My wife, Suzan, and I have lived in Ecuador for a long time now, and sometimes we forget how different life here can be from what we were used to back in the U.S.
But every now and then we’re reminded pretty clearly, as we were just last week during a trip to Baños de Agua Santa, or simply Baños as it’s commonly called.
Baños is a top tourist destination in Ecuador thanks to its incredibly beautiful setting in the Andes. Part of that setting happens to be Volcan Tungurahua, an active volcano that overlooks the town.
That’s one difference between life here and in the U.S. Back in the States, not too many people would settle, or even be allowed to settle these days, at the foot of an active volcano, much less make a touristic selling point out of it.
But this particular volcano is part of what makes Baños so special. For one thing, it supplies the heat for the many thermal baths and natural springs that have made the town a famous balneario (spa town) with pleasure seekers and health fanatics.
In typical Ecuadorian folklore style, the volcano has been personalized as a somewhat wanton woman who, at the same time, cares for and protects the town. She is known to have promiscuous and contentious relationships with some of the other local mountains, and when the hard feelings and jealousy among the lovers gets too hot, she vents them in minor eruptions that spare Baños from outright destruction. Because she loves Baños.
That’s the pre-Christian story… The other is that Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa, or Our Lady of the Sacred Water, protects the town from Tungurahua. The basilica that houses the sacred Virgin is a landmark in Baños, replete with paintings depicting the miracles She’s performed for individuals who might otherwise have perished in various eruptions. She is also credited with miraculous healings thanks to the sacred waters of a special waterfall that cascades down the slope above Baños and into the pool and cool grotto at its base dedicated to her.
But living in the shadow of an active volcano isn’t even the most striking difference we noticed on this trip between life here in Ecuador and that in the U.S.
Nearby we could see people who had come to go bungee jumping…off a traffic-choked highway bridge over a river gorge that must have been at least 500 feet deep. (We watched jumpers who seemed to be losing their nerve as they stood on the highway railing with trucks and busses rumbling by behind them… The attendant calmly reassured them…then simply pushed them off.)
We took a tour on a double-decker bus…with an open top that went through tunnels and under power lines so low that we were asked not to stand up or raise our hands at any time during the trip.
This may surprise you, but I have to tell you—these are some of the things I love best about Ecuador.
Yes, these things are scary. Heck…they’re terrifying. But if you don’t want to do them, you don’t have to. If you do want to do them, it’s on you, plain and simple.
And if somebody else wants to do them, crazy or dangerous as it may seem, it’s nobody’s business but theirs.
And it’s no use demanding to see the operator’s permit or the paperwork from the last inspection or the official list of safety and emergency procedures or a copy of the mandatory age restrictions. Those may or may not exist, and the operators may or may not have them, and they may or may not show them to you if they do.
And it doesn’t matter. It still comes down to…do it or don’t. It’s up to you.
It was up to me, and I didn’t do the bungee jump. But Suzan and I did sit on the top deck of the decapitation bus (which offered some of the most incredible vistas of the surrounding mountains we’ve ever seen), and we did take tarabitas, or cable cars, across a couple of amazing river gorges without taking too close a look at the cables or fittings.
I’m pretty sure that the tarabitas and the bus and the bungee jumping operation wouldn’t pass even the most basic government regulatory requirements or safety inspections in the U.S.
And if that’s the way you like things, Ecuador may not be the place for you.
I’m glad I live in a place where all these things can exist without being regulated and inspected out of existence, and where the responsibility and consequences for doing them…or not…are still mine and mine alone.
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