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Bathing, browsing, biking around Ecuador

Email|Print| Text size + By T.R. Goldman
Globe Correspondent / March 25, 2007

BAÑOS, Ecuador -- Nothing invites conversation like a hot bath, and the public baths of Baños are very large, achingly hot, and plenty conversational. They are also a great opportunity to achieve that perfect tourist karma: taking part in a local ritual with the same ease as the people who live there.

There are lots of hot baths in Baños ; they account for the name of this mile-high city in the midst of 200-mile-long Volcano Alley , a row of ancient Andean peaks that bisects the country with geometric precision. But the public baths, at the end of the road next to a floodlit waterfall, provide the best introduction to the curious pleasures of soaking the body in a steamy brew of hot, mineral-laden water.

There are three large pools at the Baños baths ringed with an underwater ledge. The water's anti-gravitational effect means a soak in the baths takes no physical effort , the better to let the mind wander while watching the steam rise like the mist that hovers around the top of the mountains. The few European and US tourists might stand out, at least physically, but given the bath's communal nature, no one notices, or at least seems to care.

Ecuador is one of South America's smallest countries, about the size of Colorado, but it is dense with places to visit and that's not counting the Galápagos Islands 600 miles off the coast . The country has rain forests, beaches, colonial towns, and its most densely populated region, a roughly 7,500-foot-high plateau, runs between the two chains of mountains right through the center of the country. A series of volcanoes ranging from about 16,500 to 20,700 feet high -- Sangay, Chimborazo , Tungurahua, and Cotopaxi -- stand guard as you make the 10-hour trip up the Pan American Highway from Cuenca to Quito.

The country is in some ways more modern than our own. In the two large cities, Guayaquil and Quito, there are malls far flashier and offering far better food than you will find in the States.

The dollar is the official currency. And though that tempers the oddly satisfying sense of dislocation that traveling provides, it also allows you to quickly realize how much less expensive the country is: A steak in a fine restaurant costs $5, good beer in a bottle is $1, and a decent hotel room can be had for $30, even in Quito.

Much of the country, though, is rural, and as you drive along the Pan American Highway, you can still see an isolated schoolhouse, a small village in the valley with its centerpiece church, or grazing animals that have strayed onto the road. There are Quechua Indians everywhere; their broad-brimmed hats and colorful skirts eventually just blend into the scenery.

Most visitors will both fly into and leave from Quito, the colonial capital near the northern border with Colombia . But it is just as easy, and provides a far less repetitive route, to land in Guayaquil, on the coast, head east over the Andes into Cuenca, then head due north along Volcano Alley to end your trip in Quito.

Guayaquil, the country's largest city and its commercial center, has in the past decade undergone a complete transformation, from dangerous and dingy port city to an urbane destination with a handful of genuinely interesting places to visit.

Start downtown with Parque de los Iguanas (Iguana Park), a city- block- square of green . At first sight, it appears to be an ordinary urban park. Look again, however, and its unique nature emerges: Iguanas, varying in length from 2 to 4 feet, are at home here. Often motionless but for their pulsating necks, the reptiles' dull green skin is outlined against the foliage. Notice one, and suddenly you realize they are everywhere .

Which can make for some fascinating interactions. Enraptured children gently feed lettuce to these mini-dinosaurs, while a businessman immersed in his newspaper, legs crossed in concentration, is oblivious to the two or three giant iguanas resting next to his bench.

For dinner, take a slow climb up the 440 steps of El Cerro, an international model of urban renewal that boasts dozens of small, home-style restaurants that are, quite literally, in peoples' homes. Just five years ago, El Cerro was a slum of the worst kind, off limits to anyone except those who lived there. Now Guayaquilenos and tourists stroll the area, stopping along the climb to shop or eat. There is a magical air about the place, and you can find great versions of the national dish "arroz con menestra y carne asada" (rice with beans and meat) .

From Guayaquil, hop a bus to Cuenca, three hours to the east, and you leave the heat and coastal ambience behind. In half an hour, the air turns cold, and as the road climbs closer to the clouds, the fog descends, so that even though it isn't raining, everyone is driving with their windshield wipers on. The mountains take on a deep, moist green hue, and if you look over the side of the road, you can see ragged cloud bottoms touching the ground.

Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture, it has the feel more of a small town than Ecuador's third largest city. Cuenca is also the center of the Panama- hat-making industry; try Sombreros Barranco at Calle Larga 10-41 for a tour. (The hat's misleading name is a result of its popularity during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early part of the 20th century.)

From Cuenca there are numerous day trips to enjoy, including the Sunday market town of Gualaceo, where vendors offer crisp piece s of glazed skin cut from a hog. Don't miss the opportunity to try roasted "cuy," whole guinea pigs, another Ecuadoran specialty.

There are two or three large cities between Cuenca and Quito -- Azogues, Riobamba, and Ambato -- but if you want to make just one stop on the way to Quito, it has to be Baños, an hour east of Ambato. Baños is a tourist town, but rarely have villagers and tourists coexisted so harmoniously. With its small central square, imposing church, and many restaurants and shops, it somehow manages to be charming without being cute.

The best biking in Baños is downhill. You can rent a bike at one of several shops, and ride for hours towards Puyo, 60 miles away, enjoying views of spectacular waterfalls along the way. The trip requires bravura : You are sharing the highway with trucks, cars, and buses, and go through at least one unlighted tunnel. Several of the largest waterfalls can be seen from a rudimentary cable car suspended some 300 feet over a gorge that is pulled from one side of the ravine to the other by a small motor. When you have had enough cycling, strap your bike on the roof of a passing public bus or hire a local van to return to Baños.

Horseback riding is available well up into the mountains. And if you are lucky, you will see the local volcano, Tungurahua , sporadically thundering and belching smoke. (Sensors installed by Ecuador's Geophysical Institute have so far given residents and tourists fair warning when there is going to be a significant eruption.)

Quito, just three hours away, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site with one of the best concentrations of historical architecture in South America. Finish your visit with at least a few days here before flying home.

T.R. Goldman, a writer at Legal Times in Washington, D.C., can be reached at tgoldman@alm.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

Hostal Tangara

Ciudadela Bolvariana, Guayaquil

011-593-4-228-4445 or 2828

tangara-ecuador.com

A family- friendly hotel with good breakfasts near the University of Guayaquil. Doubles $40 with breakfast.

Inca Real General Torres 8-40, Cuenca

entre Sucre y Bolívar

011-593-7-2823-636

A 210-year- old building lovingly restored in the heart of downtown Cuenca. Doubles around $50. Isla de Banos Calle Th. Halflants 1-31, Baños

011-593-3-274-0609

Owner Christian Albers has been in Baños for years. He can also set you up for horseback riding, hot water baths, and bike touring. Doubles around $25.

Where to eat

Red Crab

Ave . Estrada y Laureles, Guayaquil

011-593-4-2380-0512

A four-restaurant chain with delicious crabs for a few dollars each. A favorite of well-heeled Ecuadorians.

Cafe Eucalyptus Gran Colombia, Cuenca

011-593-7-849-157

Run by American Leslie Breen, Eucalyptus is a skillful combination of the best of Ecuador and the United States.

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