb was on one of the city bus routes; the squealing brakes outside my living room window sounded like the last yelps of a dying dog. I never got used to that sound.
I hardly ever left Quito’s Old Town. The city has 1.6 million people, and something like 5 million in the entire urban area, if Carlos, my cab driver, is to be believed; in the six days I had given myself, it wasn’t reasonable to try to see how all of these people lived. I wanted to see the famous churches and old, UNESCO buildings of the Old Town, to visit a few museums, and to find some restaurants that are well regarded by the English-speaking visitors who use apps like TripAdvisor and Yelp. I wanted to be a tourist.
But I usually didn’t like being a tourist in Quito. I enjoyed the sudden appearance of Andean fashions among the indigenous women, and I enjoyed the newness and strangeness of it all – the chief allure of traveling – and I absolutely loved the pre-Columbian art I saw, but most of the experience of being in Quito was wearying.
The neo-Gothic catholic church up on the hill? Austere. Concrete. Absurdly expensive to visit, by Ecuadorian standards. A visit to the spire, requiring a second entrance ticket, requires a long climb up several ladders, which you must share with timid middle-aged ladies and young male buffoons who lean off into space and urge their girlfriends to take photos that will demonstrate their heroism for posterity.
The churches down in Old Town? Preposterous overabundance of gold leaf. “Classy” by the standards of Donald Trump. Art that, when it isn’t horrific, is often not worth a second glance. Absurdly expensive to visit, by Ecuadorian standards.
The old buildings of colonial Quito? Jumbled together with decaying new buildings. The restaurants? Tiny, often, and either tourist traps or a low level of fast food. Street life was crowded, aggressive, and palpably dangerous.
When I was staying in Guatemala, it dawned on me only slowly that the police presence in the core of Antigua’s downtown was evidence that it was necessary; a country as poor as Guatemala would not have been paying the salaries of all those officers if it hadn’t been the only way to keep the tourists from being robbed. The police presence in Quito felt necessary in a similar way. Every day I looked up at the hill at the south end of the Old Town, where an enormous aluminum statue statue leans out over the city, and wished I could climb it, but I had read that the likelihood of being mugged on those stairs was so high that only a fool would attempt it. Every night I went out to dinner, at some tiny hole in the wall, and then returned to my Airbnb in the early darkness, sticking to well-traveled streets and doing what I could to appear large and vigorous.
After six days, I hired a taxi to take me to the bus station in the south end of town, well outside the colonial center. The north end of Quito is prosperous and new, judging by the photographs, but the south end is impoverished and sad. That trip to the bus station felt like a tour of Lagos. I was glad to be leaving.
The little town of Baños is given plenty of space in all of the gringo guides to Ecuador. It has a reputation for being in a lovely area, and it is full of outdoor adventure opportunities for people who are younger and different from me: ziplines, bungee-jumping, rappelling down waterfalls, and so on. I probably wouldn’t have visited it except that it’s more-or-less on the way between Quito and Cuenca. Why not?
I recently read a book called The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. It includes several color plates that reproduce some of his adventures among Ecuadorian volcanoes. While the bus was rumbling out of Quito, I realized to my delight that I was catching glimpses of snow among the clouds to the south – I was looking at Cotopaxi, a volcano that von Humboldt attempted to climb in 1802. I recognized it immediately. Here is a romanticized painting by Frederick Edwin Church from 1855 that shows it on a much clearer day than I had.
Baños is also famous for a volcano – Tungurahua, whose summit is five miles from the center of town. In 2014, the National Geographic magazine gave first prize in a travel-photo contest to a picture of a tourist who is at full happy extension on a swing while Tungurahua erupts behind him. Shortly after that photograph was taken, they evacuated Baños for a few days, until the threat of ashfall and lahars had diminished.
The Rio Verde cuts through the volcanic sediment at the edge of Baños, creating a gorge that has to be seen to be believed. The hills around the town climb with stupendous speed. Trails snake back and forth on these hills, leading to little shacks at the edges of what appear from a distance to be stands of desperate coffee trees, clinging with all their strength to the sides of these cliffs. Baños is a happy little place – think Seaside, Oregon, without carnival rides – with no obvious police presence, an emphasis on outdoor entertainment, and trails that lead from the edge of town straight up the side of the volcano. This was just what I’d been looking for.
On my second day in town, I laced up my boots and set off for the famous swing, at a place called the Tree House – the Casa del Arbol. I had read a couple of accounts of people who had taken the bus up there and then chosen to walk down, but I had not read about anybody hiking up there. The reason for this, I think, is that it’s really hard.
The mileage wasn’t bad – three miles or so. The elevation gain wasn’t too bad, either; Baños is at 5970’, and the Casa del Arbol is at about 8700’, so I was looking at a little more than 2700’. What I didn’t understand, when I left my Airbnb, is that the first three or four hundred feet of elevation gain is on a set of stairs that leads up to a large and lumpy statue of the Virgin and Child, on a ridge overlooking the town, and I really don’t know how to pace myself while climbing stairs. I walked until I couldn’t continue, rallied for a while, gasping and clinging to the crumbling concrete handrail, and then kept going. Finally, at the statue, the stairs ended – but the trail continued to go straight up the fall line, past one shack that seemed entirely derelict, and then another that looked even worse but whose occupant had posted a sign on the trail that said “BAR.” Up and up and up. Once or twice I stopped to rest when I realized I was staggering, and then, a while later, I realized that the only way I was going to be able to continue was by staggering, so I made a virtue of it. After a couple of hours of this, I popped out onto a paved road and followed it until the final pitch to the Casa del Arbol and “the scariest swing in the world.”
The Casal de Arbol is a lovely garden, a snack bar, four large swings in a couple of different places, a tree house, and a few dozen mostly young, mostly European tourists taking turns on the swings. I took photos of some of these young people, including one transcendently lovely young woman with long blonde hair and a pair of bright orange shorts out from which poked legs that could have belonged to a springbok. After a while, when nobody was waiting, I took a turn on the swing.
This was a mistake. Even on a playground in Seattle, a swingset can make me feel a little queasy – but here, on this enormous thing, after having nearly killed myself on the hike up to the attraction, it pushed me over the metabolic edge. After three or four oscillations, I got my feet under me, unhooked the safety belt, and slowly, slowly walked through the flower garden. Look – a hummingbird. I sat and watched the happy young people. I breathed deeply. The bus back down to Baños didn’t leave for half an hour. All I had to do was rest. Everything was going to be fine.
And everything was fine. I found the bus with no trouble, and I had the change I needed in my pocket to pay for the ride. Other people got aboard and found seats, including the lovely girl from the swing, who took a seat on the other side of the aisle from me. Which was fine. When the bus started up, everything remained fine for the first five minutes and two or three dozen hairpin turns, until it wasn’t fine for a little while. But then, after I opened the window and vomited in windblown streaks down the side of the bus, and then, after a minute, did so again, and then one or two more times, I felt much better, and everything was fine for the rest of the trip into town. I avoided eye contact with the young woman while I dabbed at my lips with a bandanna. No problem.
I remember this day trip fondly. Except for the vomiting part, it was exactly what I needed, and the vomiting only lasted for a few minutes. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, although next time I’d sit at the back of the bus.
On the following day I visited the Pailón del Diablo – The Devil’s Cauldron – which my reading had led me to believe was the highlight of the “Ruta de las Cascadas” tour that so many local agencies were eager to sell me. I usually hate tours, and the Pailón del Diablo was reachable on one of the town’s standard blue buses, and the falls were accessible by two different routes, both said to be excellent; I didn’t feel the need for more.
The route from Baños out to the Pailón skirts the river, whose gorge is even deeper and more impressive as you head east out of town. Uncountable small businesses have strung wires across the chasm and advertise the opportunity to strap yourself into a harness and swoop across. I watched through the bus window as a young couple did this, in a tandem swan-dive posture, while their friends held up their phones and cheered them lustily.
The Pailón was at the end of the bus route. I followed the “old entrance” down into the gorge, walking past souvenir stands, and then down lots of stairs, and then a closed snack shop whose sign, facing the people who were hiking uphill past me, said “Pare de Sufrir, ¡Hermano Mío!” (“Stop the suffering, my brother!”) It was clear that hiking back up this trail was going to be some exercise. Down, under tree ferns, a plant I’d never before seen except in hothouses. Down, past a striped snake that I didn’t see until it slithered out from under my left foot and off the trail. I immediately tried to convince myself that it was harmless. “Red touches yellow can kill a fellow,” I remembered, but “Black touches red and you’re as good as dead.” Wait. That couldn’t be right. I have since looked this snake up on the Internet. It was a coral snake, probably Micrurus annellatus, a type of reptile known in Mexico as a “20-minute snake,” because that’s how much time you have between being bitten and drawing your last agonized breath, as the neurotoxins paralyze your diaphragm. How lucky to have seen one! Down, ever further, to the bottom of the gorge, under cliffs of hexagonal basalt, and to the ticket booth where, for $2, I was allowed to continue on the trail as it climbed back up to the waterfall.
There isn’t a very good view of the falls on the old trail – or rather, there is no good view of the entire waterfall, of the falls en todo. The view of the falls as colossal amounts of water in movement, though, from intimate, sopping proximity, could hardly have been better. The trail gets wetter and wetter as you climb up from the river bottom, until finally you reach a hole in the cliff face into which the trail and handrail disappear. Okay. Soon it is impossible to even crouch/waddle without banging your head into the rocks, so you’re on your hands and knees, crawling through a crack in the cliffside, with the water of the Rio Verde roaring down next to you. And then the crack opens up, and the trail continues through a shower bath to a platform that is almost entirely obscured by the full force of the river falling over it. I left my pack in a relatively dry spot, put on my parka, and plunged in.
I remember having done something like this as a kid, at Niagara Falls. My rental poncho was made of green plastic and smelled like the previous thousand kids who had worn it. There was a lot of water, as I recall, but there were no tree ferns or snakes or long cracks in the rock to crawl through. The Pailón del Diablo is smaller but superior.
On the other side of the torrent, against the far cliff face, I could see people on suspended walkways, shouting inaudibly to each other over the roar and gesturing with their smartphones. They must have come in via the new entrance.
Climbing back out of the gorge was easy compared to the previous day’s hike up to the Casa del Arbol. I crossed the bridge over the Rio Verde and then made my way through a little village to the big red Entrada sign and the new entrance. The new entrance offers better views of the Pailón del Diablo, and the suspended walkways are fun, but the old side, as I’ve already said several times, features tropical forest, snakes, cracks, and drenching. If you find yourself in Baños, do both.
A much smaller waterfall poured down from the cliff no distance at all from my Airbnb in Baños, starting hundreds of feet up, among ragtag papaya farms, and leaping happily down the rocks to a spot just behind the Lizburger fast-food restaurant. Just past Lizburger is the public pool whose thermal baths give Baños its name. I had thought I would spend part of my last day in Baños at the pool, daring myself to dip into the scalding pool, and then the frigid one, and then back again, but in the end I decided against it. This was another activity – like eating grasshoppers, back in Oaxaca – that hardly makes sense as a solitary traveler. It didn’t take very much introspection to recognize that my chief motivation for the visit would be to gawk at girls in bathing suits. It seemed better to spare those poor girls, who are young and attractive through no fault of their own, and myself, with whom I have to live every day with as little shame as I can manage, from such a futile display of public lechery.
I’m composing these words in my teddy-bear notebook in a lovely little cafe in Cuenca. Old wooden furniture, black-and-white photos from the Jazz Age as decoration, Eine kleine Nachtmusik on the sound system. I may make a habit of this. It is a great relief to feel free of the obligation to be a tourist, after more than a week in Quito and Baños during which I always felt that I should be visiting a church or a museum or a swingset. I’ll be here in Cuenca until sometime in July. I can relax.