Can someone please shoot the snake oil salesman

Latin American bus journeys can be horrible. Non-functioning toilets make the entire bus smell like a septic tank. Air-conditioning vents are taped shut. The buses are sweltering and the windows usually don’t open. If they do, the locals keep them closed for some unknown reason. Men start stripping off, leaving a wet stain in the seat for the next punter. You want to sleep but are worried about fellow passengers stealing your bag — a not uncommon occurrence, sleeping gringos are an enticing target. Even if you trust your fellow passengers, the slick salesman who jumps on the bus to deliver a 45 minute mystery supplement sales pitch will keep you awake. The supplement tastes delicious, is good for your heart, cures syphilis and prevents brain cancer. The 237 pleading, finger pointing recitals of “Senors y senoras” is enough to wish you had brought your sawd-off and black trench coat. Maybe buses don’t get hijacked in Latin America, passengers just snap and shoot the snake oil salesman. The hijacking is just the cover story.

The eight hour journey from Guayacil to Banos was such a trip. I’d purchased a directo ticket to Ambato near Banos, but directo it wasn’t. The bus left 45 minutes late, and stopped every 15 minutes or so to let swarms of hawkers onto the bus selling mango, watermelon, bags of meat and corn, bags of cheese and corn, chicken, lollypops, cheese empanadas, school books and external hard drives. Always external hard drives. There was also a change of bus in Riobamba. I arrived in Banos at about 7.30pm, a ruckus forming as I walked away from the bus, as a driver further down the line had nudged a woman with this bumper bar.

Surrounded by cloud covered hills and a winding gorge, Banos is the home of Ecuadorian adventure sports. For those with US$15 to spare, you can be hooked up to a rope, pushed off the bridge and fall for about 10 metres before violently snapping under the bridge and swinging back and forth. Zip-lining, canyoning and white water rafting are also available.

After overcoming my fear of white water rafting in Arequipa, I decided to have another go. My group was a weird mix: a tall Italian who had been living in Australia, two middle-aged female teachers on long service leave, an anorexic French girl and her healthier friend. The instructor gave detailed safety instructions, and we practiced various moves in the boat while it was still on land, including how to get out from under an overturned raft. As we stood on the river’s edge, waiting instructions to board the raft, the skinny French girl was shaking, muttering “ou la la, ou la la”. I asked her if she could swim and she replied “No” — a potential Darwinian moment, in the country which inspired “Origin of the Species”.

The rafting was excellent, and the roaring river occasionally drowned out the consistent high-pitched shrieking of the non-swimming frog muncher. I was at the front, co-leading the charge with the Italian as we smashed into waves, cascaded over rocks and occasionally stopped for a rest in the calmer sections. The river ambles through a gorge surrounded by trees, vultures circling ominously overhead, because if you are vulture, you are always ominous. Our guide informed us that the indigenous people “no longer eat monkey for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They know to protect nature now”. A shame, as monkey must be better than beans and rice.

The view from the bungee jumping bridge in Banos, Ecuador

Banos is also famous for its hot springs, one of which is Termas de la Virgen, situated underneath a waterfall on the outskirts of town. The springs are very cloudy, with two hot pools available at night. Entry is US$3 at night plus you have to buy a ridiculous looking cap. I choose the lime green option, the more fashion conscious chose black. The pool on the left as you walk in is painfully hot. The upstairs pool is a more sensible temperature. After 20 minutes in the upstairs I had another go at the downstairs hot pool, which I briefly entered then exited, fearing I would black out.

From Banos, I ventured north to Quito. In 1978, Quito shared the honour of being declared the first World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO with Krakow, Poland:

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city and stands at an altitude of 2,850 m. Despite the 1917 earthquake, the city has the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America. The monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo, and the Church and Jesuit College of La Compañía, with their rich interiors, are pure examples of the ‘Baroque school of Quito’, which is a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art. (UNESCO)

The colonial architecture is beautiful, the cathedral gigantic. On Sundays, cars are banned from the city centre to encourage bike riding. Food vendors, street performers and marijuana infused remedy pushers can go about their day without worrying about being barreled by a smoke belching speeding bus. Yet Latin America is littered with 16th century colonial cities. The Spanish invaded, pacified the natives then used them as slaves to build magnificent buildings. Quito is pretty, but no more than many other Latin cities.

Cathedral in Quito, Ecuador