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Papallacta Hot Springs, and Bicycling
I was brought up to deliver what I have promised, and to expect that others will do the same. Moreover, if someone delivers something different than what was promised, there should at least be a good explanation, accompanied by a suggested remedy to “make things right.”
During our travels, however, we have discovered that many people—both in other cultures as well as our own—tend to be a bit looser in their standards. We have learned to be more flexible, to go with the flow, and to not complain (in most cases) so long as we receive something that falls within the “general ballpark” of what was promised.
Today we had one of those “general ballpark” experiences.
Months before our trip, I had arranged a bicycle outing for our family to explore two different areas outside of Quito. First, we would be bicycling about 15 miles from a mountain pass in the Andes Mountains to the small town of Papallacta, where we would bathe in the natural hot springs. Afterwards, from the same mountain pass, we would bicycle another 35 miles on back roads, including a section along an old railroad line called Chaquíñan, which passed through mountain tunnels.
The owner of the biking company was a Dutch man named Arie, and he was supposed to be our guide for the day.
We were a bit surprised when another man showed up in Arie’s place—an Ecuadorian man named Roberto. He seemed pleasant enough, and we thought, “No biggie.”
We headed northwest, out of Quito. The drive to the pass was supposed to take about 1 ½ hours.
Our 2-lane road followed a series of switchbacks down into a valley, where the homes were stacked like tiered cakes.
One house had a festive, bright blue and white paint job:
Some of the homes appeared to be abandoned, but one can never be sure:
After about 20 minutes of winding roads, Genevieve’s face was looking a little green. We put her in the front passenger seat for the rest of the day to minimize the carsickness.
Crossing over a river:
And leaving the tall buildings of downtown Quito behind:
Even though we were still in the "city" of Quito, the hillsides were covered in green:
The narrow road was constructed with many miles of interlocking bricks:
Once we reached the suburb of Cumbaya, the road widened and became 4 lanes of asphalt.
A traffic circle in Cumbaya had three cement pillars inlaid with a ceramic tree design containing colorful birds, fruit, and leaves:
Cumbaya is where Quito’s new airport is being built. Roberto said that this community is considered an expensive place to live. It has a big university, good schools, large homes, shopping malls, and modern-looking buildings, such as this Home Design Plaza:
Beyond Cumbaya was the Chiche Bridge, which usually has bungee jumpers leaping off the sides on weekends.
The cost is supposedly free for those bold enough to jump naked! Yee Haw!
Alas, today was Friday, and there were no jumpers at all, let alone naked ones.
After crossing the bridge, we left suburbia behind us and climbed higher into the Andes, heading up to 13,000 feet.
On one mountainside, a herder was grazing some cattle:
Another stretch of sloped land had been neatly partitioned into crop fields:
A small chapel was called “La Reina del Páramo” (Queen of the High Plains / Tundra):
As always, I was intrigued by the houses in which people lived. Most of them were made of cinder block, with a few of wood or brick.
A road-side stand offered drinks and lunch:
Lake Papallacta was stunning.
When we stopped to stretch our legs at the lake, I was wondering when we were going to get on the bikes, as we were supposed to ride 15 miles into the town of Papallacta. When I asked Roberto, however, he said that he would be driving us to the hot springs and that we would ride afterwards. It would have been nice to break up our two rides with a soak of our (presumably) tired muscles in the hot springs as originally planned. But, once again, we thought, “No biggie.”
Welcome to Papallacta!
The hot springs were in a resort area, with a separate entrance fee--$7 for adults, and $3.50 for kids.
Inside were changing rooms and lockers for belongings.
Sebastian and Genevieve, heading for the changing room area:
I had envisioned the hot springs as being natural pools of water, but instead they consisted of a series of swimming pools—very clean and well-maintained. The 12 thermal pools ranged in temperature from scalding hot, where I could barely stand up to my ankles for 10 seconds, to icy (brrrrrrr-freeze) cold.
Like Goldilocks, we dipped our toes in a few and found one that was the perfect level of warmth. It was a large pool that had a small “cave” under a bridge and a small waterfall at one end.
Large signs touted the health benefits of the thermal springs, including: stimulating the immune system, improving the respiratory system, relaxing the muscles, increasing blood flow, and eliminating toxins.
While I can’t say that any physical miracles occurred while we were soaking, the heat of the water was indeed soothing.
Another area had a shallow pool with some rocks in the center that Genevieve and Sebastian enjoyed swimming around and around:
As I was soaking in an adjacent pool, a man who worked at the hot springs came over and spoke some rapid Spanish to me. It took me a few minutes to realize that he had an issue with my swimwear—in particular, my rash guard shirt that I was wearing over my swim top to protect against the sun’s rays. He also didn’t like my board shorts. He kept telling me that I couldn’t wear “clothes” in the pool. And he gestured toward the front entrance, saying that there were bathing suits for sale in the resort gift shop.
I tried to explain that I was wearing a bathing suit, and that women in the U.S. wear board shorts and rash guard shirts as their swim suits all the time. However, I got confused with the Spanish verbs “llevar” (to wear) and “lavar” (to wash), so I think I told him something like U.S. women wash their clothes in the pool all the time. Ai-yai-yai! No wonder he looked confused! When I finally lifted up my shirt and showed him my bathing suit top, he seemed very relieved and started nodding his head. So I took off the rash guard, and that seemed to make him happy. I don’t think he wanted to press the board shorts issue. Unless the resort required all men to wear skimpy Speedos, my board shorts were staying on.
Next to the kids’ shallow pool was a small area with icy cold water. After Ben showed his bravado by submerging himself up to his neck, Genevieve and I gave it a try. After the initial shock, it wasn’t too bad!
Dipping in cold water is purported to have all kinds of health benefits. With the immediate constriction of blood vessels along the skin, our internal organs get a rush of blood that supposedly regenerates capillaries and improves circulation. There are also claims that the stimulation from the frigid water helps to destroy diseased cells, increase metabolism, and strengthen immunity.
In any event, I didn’t linger, and was soon thawing out in a hot pool. The rapid change in temperature from cold to hot was refreshing!
As we packed to leave, dark rain clouds were drifting overhead.
Now for the bike ride that we had all been looking forward to! We drove back up the mountain and unloaded on a dirt road near a sign that welcomed us back to the metropolitan area of Quito:
The bike company provided helmets and safety gear for us. It was immediately apparent that Sebastian’s bike was too big for him—he could barely reach the ground with one foot when he came to a stop, and his hands were too small to grip the brake levers properly. We adjusted the seat as low as it could go, watched him do some practice laps, and hoped for the best.
We would be traveling along a dirt road over the mountain, mostly downhill, with a couple of slight uphill climbs at the beginning. I’m not sure of the mileage, but it wasn’t very long as Ricardo had assured us that the ride should be completed “in about half an hour.”
Sebastian began having problems right away with his brakes, and we had to stop several times to try to remedy the situation. We had to wait for Ricardo and his stash of tools—he was following behind, allowing a large delay to avoid being right on our fenders.
Genevieve, waiting for the boys to catch up:
The road ahead:
Waiting, once again:
Genevieve and I had plenty of time to enjoy the surrounding scenery together--look at those wildflowers, high in the Andes Mountains!
After the third long stop waiting for Ricardo to arrive (and listening to the unhappy noises emitted by Sebastian), I was thinking that this situation was “not okay.” Arie had assured me in his emails that he had smaller bikes for the kids, and Sebastian was obviously on an adult-sized bike that was much too big. Sebastian was not only miserable, but his inability to use the brakes was dangerous—especially on a downhill dirt road with some steep drop-offs to one side. This was a “biggie.”
When Ricardo finally arrived, I told him that we had a definite problem with the bike being too big. I didn’t raise my voice, but I was addressing the issue head-on. My statement, however, was met with silence. No explanation, no apology, no “how can we make this work” . . . nada.
I took a deep breath and turned to Ben, whose brain was churning in a “Mr. Fix-it” mode. Ben finally figured out a zip-tie solution to bring the brake levers closer to the handlebar. While not perfect, at least Sebastian could now pull in the brake levers without having to let go of the handgrips.
Sebastian and Ben:
Genevieve chose a good line between the puddles:
We stopped at the edge of a long valley . . .
. . . to take a closer look at an unusual circular complex that was being built:
The building was ringed with angels and the Star of David, and there was a tall column in the center with a sculptural figure of a mother and child:
Continuing onward, the road was fairly flat now, and we passed by some cows:
Near the end of the road, we pushed our bikes through a stretch of mud that had some deep, gloppy sections. Here is Genevieve:
All too soon, the ride came to an end.
Roberto and Ben worked together to load the bikes back onto the van:
The next part of the ride was supposed to be 35 miles, and I was looking forward to some vigorous exercise.
During our drive, we passed this house—full of character with its faded green paint and hanging laundry:
A watermelon stand:
We turned off the main road and drove through the town of Pifa.
Some houses in Pifa:
The town had a lovely central square:
An open market:
A bright blue flower shop:
This abandoned building stood on a corner:
Two young girls wore bright party dresses:
Red track suits seemed to be a common uniform for high schoolers (we had also seen them in central Quito):
Waiting to cross the street was a woman and two boys, one with a white hat and guitar:
A man and his moto gave me momentary pangs of bike-envy:
The twisty mountain roads would have been so much fun on a motorcycle—perhaps we could experience that on another trip.
We stopped in front of a weathered building that was the former train station for the town of Puembo.
This would be the start of our ride along the old railway route known as Chaquiñan.
First, we were to have a picnic lunch of sorts. The rain was pelting down as Roberto popped the back of the van open and began making us gigantic (and delicious) sandwiches:
The kids ate in the van, while Ben, Roberto and I ate on the covered railway platform. The blue doors of the station were beautiful:
After lunch, we slipped on our gear and were ready to ride!
The trail was for bikes only, not cars or vans, so Roberto would be meeting us with the van at a certain spot on the trail. He said that the ride would take no more than an hour. Really? 35 miles in one hour? I wasn’t quite sure if that was possible, especially with Sebastian, so I asked Roberto. That’s when I discovered that Roberto had shaved many miles off of our ride. We would only be doing a very short section—about 10 miles (if that). I told him that Arie had said our ride would be much longer. Again, I received a shrug of the shoulders and a silent response—no explanation . . . nada.
Okay. Another “biggie”, in my opinion. But what were we gonna’ do? So the ride would be short. Much too short. But we would make it a good one.
And we did.
The first part of the ride took us through the back area of Puemba:
Notice the corn stalks rising above the wall behind Genevieve:
Then we peddled along a rural lane:
The land dropped off on our right, with a river down below:
We were riding a trail that had been cut into the mountainside:
One of the intriguing parts of this trail--indeed, the part that had originally made me want to do this ride--was the series of train tunnels. They were thrilling!
Sebastian, Genevieve and Ben--getting ready to enter the second tunnel:
Some of the tunnels immersed us in complete darkness.
Yes, we finally see it! The “light at the end of the tunnel”!
Spying another dark opening on the trail ahead made us practically giddy.
One very long tunnel had peek-a-boo cutouts that provided periodic light:
Inside the tunnel:
The final tunnels were beautiful, curved snippets:
Near the end of our trail was a rustic playground. We felt that we were just starting to warm up on the bikes, and we didn’t want the ride to be over. Genevieve and Sebastian jumped on the teeter-totter, and we made these final moments on the trail last as long as we could.
Roberto had told us that he would be waiting at the end of the bridge after the playground.
Crossing the bridge:
Ben helped Roberto load the bikes one last time:
Looking across the small valley, we could see the last segment of the trail we had just ridden:
There was a large restaurant down along the river. As we were leaving, the restaurant owner was driving down the hill and stopped to have a lengthy chat with the driver of a small pickup in front of us. We waited. And waited. Were we invisible? I leaned out the window and took a few photos, saying, “Maybe this will get his attention.” Roberto laughed and said, “Good idea!”
After the third photo, the man stopped talking and put his vehicle in gear to move forward.
In retrospect, taking the photos was kindof risky, as he was obviously a man with (at least perceived) “power”, and this was . . . Ecuador—enough said.
Then we witnessed a little unsettling exchange involving the assertion of power . . . and the acquiescence. Cruising by us, the restaurant owner leaned out of his window and greeted Roberto, asking him if we had just finished eating at the restaurant. Roberto wasn’t truthful in his response--he said "yes." But perhaps it’s not really “lying” when you tell a fib in order to prevent what you think might be negative consequences. (I'm sure that entire books have been written on that subject.) After Roberto's response, the owner asked him if the food was good. Again, another fib, and smiles all around. And we drove off in an uncomfortable silence.
At the top of the hill, we passed through an unusual neighborhood, in which many of the huge homes seemed to be in an abandoned state. This modern-looking house had a dilapidated roof, and the front windows had gaping holes like someone had chucked a few items through them.
The tall walls around most of these homes had the standard broken glass embedded in the top.
The school, however, looked freshly painted and well-maintained:
Eventually, we could see the tall buildings that marked the beginning of Quito’s business district:
Our bicycle trip hadn’t gone exactly as anticipated—there had been unexplained itinerary changes, many fewer miles than promised, and the size of Sebastian’s bike had created some sketchy and tense moments. However, the tunnels had been amazing, and we had gotten to experience the hot springs of Papallacta. The glass was decidedly more full than empty.
Tonight for dinner, we walked down our street to a small rotisserie chicken restaurant, called Don Pollo.
We ordered at the counter and then found a small table in the back. This was definitely a local restaurant—cheap, good food! It was the type of place that we love to stumble upon when traveling. For about $10 total, we received four plates of fresh, perfectly cooked chicken, rice and a few vegetables.
A local man stopped by our table to chat. He asked where we were from, and he wanted to tell us about his experience of visiting New York City in the past.
Looking toward the front, as the cook chopped up our baked chicken into pieces:
My plate came with a piping hot bowl of soup—flavored with a few chicken feet, which were floating around in the bowl. The soup was delicious. Genevieve wanted to try it, and we ended up sharing the bowl between us.
Genevieve remarked that when she eats a “regular” piece of chicken, she doesn't really know that she is eating a CHICKEN—i.e., a feathered animal that once squawked and walked around. However, when she is staring at a bowl with chicken feet in it, then she KNOWS that she is eating A chicken. Hmmm. Very perceptive. Perhaps we should have more chicken feet displayed with our meals. It would be a very good thing to become more aware of the once-living creatures that we consume daily.
Sebastian announced, "This chicken is the best chicken that I’ve ever eaten in my whole life!” Now that is a huge compliment.
Our meals also came with orange soda, which we never have at home. Sebastian thought the soda was a special treat. But the thing he liked best about it was the pattern of bubbles in the bottom of his glass. Indeed, he was elated to discover that his bubbles looked “just like a smiley face.”
I took a photo, which turned out fuzzy . . . but can you use your imagination?
And this is why we travel. So that we can soak with our kids in hot springs high in the Andes Mountains. So that we can bicycle through pitch black tunnels that once were part of a railway system. And, most of all, so that our kids can look into a glass of bubbles at the end of the day and see a big smiley face.
It’s all about perspective.