Banos: Ecuador’s Top Adventure Destination

amazon jungle If you’re the type of traveler who loves extreme adventure and being active, you’ll love Baños, Ecuador. Located about three hours south of Quito, Baños is a small but lively town surrounded by mountains and lush greenery. There are dozens of tour agencies lining the streets, although I’d recommend using a highly reputable company like Geotours or Rainforestur. Some of the adventures you’ll be able to partake in include:

Taking A Trip Into The Amazon Jungle

From Baños, you’ll be able to do one day or multiple day excursions into the Amazon Jungle. The tours usually begin with a trip to a monkey sanctuary. Next, you’ll visit an indigenous community to get your face painted with fruit, drink Chicha, shoot dart guns and learn about the culture. Jungle hikes, canoe rides, waterfall swims and night treks encompass the rest of the tour. You’ll see unique plants, like the Devil’s Penis, which squirts a clear liquid used to enlarge the manhood of indigenous men, as well as wildlife like anacondas, tree frogs, exotic birds and enormous spiders.waterfall Biking The “Waterfalls Route”

I recommend getting your bike from Caroline’s Tours on Martinez Street. You can get a basic bike all day for $5, or upgrade to the more comfortable one for $10. She’ll give you a map, and a fanny pack filled with pumps, locks and spare tubes. The “Waterfalls Route” takes about two hours, including stops at viewpoints and hikes to the falls. You’ll see:

  • Agoyan- At 200 feet, it’s the highest waterfall in the Ecuadorian Andes.
  • Manto de la Novia- Literally meaning “the bride’s veil,” this waterfall has a distinct white color, and is 131 feet high.
  • Pailon del Diablo (shown above)- This is the second biggest waterfall in Ecuador, and is thought to be the most interesting one on the route.
  • Machay- This beautiful waterfall includes a challenging hike to get to and from its viewpoint. It’s popular for swimming, so bring your bathing suit.

You can take the bus back to Baños for $1 from Machay.

Going Canyoning

If you enjoy jumping from rock to rock and repelling down gorges, Baños offers canyoning excursions each day. You’ll descend numerous waterfalls, some extremely steep, along the Rio Blanco, while immersing yourself in the lush cloud forest. Your adrenaline will be pumping, as at times you’ll be dropping yourself 148 feet.

banos Hiking To Various Viewpoints

In Baños, there are two main viewpoint hikes: Bellavista and The Virgin. They’re both very straightforward, so don’t worry about getting lost. Bellavista takes you to a giant cross overlooking the city, and you’ll be able to continue the hike on the Runtun trail to see small villages and the Tungurahua Volcano. Just be sure to carry rocks, as dogs from the villages can get nasty. The trek to The Virgin takes you up hundreds of steps to an enormous Virgin Mary statue, for an all-encompassing look of Baños.

Rafting On The Pastaza River

Baños is a great place to enjoy white-water rafting. Depending on water levels that day, rapids can vary from class two to five. The rivers in Ecuador are warm and tropical, and you’ll even get the chance to journey through the lush flora and fauna of the Amazon Jungle.

canopy Zip Lining And Bungee Jumping

The city is well known for its aerial adventures, like zip lining/canopy and bungee jumping. For the zip line, you’ll be strapped to a high wire, and will fly above the cloud forest. Moreover, bungee jumping is $20 or less, and allows you to jump off a bridge and swing like a pendulum. No need to book in advance, as you’ll be able to get off your bike and jump along the “Waterfall Route.”

Hiking And Biking Tungurahua Volcano

A hiking and biking excursion on this 16,480-foot active volcano is my top pick for the adventurous in Baños. I only recommend doing this thrilling excursion if it’s a clear day out, as the views awarded from this volcano are priceless. The day begins at 9:00 a.m., when a van will take you to the starting point. Then, you’ll hike up three hours to the refugio for excellent views of surrounding mountains, valleys and rivers, before cycling downhill at rapid speed. Once you get to the bottom, you’ll also bike your way back to Baños.

guinea pig Eating Guinea Pig For A Cheap Price

Called cuy, eating this delicacy is usually an expensive culinary adventure. However, if you walk around near the main square, you’ll be able to find street food vendors cooking it for an affordable price. For example, I was able to buy a single serving with potatoes and vegetables for $3.50. While eating guinea pig may sound scary, it tastes a lot like greasy, fatty chicken.

Paragliding

Paragliding, which involves soaring through the air via a parachute, is a popular activity in Baños. Additionally, it’s a great way to take in views of the entire region. Most paragliding tours take off from Niton Mountain, and you’ll see mountains, volcanoes and rivers as you soar through the air like a bird.

Horse slaughter: the meat of the matter now that Congress has lifted controversial ban

horse meatIf you’re of a certain age, you might recall that until the 1940’s, horse was eaten in the United States–most notably during World War II, when beef prices rose and supply dwindled. By the eighties, dining on Mr. Ed definitely wasn’t culturally acceptable, even if purchased for “pet food,” and in 1998, California Proposition 6 outlawed horse meat and slaughter for human consumption.

Why, when so much of the world–including much of the EU, Central Asia, Polynesia, Latin America, and Japan–routinely dines upon this delicious, lean, low cholesterol, abundant meat, do we shun it? Blame anthropomorphism and our fervent equestrian culture. Like dogs, cats, guinea pig, alpaca, and other cute, furry creatures consumed with gusto by other ethnicities, Americans just aren’t down with eating what we consider pets.

According to The Chicago Tribune, however, it’s likely that at least one national horse abattoir (slaughterhouse) will be opening soon, most likely in the Midwest. As stated in the story, “Congress lifted the ban in a spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 18 to keep the government afloat until mid-December.”

Before you get on your high horse (sorry) over this seemingly inhumane turn of events, let’s examine why the ban was passed in the first place, and why reversing it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I should also state that I grew up on a horse ranch, and to me, meat is meat. My issues regarding its consumption have and always will lie with humane treatment of said animals during their life up until what should be a quick, merciful death. Is there such a thing as a humane death? Let’s just say that some methods of livestock slaughter are less traumatic than others. But that’s a separate issue, and not the point of this piece.

Despite our cultural aversion to eating horse, the U.S. still slaughtered old, sick,and injured animals, as well as retired racehorses. Even young healthy animals were sent to slaughter for a variety of reasons including overbreeding, profit, or abandonment. Even wild horses and burros were rounded up for slaughter as part of culling programs; it’s still necessary to thin herds to keep them sustainable, as well as protect their habitat from overgrazing and erosion; starvation and predation are cruel deaths. Fortunately, these animals are now protected species and legally can’t be sent to slaughter, so they’re put up for adoption. The downside? What happens to aging and unsound animals, now that rescues and sanctuaries are at capacity and struggling for funding?

The U.S. exported horse meat to countries that do consume it, although it was also sold domestically to feed zoo animals. In 2007, the last horse slaughterhouse in the U.S., in DeKalb, Illinois, was shut down by court order, and that was that until the ban was lifted last month.

Photo credit: Flicker user Atli Harðarson]

horse meatIs this a good thing? The result of abattoir closures means that there’s no outlet–-humane or otherwise–-for horses that can no longer be used for work or pleasure. Few people can afford to keep horses as pets due to age, illness, or injury, and as previously stated, most horse rescues are at capacity or struggling to find funding. The recession has only increased this problem.

The Tribune cites a federal report from June, 2011, that noted local animal welfare organizations reported a spike in investigations for horse neglect and abandonment since 2007. In Colorado, for example, data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent — from 975 in 2005 to almost 1,600 in 2009. Explains Cheri White Owl, founder of the Oklahoma nonprofit Horse Feathers Equine Rescue, “People [are] deciding to pay their mortgage or keep their horse.”

Adds Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state lawmaker and vice president of the non-profit, pro-slaughter organization United Horsemen, “Ranchers used to be able to sell horses that were too old or unfit for work to slaughterhouses but now they have to ship them to butchers in Canada and Mexico [the latter of which has even more inhumane handling and shipping practices], where they fetch less than half the price.”

The Tribune reports that the U.S. Government Accountability Office also determined that about 138,000 horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010: nearly the same number that were killed in the U.S. before the ban took effect in 2007.

I’m not disputing the lack of humanity previously displayed by U.S. livestock auctions and transport companies taking horses to slaughter (current treatment of other livestock: also fodder for another story). Fortunately, the 1996 federal Farm Bill mandated more humane conditions. Unfortunately, it didn’t go into effect until 2001. And the down side of reinstating horse abattoirs here, according to the Tribune, is that the Obama’s ban-reversal won’t “allocate any new money to pay for horse meat inspections, which opponents claim could cost taxpayers $3 million to $5 million a year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to find the money in its existing budget, which is expected to see more cuts this year as Congress and the White House aim to trim federal spending.”
horse meat
Animal welfare aside, the loss of horse abattoirs is a divisive issue. I’m of the opinion that it’s impractical and wasteful to not have an outlet for surplus animals. This, of course, assuming the transport and facilities abide by regulations. I’m not a supporter of industrial livestock production and thus large abattoirs, which have been documented to cause undue stress to animals. Despite that issue, isn’t it ultimately more kind to put an end to their suffering, and make good use of the meat?

Proponents of horse slaughter frequently make the comparison to the millions of dogs and cats that are euthanized yearly in the U.S., because their owners were too irresponsible to spay or neuter. The cremation of these poor creatures is more than just a senseless loss of life: it’s wasteful.

While I’m sympathetic to recession-impacted horse owners, keeping a horse isn’t cheap no matter what your financial situation. When you buy, adopt, or take in any “pet,” you’re responsible for its welfare. If you can’t commit to providing for that animal for the duration of its life (barring certain illness/injury situations), have the decency to do the necessary research and surrender it to a reputable animal rescue or loving home.

If you’re not capable of that, a.) please don’t ever have children, and b.) never own a pet. It’s a living creature, not a toy, and I have absolutely no tolerance for irresponsible pet owners. There are valid arguments on both sides of the horse slaughter debate, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is the humane treatment of the animals in question.

[Photo credits: cheval, Flicker user noodlepie; sashimi, Flickr user rc!]

Cultural Delicacies: Guinea pig

I had a guinea pig as a pet when I was in elementary school. His name was Guinea (I know, really original). He was brown with a little splash of white on his chest. He had a cute pink nose. He was kind of a nibbler (he would often bite me with his two sharp teeth), and whatever he put in his mouth came out the other end. I guess it comes as no surprise, then, that I had to change Guinea’s cage frequently. What I didn’t realize in his very short life was that he froze to death. I didn’t know it then, but I had put Guinea’s cage right under the air conditioner. He died of pneumonia, and I spent a whole afternoon in bed holding my dead guinea pig, feeling like I had wronged the poor thing. I had been a very irresponsible pet owner.

As is the case with other household pets (like fish, dog, and turtle), guinea pigs (or “cuy,” in Spanish) are cultural delicacies in some parts of the world. Although I couldn’t bear to order it last year in Ecuador, “cuy” is a pretty common item on traditional restaurant menus.

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I am a vegetarian cook, so the thought of killing and roasting a small guinea pig sounds awfully unappetizing to me. Even more baffling to me is how anyone could find the little meat on a guinea pig worth eating or even the slightest bit delectable. According to Wikipedia, it tastes like rabbit or dark chicken meat.

“Cuy” can be fried, roasted, broiled, or served in soup. It is commonly found in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, as indigenous tribes in the area would cook them for ceremonial purposes. Peruvians consume over 50 million guinea pigs a year. If that number doesn’t surprise you, then this fun fact will: the past two decades have seen a rise in guinea pig exporting from South America to the U.S., Europe, and even parts of Asia. To be certain, it has become more acceptable to eat guinea pig as a common meal. Some restaurants in New York City now serve “cuy asado” and hang them in the window like Peking duck in Chinatown.

I don’t think we have to worry yet about locking up our pet guinea pigs for fear of someone killing and eating them, but I know my little Guinea is rolling in his grave in pet heaven thinking about how his life could have ended.

Photo of the Day (8/5/06)

Cuy
Now it is true I have eaten many a questionable dish and species in my lifetime, but looking at this South American plate I’m thinking probably not as much as some folks have. Um, yes. According to Morrissey who left this fine gastronomic shot in our Gadling Flickr pool the meat is delicious. What kind of meat is that you ask? Well it’s a Cuy (or guinea pig). If you stare a little harder you can make out a limb or two and yes, that looks like a head there too. Can anyone else see this? Would you sample this while hanging out in Peru? I would.

Stomach growling or turning yet?