Yesterday morning started off as it usually does; I set my alarm for 6 am, woke up at 541 am, wandered into my bright living room, stared in awe at the new way the clouds cover the mountains every morning, then — after a few minutes –I flip-flopped my way into the kitchen towards the coffee pot to make myself a quick brew while my laptop (and I) turned on. I really do need to get a pair of slippers for while I’m here. When you’ve got a pair of slippers, it means you have a place to call home.
I met my friends Nan and Libby at the Rio Coca bus terminal to begin our little travel adventure to some natural hot springs in a tiny (practically non-existant) town called Papallacta (altitude: 10,824 ft), about 2 hours outside of the city. I quickly discovered that we had a way of getting to Papallacta, but no sure way of getting back to Quito. Well, we decided, it’s all part of the adventure! (Right?) We agreed that we’d figure it out somehow, and couldn’t let that stop us. Half of traveling is the unplanned crap that happens when your plans fall through anyway, right? Half of life…
I arrived at Rio Coca first (shocker — being early is a problem I have), so I waited with my backpack full of sunscreen — SPF 30 (I’m the only gringa who doesn’t carry around SPF 100 in this place, apparently)– as well as a towel, change of clothes, and water/snacks. Ecuadorians curiously watched me as I stood with my “I know I’m white but don’t fuck with me” face on, my thumbs tucked under the straps of my backpack, my stance strong (distributed evenly between both feet, standing tall).
When my friends arrived, we saw our bus pulling out of the station. We ran to flag it down and they barely stopped the bus and pulled us each in, one at a time. Our journey began with a 30 minute ride to a town called Cumbaya (“someone’s SINGING my lord….Cumbaya!” Anyone? ANYONE? Hehe) that cost us $0.25. I sat in the back of the bus, the Ecuadorian sun beaming powerfully in through the window, two little Ecuadorian women with baskets of food, skirts, jet-black braids and little hats sat in front of me. Salsa blasted from the front of the bus. I got my first glimpse of the snowcapped Cotopaxi volcano (19,347 ft high — to think I was halfway there, altitude-wise), which I will visit before I leave this place…
Once we arrived in the town of Cumbaya, we had to literally jump out of the bus and find a big supermarket in front of which we had to catch the next bus, a bus to Tena. Of course, we weren’t going to Tena, so we were going to need to convince the bus driver to pop open that door somewhere 1:45 minutes into the mountains and drop us off, probably literally (again).
The journey was stunning. To get from Cumbaya to Papallacta, we had to pass through the mountains and ascend a peak over 13,000 ft high, then descend back down to about 11,000. I also got my first taste of Ecuadorian bus travel. In my book, nothing could be worse than the freaky cliff hugging rides I took in Costa Rica, but I’d put Ecuador bus rides at a close second or third for now. When we hopped on that bus, it was completely packed — standing room only. All the curtains were shut, it was sweltering hot, and a guy was selling stinky empanadas in the aisle. The ride would cost us $2 each, but with no bathroom and no open windows, along with a big ascent, I will admit: I would have paid a few bucks more for someone to crack a window.
Luckily, we walked all the way to the back, where families of four were smushed into two seats, and two gringos – Dan and Tom from Colorado (PhDs in mountaineering)- quickly scooched over and made room for two of us. They were great company for the ride, and even though my seat was in the permanent reclining position, we were starved for air , and we were stuck in the middle of the very back row of an overcrowded bus… I actually think I enjoyed the ride.
Finally, we arrived in Papallacta. We were dropped off on the side of the road in the middle of NOWHERE, where cows stuck out from the sides of extremely steep, green hills and we could have walked for an hour down the highway before seeing our first car. When we asked the bus driver how we could catch the bus home, he told us to stand on the road and hail it, like a taxi. Oh, and forget schedules. (HA. Like this was going to work…) But it was all we had, so we let the bus drive away.
When we got to the bottom of a very long, steep, rocky road, we realized we had 2 km straight up to walk before arriving at the hot springs (11,000 feet, I remind you). Luckily, a guy with a truck offered to take us up for $1, and we accepted. (Questionable hitchhike experience #1 of…? in Ecuador.) Once we got to the top, we quickly found a restaurant for some carb- and fluid-loading for the altitude and the dehydrating hot baths in which we’d be spending the day. I enjoyed a very thick and delicious guanabana batido (like a smoothie — purely guanabana fruit and milk) before heading to the thermal baths. Yum yum yum, all around.
We spent the day hopping from one pool to another, from boiling to warm, and back to boiling again. We lounged in puddle-sized hot tubs with random Ecuadorians in Speedos (the suit of choice for men here), and went from pool to pool, happily savoring the stunning green mountains around us and the blanket of warm water that enveloped us. The natural warmth of the hot springs combined with the cool, misty mountain air made for a beautiful combination. We met so many Ecuadorian families, who genuinely just wanted to know where we were from, tell us about Ecuador, and talk to us in Spanish. It was wonderful. They were all so sweet and so open, and so curious as to what the heck we were doing there! Hehe. I’m starting to notice a theme…
Of course, because I seem to have a knack for this (not a bad thing in my book!), Nan and Libby decided to hop into the ICE pool very quickly. Now, I’m no fool. I don’t mind the thrill of cold water but in that cool mountain air, this particular pool was NO JOKE. It was ICE cold. ICE! I decided to stay in the hot pool while they ran out and did their thing, and agreed to guard the flip flops and the key to our little locker.
Sure enough, a very ripped and toned Ecuadorian man floated over to me (I had noticed him before and though, hmm – triathlete or swimmer?). He was very nice, and just asked where I was from, what I was doing in Ecuador, etc. We barely got to talk before my friends came back and I left him alone in his tight Speedo in the hot pool.
After we had had enough of the hot springs and were beginning to get a little woozy, we decided it was time to get out, find another snack, and attempt to get home. We dried off and headed to one of the little restaurants outside the hot springs, where I ordered my first choclo con habas, which is basically corn with these giant lima bean-esque things that taste like earth in a delicious way. The corn on the cob came out with chaotic kernels, not all lined up in a row like American corn, and they must have been quadruple the size of what I even considered big corn kernels in the states (I wrote “here” but I guess the states are more like “there” right now. Oops). It was a delicious protein-filled Ecuadorian snack to at least get me through the next few hours of possibly waiting on the side of the road to hail a giant bus in the mountains.
As we were leaving the restaurant, I realized my very athletic looking Ecuadorian friend was just paying his bill with his girlfriend or friend, whatever she was (she looked very sweet). I smiled and he asked us if we were going back to Quito. We said yes. He asked how? We said bus… we hoped… He said, let me drive you. My two friends looked uncertain. I know I know, not necessarily safe… He’s a stranger. He was flirting (or something) earlier. What were we thinking? Nan and Libby both sort of turned to me to decide, because I had a better sense of how trustworthy he was from our brief encounter earlier. He just said “look, I have a car with plenty of space, I’m driving to Quito with her [he pointed to the mysterious but adorable Ecuadorian woman], and it’s totally up to you! But I’m going now, my car is right there…” After some quick glances at each other, some quick measuring the risks and advantages, and a realization that we still had 2 km downhill to walk before we even found the highway where the bus may or may not even show up… we agreed to go with him. I will say that I got a good vibe from him, and I felt much more comfortable knowing this shy Ecuadorian woman was coming too.
So, we got into his little red car. His name was Santiago and his girlfriend (or whatever she was) was Sonia. Thrown in the backseat were a bunch of triathlon magazines and bike catalogs. I felt strangely in my element, asked immediately if he was an Ironman (from my experience, they tend to have these things lying around…) and he said “Yes, and a triathlete.” And, we were off…
The ride was BEAUTIFUL. Even more beautiful than the ride to the hot springs because this time, I could see everything. Santiago and I talked about sports the whole time, while we shared our cookie snacks with him and Sonia and let him tell us all about the places we MUST go while in Ecuador. Nan and Libby had no idea what we were talking about (huh?waking up early to exercise? Tavel wants to race something in Ecuador? Training at altitude, what?!) He offered to teach me to swim, I said “ha, I don’t have money to pay anyone for that… I’m just going to figure it out in the water…” and he was just like “no, please, as a friend! It would be my pleasure!” He told me about lightweight racing bikes I could buy from his female triathlete friends, and showed me a pool (when we got into the city) in my neighborhood where I could go swimming… It was all just great! He was totally HARMLESS, safe, and wonderful and sincerely gave us that ride from the kindness in his heart! Who wouldda thought?!
I know it’s important to be safe, to be careful, blah blah blah (as I’ve mentioned, TRUST me — reminders are constant and feeling 100% safe is something I now treasure), but there are also GOOD people out there. People who sincerely just want to help, to talk, to share, to be useful. Distinguishing one from the other is not always easy, but in this case, Santiago was beyond kind, and he probably saved us hours of waiting in the rain by the side of the road in the middle of the mountains, where who knows what else could have happened?
Sometimes, when you travel (when you LIVE) you just have to trust that these random people — call them guardian angels, call them knights in shining armor, call them friends, or whatever you like — will be there. You can’t plan for them and you can’t depend on them, but you can always hope that there is the slightest chance they might appear…
And when they do, no matter what obstacles or uncertainties you encountered before them, they can help you get where you’re trying to go. You just have to be open to the possibility that sometimes good things and good people happen.