We woke early in a small, family-run hostel. Alex and I had met one week earlier in Quito on an intensive Spanish language course, and after an exhausting seven days of trying with little success to absorb the local language, a spontaneous weekend away in Baños had sounded perfect. We were already becoming accustomed to life in Ecuador: having booked a twin room we found ourselves sharing a double bed, and our curtains were no match for the six a.m. flood of South American sunshine.
A quick peek behind the ineffective curtains showed clear blue skies in all directions and our plans for the morning were confirmed. We quickly dressed and ate cereal in our room before walking to the taxi rank. Our driver was young, no older than twenty, and tried to hide his smile when we told him where we were going. La Casa Del Arbol is a treehouse hidden in the mountains above Baños, boasting incredible views of the Andes and a rickety swing over the edge of a steep drop. The old Ecuadorian man who lives there measures the seismic activity of nearby volcanoes and charges fifty cents for a ride on the swing.
The driver picked up his phone from the passenger seat the moment we set off, dialling between occasional glances at the road. "Voy a Casa Del Arbol con dos gringas," he said, "Si, claro. Cinco minutos." Five minutes later, and we were picking up his friend on the edge of town. The friend climbed in and we received a warm smile and a 'Buenas dias,' in leui of an explanation.
We trailed our way through the mountains, leisurely following the roads as they twisted their way upwards. The blue skies kept their promises and we felt the strength of the sun on our skin. We rolled the windows down (yes, actually rolled) while our driver, having already invited his friend along, proceeded to turn up the music, alternating between traditional salsa and the rapper Pitbull. Alex and I exchanged glances. Twenty minutes later we pulled over next to a steep, dirt footpath that disappeared behind the trees. The driver and his friend led the way as Alex and I scrambled behind them, short of breath thanks to the altitude.
At the top we were greeted by a flat, grassy clearing, scattered with tents and dwarfed by mountains from every angle. On three sides we were surrounded by thick forest but on the fourth, directly ahead, the ground just stopped. It fell away without warning or reason, giving way to the most incredible view. All of a sudden the mountains were right there, staring you in the face, challenging and intimidating and inspiring. The closest possible horizon. There was so much green; everywhere you looked was a blend of tree and grass and mountain. I could hardly see the sky.
Our driver pointed out which of the surrounding mountains were volcanoes, and then which of these were still active, with a nonchalance that can only have come from growing up in the shadow of an active volcano. Still breathless from the climb, Alex and I meandered towards the treehouse, perched precariously close to the drop, as campers began to emerge from their tents. One by one they stretched out and admired the view, still bundled up in blankets and jumpers.
As the old Ecuadorian man unlocked the swing we were lucky enough to witness Tungurahua, one of the most active of Ecuador's 26 volcanoes, cough out some ash. Our driver tapped my shoulder, giddily pointing, and we scrambled for our cameras as the dark plume rose above bright white clouds. I don't think I have ever felt so small.
I dropped my fifty cents into the donation box nailed to the tree and sat down on the swing. The taxi driver clipped in place the threadbare rope that served as a safety strap and pushed me until I built up momentum. Despite the steep, grassy slope not too far beneath your feet, when you swing all the way out it really does feel like you are on the edge of the world. The mountains tumble out in front of you, ridiculously large and rolling over one another, uninterrupted, for as far as you can see. Alex called out to me, asking if it was fun, and I couldn't find any words at all. I nodded, unable to so much as tear my eyes away from the surreality.
Alex took her turn on the swing and afterwards we stood quietly together, taking photos and trying to drink in the scenery. The driver and his friend squinted out at the view in silence. The field was littered with people but none of them made a sound beyond quiet murmurs and the clicking of cameras. It's a place and a view that makes you feel tiny and insignificant in the best possible way.
As we left, the day's first bus of tourists pulled up and the tranquillity and magic were shattered in a twang of accents and a throng of people, all racing to be the first on the swing. We headed back towards Baños, dropping off the driver's friend at the same spot just outside town. They did a silly handshake, all fist bumps and finger clicks, and exchanged childish grins as he clumsily made his way out of the cab. I thought back to my initial confusion when we picked him up and realised with a smile that it was simply their favourite place to visit.
In many ways, Casa Del Arbol was exactly what I expected it to be: a tourist hotspot; a place to post about on instagram or facebook; arguably the best view of one of Ecuador's most active volcanoes. But I left feeling unexpectedly sparkly inside. I am inexplicably happier knowing there's a little Ecuadorian man living in a hut in a tree in the middle of nowhere in the Andes, making a living studying the volcanoes and charging tourists fifty cents for a ride on his swing off the edge of the world. I feel happier knowing that I can state my destination in a taxi and my driver's first thought is to invite his friends, because he knows about the magic of being in the right place at the right time. I inwardly thank my hostel for their useless curtains, my unexpected alarm clock, for allowing me to stumble across such a wonderful place at exactly the right time. Because as Alex and I sat in a roadside cafe later that morning, sipping at cappuccinos and uploading photos to instagram and waiting for our breakfast, we knew we had already done something special that day.