At one time not so long ago, a particular green mountaintop in Baños, Ecuador, was a small seismic monitoring station run by Carlos Sanchez, a volunteer with the Military Geographical Institute.
His family would often visit him on weekends and, to keep them entertained, he decided to build a modest wooden swing dangling from a tree house precariously close to the edge of the mountainside.
Today, that same swing set—now internationally known as La Casa del Arbol—dares hundreds of visitors a day to go for a ride some 8,700 feet above sea level, though the actual drop is only about 100 feet.
Don’t worry, adrenaline junkies. It looks like a lot more—and the simple swing with nothing more than a loose rope as a seatbelt doesn’t help matters.
On a good day, swinging out from the mountain rewards tourists with a view of the active Tungarahua volcano, which means “throat of fire” in the native Quechua language of the Andes. But more often than not, the volcano, which sits 1.5 miles across the valley, is shrouded in clouds.
Regardless, the weather doesn’t stop endless groups of travelers from frequenting the swing, from morning to night, enjoying their picnics and leaving notes in the tree house guest log. The languages range from Spanish, English and German to Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. To date, Carlos has 10 books filled to the brim.
In just five years, the mountainside that was once a lush respite for the Sanchez clan has developed into a swing-riding haven, with similar attractions dotting the hillside—some nearly identical. But La Casa del Arbol sits right at the top of the mountain, just as it should, says Carlos’s daughter-in-law, Malen Caicedo.
La Casa del Arbol was the first, she says. And she wishes it had stayed that way.
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Carlos calls himself “the Volcano Watcher.”
The glacier-capped, 16,478-foot volcano has erupted periodically since 1999. From La Casa del Arbol, Carlos has the prime spot to observe any flows moving down toward Baños, which is considered the doors of the Amazon, Malen explains. A recent eruption forced the evacuation of 70 percent of the population surrounding the volcano, while only 30 percent evacuated on the opposite side of the valley, according to Malen.
“My father-in-law is very famous, because he appears in the news, in the Quito newspaper, in the television. He is very famous. You recognized him?” she asks, pointing to a collection of newspaper clippings on the wall, as well as a shelf of jarred volcanic ash. “He’s a seismographer and measures the movement of the earth when the volcano is active, and tells the people in Quito. That is the place where they care about the volcano.”
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“Everybody, everybody wants to build swings because we were the first ones,” Malen says. “I tell you something: It used to be a very peaceful and silent place, and the people only used to grow plants and fruit. Now, with our swings, it is very popular and very touristic place, and everybody’s going up.
“I miss very much the time when it was peaceful and I came here with my three daughters. I miss a lot of that, sitting here and relaxing with myself. There used to be a lot of birds here.
“But, also, my father-in-law and my brother-in-law, my sisters-in-law, they needed the money. They weren’t rich. Now they have more money for better education for their children. But I miss very much.”
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“The path down, that is the only place I can be in silence now,” Malen says.
. . . .
“My husband is there, working with Carlos,” Malen says. “He’s doing a new swing there. But I don’t like it. He’s using concrete. I like the nature.
“I have a piece of land in the jungle, in the middle of the jungle.” Her face lights up. “There I can really relax. We go fishing. You arrive to a small town called Topo, and then you go 20 minutes up to the mountain, and you leave there the car because you have to put your boots and then you have to walk one hour into the jungle, and then we have a little hut. And I like to live there and to cook my food with fire, yes. No gas. Yes, I like very much that kind of life.”
She looks back to the old wooden tree house, where a man is gently pushing a woman’s back on the swing.
“You don’t have a lot of opportunities to swing in a place like this, no? It is very different from other place.”
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