Opinion: Ecuador’s Gatekeeper

Opinion: Ecuador’s Gatekeeper

The ocean blue sky, the lush green mountains towering above me, the crisp wind blowing past my curls; it is the plurality of a soothing nature. I am afraid to look down. Crowds of strangers gather to watch as I step closer to the edge.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” a man shouts from the crowd.

I look back, unmoved by his comment. “I think so,” I whisper, as my lips tremble.

When you’re more than 30 stories above jagged cliffs and a torrid river, you tend to second guess your life choices.

“Jump!” the man standing behind me yells.

I look forward towards the looming hills on each side of the river valley and slowly inch towards the edge. This is heaven, or at least the closest place to it, and for a moment, I have wings. Welcome to Banos, Ecuador, the place where the fearless come to experience the quintessence of life along with a small taste of death.

Most normal college students choose a place like Panama City Beach or South Padre Island for spring break; the classic recipe of beach, alcohol, drugs, and parties; but I guess I’m not normal. When a roundtrip ticket to Quito, Ecuador (leaving out of New Orleans) appeared in my email for $330, I couldn’t turn it down. After a few weeks of hastily preparing a travel itinerary, I set off to explore the unique South American destination.

Nobody is ever truly prepared to visit an entirely different area of the world. Much less a foreign speaking country. Sure, there are books, online forums, and videos, but the experience manifests itself inside each person differently.

After seven hours of travel and a 19 hour layover in Dallas, I finally arrived in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. Sitting at a hefty altitude of 2850 meters on the Equator, it’s easy to see why the city captivates so many travelers year after year. The air was as fresh as I had imagined, albeit rather thin as I sensed my breathing becoming shallower with every step I took.

However, the city isn’t how I pictured it to be. There were no dirt roads, run-down shacks, or third-world indicators. In fact, if someone had blind folded me and dropped me off in the middle of downtown Quito, I would have thought I was in America. Tall buildings dotted the skylines, KFC’s and McDonald’s dominated the street corners, and the newly paved black asphalt provided a smooth ride for the influx of traffic.

Nevertheless, I didn’t travel to Ecuador to experience the amenities of a robust city, I came to get down and dirty with the culture of the locals in far off places. With an oversized backpack resting on my shoulders and a smart phone with a Spanish translation app glued to my fingertips, I slowly made my way to Terminal Terrestre Interparroquial Rio Coca, the main Quito bus station.

In typical fashion, I fumbled with my words as I tried to remember the lessons of my high school Spanish teachers. A small, rigid man hobbled down the steps of the bright blue bus I was standing in front of.

“Uhh, Donde es…” I stuttered while I tried to figure out the exact translation of “is this the bus to Banos.”

The man didn’t even have to ask any questions. He must have experienced the lack of Spanish competency in foreign travelers many times before me.

He smiled, “Banos?” he quickly said.

“Si!” I said in an overzealous fashion.

For someone who isn’t fully fluent, much less adequately fluent, in a foreign language, the simple act of a foreigner being able to understand your broken language is a small accomplishment all on its own. It’s like a well-deserved pat on the back or a participation trophy, a reminder of “hey, maybe I can do this solo after all.”

On the way to Banos, Ecuador’s true beauty revealed itself in the landscape passing outside of my window. Civilization blended seamlessly with nature as colorful Favelas filled the steep hills and clouds seemed to float mere inches above in the sky. At every stop, vendors of various products, like nuts and ice cream, would hop on board for the few moments we were docked

Not even the buses could escape Ecuador’s culture on their long journeys. In every moment, there was a constant realization that I did not belong to this country, that I was an observer of an alluring, coherent system of life. Everything had a purpose: the mountainside blossoming with tree tomatoes and mandarins grown by the local farmers, merchants selling hand-knitted quilts that were derived from the very soil they stood on, it was a cycle of sustainability.

Four long hours later, I finally arrived in Baños de Agua Santa, the gateway to the Amazon Basin. Taxi’s and crowds of locals zoomed past me.

I thought to myself, “Do they not realize where they are?”

The city center was engulfed in the local terrain like a bowl. Lofty mountains surrounded the entire city while crystal clear waterfalls flowed seamlessly down the sides almost as if a magician was conjuring them out of no-where. In fact, the town was more reminiscent of a picturesque desktop background than an actual place.  From the architecture to the graffiti painted on some of the buildings, creativity was everywhere.

On one building, hidden amongst shops selling hand-painted wooden sculptures of llamas and 100% authentic ray ban sunglasses (wink, wink), there was a mural of  Bob Marley painted in blue and red abstract inside the body of colorful woman wearing a turban. Maybe it was a message, a symbolic greeting that implied the laid back nature of the town.

A taxi driver noticed me, in the midst of a probable lost and confused facial expression, from the side of the road.

“Are you looking for somewhere in particular?” he asked.

Startled by the unfamiliar voice I said, “Yes actually, I’m looking for a hostel called La Casa Verde.”

“Si, Si!” he exclaimed. “The owner, Sharon, is a very good friend of mine.”

As much as I wanted to stay to take in my surroundings, I put my luggage in the trunk and began my 5-minute journey to the hostel. Much to my surprise, the fare was only $1.50. It was cheap, especially compared to places I have been like London and New York.

As a matter of fact, pretty much everything about Banos was cheap. Food vendors sold skewers loaded with potatoes, plantains, and chicken for a $1.50, vendors sold quality t-shirts for $6, and even a half-day activity of white water rafting only cost $25, a fraction of the equivalence at American price. To make things simpler, Ecuador has used the United States Dollar as their form of currency since 2000. Say goodbye to conversion rates and currency exchanges fellow travelers.

Upon my arrival to the hostel, Sharon and her husband Steven welcomed me with open arms. The hostel was a comfy, yellow and green three story house that sat on the edge of the Rio Negro. If peace and tranquility were people, they would have lived here. Hammocks of all colors hung from the patios, fresh fruit was laid out on cedar wood tables inside the dining area, and a hidden, stone pathway led visitors to a fruit and vegetable garden by the river.

Sharon instantly greeted me as I walked through the oak trimmed front door.

“Hey how are you!” she exclaimed. “My name is Sharon. My husband Steve and I will be your hosts for your stay.”

After showing me around the hostel, she began to paint a picture of Banos.

“There’s something to do for everybody here,” she said. “If you want to relax the city has century-old hot springs, there are trails for sightseeing and nature-watching, or you can just walk around the town and meet the wonderful people here.”

“Is it safe to walk around here alone?” I said.

“Safe? Banos is more than safe. About the only dangers here are the dogs. Besides the strays, the locals let their dogs out to roam all night. But I guess, if you’re adventurous, you could put yourself in danger if you want to,” she laughed as she took a sip from her water.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, you can rent ATV’s and go off-roading, there’s a swing at the top of a mountain here where you can dangle off a cliff, you can white-water raft in level four currents, there’s bridge jumping,”…

…“Hold up, did you just say bridge jumping?”

This was the moment that I realized my calling in Banos. I had to jump off a bridge to make this trip even more memorable than it already was. I wanted excitement, exhilaration; I wanted to say that I have done something that the majority of people can’t say they’ve done.

“Well, if you want to go bridge jumping I can call a taxi and have that arranged for you,” she said.

Nervously, I looked up from the map of Banos she had given me, “Count me in” I said.

“You should take a stroll around the town first, take it easy.”

After another short taxi ride, I was dropped back off in the city center. The centerpiece of the town, The Church of the Holy Water, dominated the city-scape and its’ black bricks juxtaposed the vibrant buildings around it. Most visitors consider the basilica the focal point of the town. It’s a way point to help tourists navigate the confusing twists and turns of the city roads.

Before attempting the treacherous feat, I decided to grab some lunch. A small, wrinkled lady cooked an unfamiliar animal in the distance.

“What is that?” I asked as I walked closer.

“Guinea pig” she said.

To my surprise, Guinea pig is one of Ecuador’s national delicacies. On one hand, a part of me thought about my girlfriend’s beloved pet Guinea pig, Rudy. Images of little cute, fur balls running on hamster wheels played over and over again in my mind. On the other hand, I wanted to experience Ecuador’s culture to the fullest extent. Sorry, Rudy, I had to do it.

“I’ll have one, please,” I said.

A few minutes passed and the old lady walked out with a steaming plate of Guinea pig atop of white rice and Pico de Gallo. Even though it looked like a burnt rat that got stuck in an exhaust pipe, it turned out to be quite good. The tangy spiced peppers balanced well with sweet undertones that I couldn’t quite place my finger on. However, there wasn’t much meat on it. Imagine a chicken breast that’s been eaten and only bits and pieces of meat remain on the bone, that’s what the meat content of a barbecued Guinea pig is like.

The restaurant was dimly-lit, the yellow walls were faded with a lone picture of a mountain landscape hanging by a window near the entrance. Locals ate at red-painted tables arranged in communal style

“Where are you from?” the man sitting across from me asked. Sweat trickled down his tan forehead from the lack of air-conditioning.

“The United States,” I said.

He looked at me starting from my shoes and slowly working his way up to my beige baseball cap. He smiled,

“We’re glad to have you in our city,” he said.

The hospitality of the local people in Banos was like no other. The local people were as helpful as it gets. Whether it be giving directions, offering a place to stay, or even recommending restaurants, the people in Banos helped complete the experience.

After eating, I slowly made my way towards the bridge. The San Francisco Bridge is a recently built bridge in Banos that stands more than 300 feet above the Rio Pastaza Gorge. I didn’t think it was insane at the time, but when the taxi driver who brought me to the city center figured out where I was going he said, “Oh, you’re one of the crazy ones.”

It’s not that I was insulted by his comments, I just relished in the fact that not even a local had the grit (or maybe he had sense, unlike me) to jump off his own city’s infamous bridge.

Despite a weathered looking purple rope, the bridge itself looked brand new. The white pavement and bright yellow traffic lines shimmered in the daylight. A tall, slender man in his mid-40’s walked up to me.

“You look like you want to do the bridge swing,” he said.

Cautiously, I nodded my head.

After a few safety procedures, I jumped. In that instance, I discovered Ecuador’s true beauty. The murky brown rapids below, the vibrant vegetation that reached towards the sun’s golden rays, and the eroded boulders that took millions of years in the making, they all represent a moment in time that is frozen in a detailed culture.

Banos is freedom. It is the ebb and flow of a man dangling mid-air on a threaded rope: Far enough from the earth to provide a glimmer of uncertainty and reality, but close enough to the stars to illustrate an ethereal altruism.