This was a fantastic week in every way. We were in Quito until Sunday for the end of project festivities, and then on Sunday afternoon several of us headed south east to the town of Baños. While the word baños does mean "bathrooms," this town came to be called such because of the volcanic hot springs within and around the town. Baños is a stone's throw from the Tungurahua volcano, an extremely active volcano that you can occasionally hear rumbling while walking around the area.
On Sunday we took it easy, arriving after sunset to find our hostel and get settled in. Monday we decided to jump off a bridge. This wasn't just some dinky bridge, either-- it was 45 meters down to the river below, with sheer cliffs on each side. Of course, we had a rope so that we wouldn't fall all the way to the water. The folks that brought us to the bridge had a little iron platform that they fitted over one side of the bridge which we stood on, the rope went under the bridge and on the other side was a man holding the end of the rope, watching for when we jumped off so that he would know to hold on tight. On the count of three, you let yourself fall and tumble through the air, watching the mountains and the town and the river and the bridge swirl around you as you try to remember to breathe, and after a few seconds the rope catches and you swing across to the other side, back and forth like a pendulum as they lower you to one of the cliffs below to unhook yourself. I am extremely afraid of heights, but I am so glad I did this. It was one of the most thrilling experiences I've had so far. After 6:00 Monday night, we went to the hot springs and soaked in the steaming hot mineral baths for a couple hours to relax and soothe our souls.
Tuesday we decided to go white water rafting. Our guides drove us out about 45 minutes further east of Baños into the beginnings of the Amazon rainforest, with greenery all around us-- new types of trees and flowers, and we even saw monkeys (real wild monkeys!) jumping through the trees along the road. We went down to the Pastaza River, went over rafting safety basics, and hit the water. I was expecting more rapids and more near-death experiences based on the experiences of friends of mine that had gone before me, but even without that it was a great time. At the beginning of the trip we were still in mountains, with cliffs along the river going straight up 40 or 50 meters, waterfalls pouring in every once in a while. At one point we went close to one of these waterfalls but not underneath it, our guide mentioning that sometimes rocks fall from these cliffs. Sur enough, several minutes later right after steering away from one of these walls, we heard a huge splash as a boulder weighing nearly as much as a small car crashed into the river, directly in front of the other boat full of our friends. Nobody was hurt though, so it was okay. As we continued down the river, the mountains stopped and we were out of the sierra and into the flat land of the Amazon. the jungle spread out around us and it was fantastic-- we hadn't seen so much flat land since we'd been at home. After rafting, we drove on back to Baños and went to the hot springs again that evening.
Yesterday, my Ecuadorian friend Ave and I decided to climb the mountain between Baños and Tungurahua to catch a glimpse of that famous volcano for which the province is named. Usually the hike takes about an hour, according to Ave and others who have done it before, but we were determined. Even though it was very steep at times and I have flatlander gringo lungs, we made it to the top in a little over a half hour. When we arrived at the summit to the one wooden bench left there for those tired hikers who decided not to rent a truck or four-wheeler to take the road up, the volcano was completely covered with clouds. We sat up there for 3 hours, talking and starting to learn Quichua, and finally the clouds broke right at the top of Tungurahua and we got to see its peak. There's always a reason for sticking around, right? The peak hid once again after only a minute, and by that time it was starting to get dark and we had a ways to hike down that would be very difficult at night, so we headed down. We were exhausted and called it an early night, heading back to Quito today.
Tomorrow, Matt and I meet with Chumillos to finalize excavation plans, hoping to start work Monday. This vacation was exactly what I needed beforehand, though, a great break full of new exciting experiences, some of which I had to sign my life away for... but all of which were worth it.