In Pelileo I stayed at the nicest whorehouse I’ve ever been in. Wooden floors, lemony walls, brand-new beds and bathrooms. Only the crackly plastic sheet below the linens and the constant creaking of the beds on either side gave it away. That, and the fact that a man I watched say goodbye to his wife 15 miles down the road in Huambalo checked in for the evening at 5.30, when the market closed. It was entertaining, but I was glad to head to Baños next morning.

Baños was a surprise: not gringolandia as I had feared, but full to bursting with local tourists in for Easter weekend. I’ve never seen a more festive Good Friday. In Ireland, hard cases take the train on Good Friday, as it’s the only place that legally serves liquor. In Baños, people reeled and danced in the streets, and the ferris wheel turned all day. Street stalls sold canela: cane hooch with hot, cinammon-flavored naranjillo juice. Little guinea pigs roasted on open air grills, their sharp little teeth clenched.

I drank at a tiny bar in the market, where music nerds argued about Willie Colón and Ruben Blades, and Cuban music played until late. Gangs of little kids ran among the closed stalls, hatching plans and free as air.

I dumped a whole bagful in the first laundromat I saw—I even went to the bathroom to change into my only skirt so that I could include the socks and trousers I was wearing. Fausto and Nubia, the laundry owners, didn’t look thrilled at the Easter crowds; only backpackers bring loads to wash. She was from the coast, he was from Quito, and for three years they had run a lodge on the slopes of the Tungurahua volcano. They were evacuated in an eruption, and their hotel was looted beyond recovery in their absence. Rent had gone up five times since 1999 and was no $400 for their small space. I couldn’t see how they were breaking even with two washing machines.
   ’If you find all the hotels are full,’ said Fausto, ‘we have a spare room upstairs.’
Their apartment was dark, full of knick-knacks, and immaculately clean. It reminded me of homes I’d visited in Spain. They went downstairs at seven every morning to open the shop, even on Easter Sunday, but I couldn’t see how they would survive. Baños is already so crowded and competitive that town water pressure falls in the even to the point where a shower isn’t possible. It’s also directly in the path of a very active volcano.

In a café opposite the station a large Indian family arrived for almuerzo, or set lunch. They were all dressed up, with new peacock feathers in their trilbies and magnificently embroidered blouses. One woman wore layer upon layer of gilt necklaces, like the long-neck tribe of Burma. I watched them carefully calculate the cost of so many $1.50 lunches before ordering. The reminded me of an Irish farmer’s family on a once-a-year trip to town for the Feast of the Assumption on December 8th.

I ate tortillas, where here are small eggy potato cakes, like flat croquettes, served with rice and yet more potatoes cubed with tripe. In case I ran low on carbs, it’s also served with morocho, a maize drink that tastes just like milky rice pudding.

The cathedral was a riot. It was packed for Easter yet seemingly just as informal as the town itself. It is 1920s brick, and looks like a two-dimensional film set against the mountains. Baños is a valley jewel. As the buses here say, ´There’s a little piece of heaven on earth, and its name is Baños.´ The cathedral houses the Virgin of the Holy Waters, an object of pilgrimage throughout South America. The cloister walls are decorated with cheap plaques, Employee-of-the-Month style, which fervently thank the Virgin for favors granted. Some are heart-breakingly specific.

‘On August 9th, 1997, a red truck belonging to the son of your most devoted servant, Jorge Castillo, was stolen on the streets of Quito. His father prayed fervently to the Most Holy Virgin for the return of the truck. Some days later it was recovered outside Quito.’

Others verge on schadenfreude, notably an enormous painting of a street on fire. The caption explains that a house fire in Guayaquil spread to a whole street. As the grateful subject fled his house, a friend shouted that his home would be spared because there was a picture of the Virgin of the Holy Waters in the window. Sure enough, the flames jumped his house, which was on the corner, and completely destroyed those of the heathens on either side. In gratitude, he had painted this picture.

Inside the chapel, further miracles were illustrated—mules falling off log bridges, plunging their riders to certain death until they were spared by invoking the Virgin. In my favorite, a nun was cured of the rheumatism that had all but paralysed her when she was brought on a pilgrimage to Baños. Four years later, the caption notes, she died of bubonic plague. The Virgin could not be reached for comment.

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