South America

Ecuador Day 5: Anxiety Day (ft. Salsa)

Today was an absolute whirlwind. I almost don’t know where to start. Conveniently it’s just a travel journal, so what would make the most sense would be to start at the beginning of the day.

 

From Tena in the Napo River Valley and Amazon region, we began our route to Baños, a destination city in the volcanic heart of the Andes. Baños, for anyone who knows basic Spanish, is the word for “bathroom.” But it’s called Baños not because of its correlation with toilets, but instead because of the volcanic hot springs that exist there. So not so much bathroom, but bath.

 

Baños is supposedly the adventure capital of Ecuador. And boy did we find some adventure.

 

After a very upsetting game of “Marry, Bang, Kill” on the bus that got weird on so many levels, we eventually made our landing at the first stop of the day, which for me, was canyoneering. Now, I didn’t really know what I’d gotten myself into. I’d signed up for all these activities on the first day of the tour, not really knowing what to expect. I just knew I wanted to do fun stuff. Canyoneering sounded kind of cool.

 

Well.

 

Okay. So canyoneering is basically repelling down the face of a canyon, in this case, through waterfalls. Makes sense. I’d repelled off of rock walls before. I kind of figured it would be like that.

 

It was not like that.

 

So we started by getting fitted in our gear at the tour company’s office. We all got wetsuits and harnesses, and also we were told that we’d be given shoes. I was expecting like, special water shoes, or hiking boots, or something with special traction. We got keds. Little flat sneakers. I still don’t know why that’s the best choice in footwear, but it’s what we got.

 

Once we arrived in the canyon we got to spend some time with our guide, Chivo. He seemed like a pretty chill guy. Chivo was his nickname, not his real name. It means “goat” in Spanish. Which, if you’re gonna be a canyoneering guide, it’s a pretty good nickname to have. I felt like I was in good hands. He gave us a safety briefing and off we went. To climb up the side of the waterfall.

 

 

 

Quick shoutout to fellow Contiki-mate Doug, who, without his guidance, support, and patience for my poor, post-hiking/spelunking-sore body and its inability to scale any surface with any speed or accuracy, I would not have made it. Miraculously I got up that waterfall, but it took me some time. My limbs felt like they’d been beaten.

 

Then we started the actual canyoning. It was less like repelling, and more like slowly walking backwards horizontally while clinging for dear life to a rope, not bending your legs too much, otherwise your body crumbles and you lose your grip on the wall. No pressure.

 

The first waterfall wasn’t terrible. I slipped and stumbled a bit, got a face-full of waterfall, but recovered. Then once you got to a certain point, there was a pool at the bottom that you could just fall into rather than try to actually land. I was all about that life. Give up and let go? Perfect.

 

 

It was on the second waterfall that I almost died.

 

Chivo warned us this one was tricky. You had to scoot down one side, shift over through the falls, ducking your head so that the waterfall didn’t….eat you. And then you were to scoot down to the bottom. I started out doing pretty well actually. I had good form, wasn’t bending my legs too much, I had a good grip on the rope. I have no recollection of what happened between that feeling of accomplishment…and the sensation of being eaten by the waterfall.

 

It was pretty bad. I know I exaggerate on here a lot about “I did something stupid, I almost died,” but I was really in a bad place here. I started panicking. I couldn’t get any traction on the cliff behind the waterfall. I had a grip on the rope, but the water was so strong in the falls that I couldn’t move. I just clung to the rope with my back against the rock wall, trying to breathe until someone could help me.

 

Down came “the goat.” I obviously didn’t see him come to my rescue, but when it was described by Emily and Jordin, apparently they’d lost complete sight of me under the falls, and then Chivo descended from on high with the grace of a gazelle to come to my rescue. With his help I was repositioned in no time and was able to awkwardly make my way down the rest of the canyon.

 

Oh and upon looking at the photos that were taken for us during the activity, I found out that the whole thing was caught on film. Enjoy this montage.

 

 

 

When I got off the wall, my whole body was shaking. I couldn’t breathe. I’ve only had a couple of panic attacks in my life, but this one was definitely the most inconvenient. I sat on a log and waited for everyone else to make it down while I caught my breath. At first I kind of felt like a defeated weenie, like I was shell-shocked over something that was dumb and no big deal, but according to my onlookers, I had no reason to feel ashamed. It was pretty scary.

Here’s the falls that almost took me out, and here I am pretending everything’s fine:

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I made it out alive.

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…But there was still more descending to do.

 

Austin and I were bonding over our distaste for canyoneering and our knee-jerk instincts to say “Nah, I’m good” and sit and watch everyone else finish up the canyoning adventure. But yet we both found ourselves continuing on with the rest of the group. We peeked over to the next descent point. This one was just a slide. A good old fashioned, “sit on your butt, land in the water at the bottom” slide. I shrugged. He shrugged. Despite our initial hesitance, we both moved forward and went on with the slide. And it was fun. Doug was my slide buddy. We had a good time.

 

And then we got to the last descent, which, Mayra had told us was “a surprise.”

 

What made this last bit especially scary is that we couldn’t see what was happening until we got there and could see for ourselves. One by one, I saw my comrades disappear over a cliff’s edge. Now, remember, I just had a panic attack under a waterfall. This whole “what is happening down there and why is everyone screaming” thing was enough to make me pace back and forth along the edge of the cliff.

 

Again, god bless Doug. He watched all of this crazy and was nothing but quietly supportive.

 

Austin and I were both debating again over whether we should “bail” and just climb back up to the van. But before I knew it, his carabineer was attached to the line and he too disappeared over the cliff. I was next. Doug was behind me, smiles and thumbs up. Chivo told me to slide forward, facing the cliff, putting my feet on this little plank of wood attached to the cliff by some wire. And he said on the count of three, he would drop me to the bottom.

 

And then he told me to smile for the camera, which I always seem to be able to do even when I’m about to collapse under the weight of my own anxiety.

 

“Uno, dos—“ he let go of the rope and down I went. I screamed. The rope tensed a bit and I swung, back and forth, in and out of the waterfall—cuz you know at this point I love waterfalls. It was absolutely terrifying, but by the time I caught my breath, it was exhilarating. I had a stupid smile on my face. Everyone at the bottom was cheering for me—probably because they thought I was at the top of the hill, sitting in the van with a therapy blanket and some apple juice. Instead I dangled victoriously like Charlotte from her web until I landed gracefully at the bottom of the canyon.

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Haha you know I’m kidding. I fell on my ass.

 

I detached myself from the rope and was greeted by a round of high-fives. I was shaking like a leaf, but man I felt alive.

 

Of course after that madness, we had to climb back up the canyon. And it was not a small canyon.

 

This trip just involved a lot of climbing that I wasn’t prepared for.

 

Eventually we made it to the top, and I was still super jittery and exhausted from the climb. We got changed, had a snack of herbal tea and fresh pineapple—oh and popcorn, there was really good popcorn.

 

It was about at this point, feeling over-stimulated, emotionally exhausted and next-level sore that the idea crossed my mind to cancel my afternoon plans to zipline.

 

Now, Mayra had warned us about the zipline. This wasn’t regular point-a-to-point-b ziplining. It was one giant superman-style zipline with top speeds at 75 miles per hour, followed by a suspension bridge, followed by a vertical ladder made of rebar rungs, and capped off with one more zipline back to the start. I wasn’t afraid of the speedy zipline. I was afraid that my broken body wasn’t going to make it up the vertical wall. There had been another option, just to do six regular classic ziplines. I’d wanted that option. But no one else picked it, and I wasn’t going to be the only weenie who opted for the baby course.

 

My finger was practically on the trigger. I knew I couldn’t get my money back, but I wanted to cancel.

 

We drove back to the hotel and had pizza for lunch. The whole time I was eating I was contemplating, “Will I regret not doing this? I don’t know, I can zipline back home.” My legs hurt, I was having an ocular migraine, and a stomachache all at the same time, and I was just tired. But when everyone else shuffled on over to the bus for the adventure course, I found myself shuffling right along with them.

 

Once we got there, I calmed down. The more I watched people load in for the speedy zipline, the more I realized it was going to be fun and not scary. Again, this wasn’t he part I was worried about. But once I was strapped in, I flew, and it was exhilarating. I felt like a bird. It was awesome.

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Shock-a-brah!

Then it got scary again. Once we’d all made it to the other side, we started single filing onto the suspension bridge. I never thought I would be afraid of a bridge. I’m not afraid of heights. But my god. You could feel every little bounce, every little swing, and there was nothing you could do to stabilize on these tiny little steps. I was death-gripped to the wire handholds. My eyes were glued to every step. I took on each step one at a time, right foot, left together. Right foot, left together. Never before in my life had I actively told myself “find a happy place,” but I needed to on the bridge. (And I succeeded. Look at that smile.)

 

Last we came to the wall. For reference, anytime after this adventure, if anyone said the word “wall,” everyone would cringe. In my opinion, the bridge was scarier, but the wall was more brutal. It was never-ending. Rung by rung, you had to climb up this uneven, sinuous ladder that seemed to get higher every time you looked up. For reference, this is a photo that outlines our path (in yellow).

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And if that wasn’t enough to drive you mad, you needed to move your own carabineers to connect to the new safety lines every time. This was kind of a two-hand job. I was using both of my hands to cling to safety on my metal rungs, so really it’s a miracle I was able to switch those suckers around.

 

Again though, I saw the cameras and I was able to look sane and fresh as a daisy. Trust me, the sunshine and rainbows you see are merely illusions.

 

After we’d made it to the summit, the last bit of the wall was all horizontal. We had to traverse this little inlet where we would pick up the last zipline. Inconveniently all we had to hold onto was a strip of wire. There were only rungs for our feet. Clearly they ran out of rungs. Why else would they use this option.

 

The bridge and the wall were both utterly terrifying. But when I detached my last carabineer and my shoes touched solid ground, I felt invincible. I could have conquered the world in that moment. I could have wrestled a bear. I could have looked up Kit Harington and asked him to marry me. It was amazing. To think I’d almost cancelled. I’m so glad I didn’t.

 

The last zipline felt like a victory lap. The guides asked us each if we wanted to “sit or fly.” I don’t think anyone sat. How many chances do you get to fly?

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Baños had thoroughly put up a fight against me, but I had shown it who’s boss. And if there’s any final arena where I could put the nail in that coffin, it was dancing. After a full day out of my element, I felt like the tables had turned and I had home field advantage.

 

We arrived at the salsa lesson venue and we were each given the drinks we’d pre-ordered (after all, plenty of us needed liquid courage to dance). After a drink, we began our lesson. It was completely in Spanish, but our teacher was amazing. There was lots of mirroring and clapping and signaling. Not to mention praise when we did something right. “Un, secundo. Un, secundo,” she counted and led us through different steps. She taught us five different salsa variations which we then performed to different songs.

 

Also Mayra had told us that at the end of our lesson, a judge would decide who were the “king and queen of salsa.”

 

Not gonna lie, I wanted that meaningless title real bad.

 

We did quite a bit of practicing, then she started to call us up in twos to demonstrate to one another. She called up Max and I first, probably because we kept scooting towards the front, so we probably looked like overconfident try-hards. (Can’t speak for Max, but yeah, that’s me). She then called up everyone else to perform as well. There was lots of applauding and support. One big happy salsa-dancing family.

 

Then she started pairing us up to try to partner dance with our newly learned steps. Again she paired Max and me together, and we tried out some of our steps. We were doing pretty well, if I do say so myself. We also got a little fancy and tried to do some spins—which we apparently did wrong and then got corrected. But now we know the right way how to salsa spin.

 

After a song or two, we wrapped up the lesson. The king and queen were crowned, Trevor and Jeannette. They did a solo just the two of them—y’know. Like prom. After seeing them dance I thought the honorific was well deserved.

 

But I’m just going to go ahead and crown myself the princess of salsa just to feel better about it.

 

After our lesson we retreated to the tent next to the bar for our Argentinian-style barbecue. There were all kinds of fixins here: ribs, chicken, sausages, potatoes, corn, salad, sweet empanadas for dessert and, a special menu item: guinea pig.

 

Guinea pigs are a delicacy and therefore kind of expensive, so it was an exciting menu item met with much applause. We each got to try a little bite, which is good. I would have never sought out guinea pig, but considering it was delivered to me, I ate a bite. It was really chewy. Not bad taste, but kind of a weird texture. But now I can say I’ve tried it.

 

With the culmination of the barbecue, we were back in the dance hall, killing time before the bars downtown started to wake up. We also had more drinks. Enough drinks to start wanting to do line dances. And we did many. Cha-Cha Slide. Electric Slide. Cotton-Eyed Joe. Cupid Shuffle. The goddamn Macarena. Oh, and also they played “The Real Slim Shady” twice in like an hour, which was a really outdated song to play with such repetitive enthusiasm.

 

Also one of the guys who worked for the adventure company was there killing it on the dance floor. We’re talking air guitar, salsa, line dancing, do-si-do-ing to the Cotton-Eyed Joe (he definitely didn’t know the real dance): he was there for a good time. And then Despacito came on (because I requested it…) and he asked me to dance with him, so I did. And we all took turns slow dancing with this random Ecuadorian tourism guy to Despacito.

 

Finally we were off to the bar, which was called “Leprechaun.” You’d think it would be an Irish pub, but it wasn’t. It almost looked like a Mayan ruin, featuring a fire pit in the center of the bottom floor, a salsa room upstairs, and a couple of balconies from which you could see the dance floor areas.

 

We started off dancing downstairs near the fire pit. The DJ’s choices of the evening seemed to fit the theme “Every song you loved in seventh grade,” including but not limited to, “Yeah” by Usher, “Hey Ya,” by Outkast, “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani, and for a THIRD time in the past two hours, “The Real Slim Shady,” by Eminem. Ecuador loves that song.

 

We went upstairs to the salsa room, and frankly, I don’t remember how it happened, but me, Jeanette, and Marisa all found ourselves paired up with familiar faces. Jeanette was dancing with one of the guys we’d seen at the barbecue, Marisa was dancing with Chivo, the goat man who saved me from the killer waterfall, and I wound up dancing once again with Despacito guy from the dance hall. It is safe to say they all LOVED us. We know they probably dance with the Contiki girls whenever they roll up into town, but hey, that doesn’t make it any less fun. Jordin and Mike were spying on all of us through the sliding glass door next to the salsa room. We got some thumbs -up.

 

Eventually I wanted to go back to the big dance hall with all my friends so I told my dancing partner “Finito,” and gave him a kiss on the cheek before running away to dance with my friends. He kept peeking over at me for the rest of the night and trying to get me to go back but I was too busy trying to rap to “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore.

 

Eventually we wrangled up a crew for the walk back to the hotel, which was, well, a trek. Some of us were really stubborn and needed some guidance. But despite this, we all made it back, safe and sound.

 

Ah Bańos. We’d came, we’d seen, we’d conquered, and we’d capped it off with a night to remember.

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