Baños, Ecuador: Retirees Rediscover Their Sense of Adventure

My sister, Laura, and I are speeding down a hill in Baños, Ecuador at 30 mph on our bicycles, when we miss the tunnel bypass and fly into the 650-meter underpass where cars honk, and city buses blow past us. Once out the other side, my sister wants to commemorate this exhilarating moment by having me pose in the middle of the street for a photograph. “Don’t worry,” she screams. “We’re too old to die young.”

Laura and I are in our early 60s, and we are neither athletes nor daredevils. But we used to be. We come from an era where parents pushed you out the door at dawn and shouted, “don’t come back till dark.” We lived by the woods and a lake, and spent our days cane pole fishing for catfish and paddling our pirogues down small canals alongside slithering moccasins. We built forts in the woods, then got lost coming home, eventually retracing our steps back.

Laura and Donna completed the 11-mile bike ride
Laura and Donna completed the 11-mile bike ride after surviving their tunnel scare.

We didn’t live off the grid because there wasn’t a grid. My dad thought television was only for football, so we entertained ourselves with our creativity. We bounced between Louisiana and Texan relatives on the weekends, where we did everything outdoors from riding horses to camping and building fires from kindling.

Without helicopter parenting, we were left to fend for ourselves and learned valuable lessons which helped us later in life. We improvised from what we had available and used our ingenuity to problem solve. Like learning to sail when our mom bought us a boat and pushed us off the shoreline… only for us to discover there was no boat plug and we were sinking.

By the time we hit our 30s, we moved on to white water rafting in North Carolina, and hiking sections of the Appalachian trail. I backpacked through Europe alone while Laura married and started a family. Life started taking over and now, in our 60s, we had survived marriages, divorces, child-rearing, caring for aging parents, and working high stress jobs—but found ourselves weakened by life without the joy and adventure we once felt.

Baños, Ecuador

That’s where Baños, Ecuador came in. We needed a reboot—an experience to recapture the joys of our youth. So I planned a vacation for us in Baños, the “outdoor adventure capital of Ecuador,” which included riding bikes through the mountains on a waterfall tour, hiking and canoeing in the jungle, and white-water rafting.

Banos Waterfall

This was our opportunity to reclaim our sense of adventure and show our mettle—even though we hadn’t seriously done something like this in maybe 20 years.

Laura and I completed the 11-mile bike ride after surviving the tunnel and were treated to amazing views of non-stop waterfalls. The final waterfall leg on our bike tour included a hike down to the base of the spectacular Rio Verde’s Pailón del Diablo waterfall, so we stopped for a lunch of trout and empanadas before heading out. With heavy bellies and a beer between us, we started the hike down the mountain to reach the foot of the falls.

“This is more like repelling,” I said of the steep descent. At the time, it didn’t quite register with us that we would also have to climb back up. Thirty minutes later we reach the falls which is 262 feet high, with powerful cascading water hitting the rocks and sending mounds of mist over us.

Although the beauty was mesmerizing, when we looked up at our walk back up the mountain, we had tears in our eyes. An hour later we made it to the top, where we retrieved our bikes and placed them in the back of an old truck. We climbed aboard and huddled on rickety benches and began our journey back into town. Later, we dragged ourselves to massages, an hour of bliss for $25 at the Monte Selva resort. We ate peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips for dinner because we were too tired to do anything else.

The next day we hiked through the jungle to yet another wonderful waterfall, surrounded by European college kids on their gap year backpacking sabbatical. They stripped down to their swim suits and dove into the ice-cold water and flipped around like dolphins. We didn’t know to bring bathing suits, so we lounged around the falls and soaked in the view—wishing we were brave enough to skinny dip, but there are some things better left unseen.

We visited a tribe in the Amazon and got our faces painted like warriors. A blue parrot sat on my shoulder while trying to grab the bungie holding up my ponytail, as we took turns learning to use a blow gun. Then we sat in a dugout canoe while our guide paddled us along a peaceful view of indigenous tribes who still live in huts along the river. We drank hot chocolate made fresh from bean pods for us by a cocoa farmer and slept like babies on the bus ride back to our Airbnb rental, Casa Escondida—a three-bedroom house for $20 per person a night, two blocks from the always bustling downtown area of Baños.

Banos BirdAfter sleeping like hibernating bears, we headed out for the final adventure of our trip, white water rafting on the Pastaza river. We rode with a busload of college grads from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and Australia. The atmosphere took on a frat-party air and for a while I felt like we were back in college.

We boarded rafts that cascaded down class II through IV rapids, where we watched the extreme sports guys from the Netherlands flip their boats (on purpose) and paddled down rapids while standing up. Us “old ladies” weren’t treated differently by the raft guides, who took pleasure in gently pushing us over the raft’s side with their paddles into chilly water and watched us as we rode rapids flat on our backs—our feet sticking up to rudder us.

As you get older, you lose your confidence of what your body can and will do. When we were kids, before latchkey was a concept, and computers didn’t exist to rob us of outdoor experiences, we trusted our instincts and our strength. We waterskied in lakes with alligators, parasailed over the ocean—and weren’t preoccupied with things with potentially precarious outcomes. The way we were raised taught us to not be afraid. But we became afraid the longer we stayed in stressful jobs and worried about money. We drank to escape our dull and cumbersome lives. Took Ambien to quiet our busy minds. And we stopped, just plain stopped, having fun.

When Laura retired last year, she declared herself “old” and consigned herself to bingo nights. Mind you, my sister looks at least a decade younger than her age and resembles Jane Fonda, so picturing her sitting around playing bingo at a senior center was laughable. After our trip, she imparted this wisdom.

Amazon jungle
Laura, Donna, and their friend Sandy pose for a photo in the Amazon jungle.

“I labeled myself old, and this trip taught me I’m not old. I can do all the things I used to do, and I have to stop living like an old person.” We call this ReWilding. It’s our journey back to becoming alive again. And we plan to do this revival of our spirits as often as we can.

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