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The International Writers Magazine: Ecuador - From Our Archives

The Other Baños
Tyrel Nelson

In Ecuador, when people mention Baños, it is assumed that they are referring to Baños de Ambato, which rests at the heart of the Central Sierra Andes (in the nation's bull's-eye). In fact, foreigners as well as ecuatorianos constantly flock to this colorful, valley town to take part in the active nightlife, various restaurants, and, of course, the thermal baths that define this tranquil pueblo (20,000 inhabitants). Moreover, this enticing, hip municipality is also a hotbed for those seeking outdoor adventure. It's no surprise, then, that droves of adrenaline cravers make the trip to the Tungurahua province in order to hike, mountain bike, ride horses, raft, kayak, etc. For all of these reasons, Baños de Ambato is generally considered to be the country's most desired and praised resort community. And after seeing it with my own eyes, I'd have a hard time disagreeing with that claim.

Then...there's the other Baños. Like its namesake to the north (7-8 hours by bus), this much smaller version is also tucked away in the Andes, known for its hot springs, and hyped up. Based on a pair of visits to Baños de Cuenca, however, I'd have to say that's where the similarities end.

My first impression of the tiny township was actually a positive one. About six months ago, I held a brief feedback session with my Beginner English students. After I handed back their midterm exams and answered a few questions, I then told my learners that they could leave. Unsurprisingly, all four of them quickly threw their books into their bags and hustled out of the classroom.

Ten minutes later, I ran into Danilo, Iceman (a.k.a. Mecias, who delivered ice to local bars and restaurants), Eddie Money, (Eduardo), and Val (Valeria), who were waiting for me by the school's front gate. They were appreciative of getting that gorgeous Friday off and, therefore, asked if I wanted to hang out with them for a bit. With no plans for the rest of the day, I accepted my students' invitation.

The five of us subsequently piled into Iceman's tiny blue van (which had Icemen proudly painted in huge yellow letters across both sides) and sat for a moment, pondering our next move. Without warning, Mecias then started the engine and peeled out.
"I know where we should go," the weathered, 35-year-old said while racing his rattling tin box down the street.
"Have you been to Baños," Iceman asked while turning to me.
I shook my head from his front passenger seat.
"Good, because that's where we're going," he added.

Fifteen minutes had passed when we finally pulled into a small, dusty lot in front of a giant, light-blue church, which sat atop a small hill a few miles southwest of Cuenca. After ogling the impressive, sky-colored chapel, Danilo, Eduardo, Mecias, Valeria, and I turned our backs to the holy house and observed the verdant valley that dominated the picturesque panorama. We not only scanned the numerous white houses that were scattered along the immediate hillside below, but the five of us also saw where we had come from. Well past the salmon rooftops in front of us, sat the capital of the Azuay province. Cuenca was distantly nestled into a green notch of the surrounding, far-reaching Andes.

A short while later, Iceman zoomed downhill, taking Danilo, Eddie Money, Val, and me to one of his favorite establishments in Baños. For the next hour, we sipped on sodas, munched on empanadas, and chatted about everything besides English class. I really enjoyed getting to know my students better.

Eventually, our stomachs ballooned while the conversation dissipated. And so, Iceman sped back into Cuenca, dropping each one of us off at our respective doorsteps. It was a really fun day.

Recently, I had some time to kill as well as the urge to escape from my apartment for a few hours, so I decided to make a return trip to Baños.
"Baños? Why are you going there? There's nothing to see; it's ugly," responded Sheik, my Costa Rican neighbor, when I informed her of my plans. Ignoring the always-opinionated, graying housewife, I proceeded to the bus stop across the street from my building. Several minutes later, I hopped onto the first #12 that approached me on that sunny morn.

After a twenty-minute bus ride that furiously zigzagged through southwestern Cuenca, I was standing in front of the same church that Iceman had brought his classmates and me to last December. Like my previous visit, I took a look around and immediately liked what I saw.

As the dark blue, leaded-fuel-guzzling beast roared out of sight, it revealed a small, instrument-playing procession, which rhythmically paced under the billowy clouds of that beautiful Saturday sky. I took many photos of the marchers, who slowly approached the chapel and entered. Furthermore, while I listened to the churchgoers loudly singing inside, I snapped various shots of the holy house. I was truly impressed with the structure's vibrant appearance and tiled domes. In fact, it looked like the chapel had just been covered with a fresh coat of paint. Notwithstanding, the church was, unfortunately, the literal and figurative highpoint of my second jaunt to Baños.

Descending into the lackluster community, I noticed that my enthusiasm for the town steadily decreased with my altitude. This time, I wasn't in a van that zipped through the pueblo's narrow byways. I was on foot for round two and, therefore, spent a couple of hours meandering along the inactive avenues as well as small-talking with a couple of folks. This period on the streets gave me good feel for the depressing township. And apart from the chapel and its Andean vistas, I was beginning to realize that Baños was far from appealing.

Sauntering down the silent roads, I discovered that they were lined with faded houses, littered-lots, empty shops, dive bars, and dirty discos. Furthermore, besides the handful of resorts (for those that could afford them and actually liked spas, unlike myself) there really wasn't much to do in Baños. For example, Cuenca's son lacked the abundant hiking, mountain bike, and horse trails that Ambato's pride and joy flaunted. Similarly, there were no charming cafes, crafts stores, or nearby waterways for rafting and kayaking-just a few health resorts, nothing else.

In truth, I was only there for a couple of hours and bored out of my mind. Hence, I cut my stay quite short by walking to the eastern edge of the drab town and catching the first #12 returning to Cuenca.

Looking back, I was probably distracted by the good time that I was having with my students and, therefore, didn't pay much attention to Baños de Cuenca my first time around. Going solo for the sequel, however, gave me a much more thorough interpretation of the dreary pueblo. And frankly, I really didn't understand why I had heard so many people rave about this place. All in all, Sheik wasn't that far off.

© Tyrel Nelson June 2008

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