DESTINATION UNKNOWN

'We Have No Idea Where We're Going'

We decided to send our writer and his wife somewhere they knew nothing about. And we weren't even telling them where until the day they were leaving. At least that was the plan...

It doesn't take much to set off the vendors' gringo radar. We've been in town for all of 20 seconds when a tiny woman in a black fedora (part of contemporary indigenous dress) dashes across the street to intercept us. She's got a baby swaddled over her left shoulder and an armful of scarves in bright colors. Susan agrees to buy two scarves if it's OK to take some photos.

Inside the market, we both try on the alpaca sweaters sold by Rosa and Alfonso, a couple from the weavers' town of Otavalo. With the sweaters priced at only $28 each, we're not looking to haggle, but we are a little cash poor, at least until the next norteamericano-friendly ATM. But the minute Susan says we'll take one, Rosa writes a figure on her palm, and, well¿my grandmother would never forgive us if we passed up two for $40.

We take a bus to Latacunga (30 minutes) and another bus to Ambato (60 minutes), then one more bus to Baños (60 minutes), where we stumble right into Café Good. A lovely 18-year-old named Gabriela Pulgar and her equally guapo father, Jaime, take good care of us, though sadly, they have run out of humitas. On the way to the restroom, I realize that the doorway they keep disappearing through leads down a hall and up some stairs into their home. The restaurant is literally a family making meals in its kitchen. (The location closed soon after we were there, but a second branch is still open.)

Baños is as Santa Fe might have been 50 years ago: definitely touristy, yet not exactly inauthentic. No doubt the nearby volcano Tungurahua--there was a big eruption as recently as August of 2006--keeps a lid on growth. Walking past the many expedition operators, I realize that I could spend a week here doing outdoor and adventure stuff like kayaking, canyoneering, mountain biking, and hiking in the jungle. We check in to the Hostal La Posada del Arte, owned by Jim Redd and Marshia Jackson, a pair of expat cyclists from Chicago with a dog named Simón, after Señor Bolívar. The clerk, Rosana, doesn't need to speak a word of English to direct us toward the main hot springs. She simply takes me down the street and points to the waterfall we can see from our room.

The town's name is officially Baños de Agua Santa ("baths of holy water"); the hot springs are officially Las Piscinas de la Virgen, named for the church's statue of the Virgin Mary. The baños are a communal place with three big pools, one of which is a scorching 118 degrees. The regular pool is way more relaxing, as is the glass of Chilean cabernet I'm served back at the hotel with our organic repast: fried locally caught trout and a paella made with quinoa--as common in Ecuador as white rice is in the U.S.--and sweet potatoes.

We wake to heavy rain, and we learn over breakfast that rain and traces of pyroclastic flow caused a mudslide, closing the one road into and out of town until the afternoon. This is not exactly devastating news. We just might have to go a whole day without getting on a plane or bus. When you don't have plans, you often feel a weird momentum, pushing you to move on to the next place or to make a new discovery. It's a relief to just stand still.

I'd planned to work for my massage--the Luna Runtun spa is an hour-long hike halfway up the mountain--but now we have to take a cab. Luna Runtun is an upscale resort with 30 rooms, the spa, two restaurants, and a garden growing avocados, corn, and tomates de árbol. For $90 each, Susan and I get a massage and another treatment (facial for Susan, volcanic body scrub for me), lunch, and access to the pools (hot, cold, and Jacuzzi), which we have to ourselves.

The day of relaxation also means more time for conversation: In Baños, we meet a birding guide who recommends a cloud forest west of Quito, while Marshia tips us off about a café in Quito that arranges visits to a plantation. If we had planned on staying in Baños for a second day, we might have brought our luggage; then we could have side-tripped to the jungle or spent a few days descending from the mountains back to Guayaquil.

As the express bus to Quito passes through each town, vendors hop on hawking everything from fried bananas to books of dirty jokes (after a few miles, they catch the next bus going back the way they came). We don't even have to stop and see Salcedo, a town known for its ice cream: Salcedo comes to us. "Helado!" the woman with the little cooler yells as she comes down the aisle. Susan opts for a coconut one. It costs 50¢, and it's exquisite because of the quality ingredients: real sugar, (presumably raw) milk, and fresh coconut.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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