The first time I ever went backpacking, I traveled through South America alone. I did not have the travel buddies that I have now and I knew that if I waited for someone to join me then I would never go anywhere. And I am glad I did. I learned so much about the world around me and even more about myself. Everyone should have the opportunity to take a trip on their own to find out who they are when no one is around.
I met Jackie and Allie in a hostel in Quito, Ecuador. We were all planning on going to Baños the following day and agreed that we should travel together. Baños de Agua Santa is full of adventurous activities that we planned to take full advantage of. We took the bus into the green mountains of Ecuador to the small touristy town of Baños.
Casa Del Arbol
The first thing we asked about at our hostel was how to get to Casa del Arbol, the swing on the edge of the world. We walked across the very tiny town to find the bus that would take us out there. The bus was full of not only American tourists, but also tourist that had come from other parts of Ecuador and South America. Halfway there, it started pouring rain.
We stood in line in the muddy grass waiting our turn on the two swings on the edge of the hill. Latin America is not known for being good at standing in lines and we were cut by many kids that did not want to wait in the cold rain! The swings were on long ropes attached to the tree house that sat on the top of the hill. When you would swing, the rope was long enough to soar you out into the nothingness, making you truly feel that you were on the edge of the world. But don’t worry! You have a little rope strapping you in.
The following morning we took advantage of the hot springs that were located on the edge of town, at the base of one of the mountains. We had no idea what we were doing and started to walk in, hoping we could hop right in. A lady stopped us and rambled off in quick Spanish as we stared at her with blank expressions. Her sign language told us that we needed shower caps. “Donde?” I asked in simple Spanish, hoping she would talk slower. She gestured downstairs. We rented towels and caps and they allowed us to leave my sunglasses as a deposit. Did I mention I don’t buy sunglasses that cost more than $10? We put away our things and headed to the warm pool when we were stopped by the same lady.
“Chicas! Necesitan duchar!”
We had to shower?! We saw a group of people crowded around a few outdoor shower heads and we quickly rinsed off in the lukewarm water, which was not warm enough to combat the cold air. Then we sprinted into the hot tub before we could be yelled at again. The water was hotter than expected and I could only stand to be in the warm pool for a few minutes at a time. I tried sitting on the edge of the pool but was acutely aware that we were the only girls in bikinis.
The hot springs lie at the base of a waterfall. There were pipes pumping out spring water from the side of the mountain for those that wanted to shower in it. It also made for a stunning view. I sat mesmerized by the lush green mountain looming over the side of the pool. The wind rushed through the bushes and tress. The waterfall tumbled down the side.
‘How beautiful it is to be this free,’ I thought to myself.
As we walked home from the hot springs, we heard music coming down the street and saw what we thought was a parade. A dozen kids lined up in unison, dancing to the music that was playing from the speaker of the car that drove slowly behind them. Behind the dancers were lines of kids wearing soccer jerseys and cleats, ready to play in the street that had been blocked off. We sat to watch the cutest game of soccer that I have seen to this day. The kids were about 5-8 years old and played as though their lives depended on it. One little boy took his shirt off and swung it around his head after scoring a goal.
Baños is known for their incredible water falls and the best way to see it is by bike! I had not been on a bike in years. I wasn’t sure I knew how to ride one and now I was voluntarily going to fly down a mountain on one of these things? However, it turns out that there is a reason for the saying “its like riding a bike”!
La Ruta de Cascadas (or waterfall route) has over 20 waterfalls that vary in shape and size. Most you can see right from the road but some you have to hike to. It was mostly a downhill ride but at times there were small hills we had to climb. As I let myself fly down a hill without braking I realized how free I felt.
We stopped at different points so that our guide could tell us about the various waterfalls. We also had the opportunity to zip line across the river, through the beautiful green valley.
At the end of our ride, we locked up our bikes and hiked to El Pailon del Diablo, the Devil’s Cauldron. Our guide held our backpacks to keep them from getting completely soaked and I could see why. Even at a distance the mist of the raging falls reached us.
The stairs were soaking and we got wet just walking down them to the viewing platform. At the bottom it was easy to see why it had been named after the devil. Water violently forced its way over the top, seething all the way to the pool. It was defiant, angry, and more powerful than anything I’ve experienced. I followed the tunnel that allowed us to go behind the massive waterfall. It was not well built and involved crawling on my hands and knees, climbing straight up holes in the rock and squeezing through small passes. In order to fully get behind it, you had to run under a stray shower of the fall. Sensing my hesitancy, one of the locals that was already behind it eagerly waved me in. I followed her in, giggling as I got drenched in the chilly spray.
It never let up, not even for a minute. Never showed signs of weakness or of being anything but all-powerful. As everyone left and I was alone in the pocket behind the infuriated waterfall I realized that this was true freedom. Freedom to follow where life takes you. Freedom to get out of the life that society has built for you. Freedom to step outside of your comfort zone and get soaked in the devil’s cauldron and never worry about the consequences. Freedom is so much more than a luxury granted to you by your country. It is more than the ability to choose where you live or what your career will be. Freedom is the ability to see life as it is and seek out more. It is to not conform to what is expected of you. It is to always be questioning, observing, and learning.
Traveling teaches you about the places you visit. But it also teaches you about yourself and the world that you do know. Baños taught me about who I want to be and where I want to go in life.