There are many ways to explore the natural wonders of Baños de Agua Santa, gateway to the Amazon. You can hire a driver for the day. You can rent a Jeep-looking thing with four wheels, no doors, and a beer fridge in the back. You can cycle, if you dare. You can ride a double-decker bus. Or you can cough up five bucks for a three-hour Chiva tour.
Chiva is an outlandishly painted I don’t know what to call it. A covered hay wagon, I suppose, that’s been surgically grafted by a blind dog onto the cab of a light-duty truck. It is festooned with flashing, multicoloured LEDs. It proudly boasts a colossal sound system that blares Latin American music at Spinal Tap 11.
Chiva is so obnoxious that it inspires middle finger salutes wherever it goes. I’ve seen them. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is highly unusual behaviour for Ecuadorians.
Naturally, Chantal and I opted for Chiva. When we travel, we tend to place a premium on the absurd.
We were in Baños for our seventh wedding anniversary. The only other couple on our tour was from Manta. They were also celebrating – their thirtieth, if I correctly recall. We immediately hit it off, despite the modest language barrier. Our Spanish is getting pretty good but there are gaps. Still, we made do, and our new friends were highly complimentary of the skills we possess.
Our Chiva – the Vagabunda (Wanderer: how romantic) – carried us, with several alarming cracks from its frame, away from Baños centre and into the hills. I suspect Chiva drivers are required to show all the area’s touristy attractions, but we paused only for a few moments in front of the free ones: hiking trails, mostly. Our guide was much more interested in the paying venues, presumably where he or his company receive a kickback from ticket sales.
Our first real stop was at a zipline and some sort of terror ball, where they lock you into a cage and somersault you in a pants-shitting arc over a very deep river canyon. I was having none of it. But our Manta friend – I think his name is Jose – egged me into the canyon-crossing zipline with him.
The concessionaire tried to charge me ten bucks for this privilege. Jose stepped in and said no way, my amigo here pays five like the rest of us.
Got that? Five dollars is the non-gringo price.
I asked the attendant what his success rate might be for this preposterous adventure. He said it was like marriage. Fifty-fifty? No, silly Americano, Ecuadorian marriage: one hundred percent.
He strapped me into a sturdy body harness and selected a robin’s egg blue helmet for me to wear. Which is pointless, when you think about it. What good is a helmet when I plummet several hundred metres to my sudden and bloody demise? He said it was so they could find my head. We laughed and laughed.
The act of ziplining over a canyon is surreal. At least, it was for me. My poor brain sort of fizzled after I launched myself into open air in Superman formation. Everything after that was like watching the Muppet Show on acid. None of it made sense, but the red-faced weirdo with the flappy arms and blue helmet was a riot.
Our next stop was at a teleférico. There’s not much to say about this carnival ride. They fling you out over another, deeper canyon, this time on a rickety platform suspended by wire, and then try to jolt you around a little to promote a low-level anxiety attack. It has its moments. But was it worth seven dollars for the two of us? Jury’s still out on that one. Here are the photos.
We carried on to a candy factory, which for me was a highlight of our tour. Not that buying freshly made nougat and chocky balls beats a two-hundred metre waterfall in the middle of the rain forest. Jose ordered us both a secret brew of high-octane cane alcohol and juice from a maracuyá, which tasted exactly as it sounds. One buck.
Two sips later and the tour had become much more exotic. Especially when we arrived at Cascada El Pailón del diablo and I performed a buzzed stumble across a wildly swinging rope bridge. That was a blast, actually. I sent a video of my experience to my three-year-old grandson. I had to shoot it four times because I kept involuntarily swearing. Holding onto a sweaty smartphone and a convulsive rope bridge, at the same time, ain’t easy.
Chiva touring is great fun but it’s not for everybody. The covered hay wagon is at least one-and-a-half metres off the ground, and it’s no simple matter to hoist a middle-aged ass into and out of it. I know a few people who would never be able to make the effort.
There’s also the issue of that sound system. I happen to be congenitally hard of hearing, so the racket doesn’t bother me at all. If you value your ears, bring plugs.
Finally, I do not recommend the maracuyá jet fuel. I know this has nothing to do with a Chiva, per se. But it’s been a week and I still have the headache.