The truth is, it was a swing that first got me dreaming about Ecuador. Now it was time to find it. While getting there was a tad less than romantic—traipsing through a muddy field, dodging a cow and paying a $1 admission to a jaded man—the swing waited for us, swaying in the thick mist, unaffected. Casa del Arbol treehouse is a defunct seismic monitoring station in Ecuador's central highlands, perched at 2,600m. On a clear day it faces the Tungurahua volcano. On the day we visited the flimsy swing (which is tied to one of the treehouse branches) just dangled over a cascading slope into nothingness. Any fear of heights was muffled by the fog and the silence.
After we swung to our heart's content, we spent the afternoon drinking beer and making friends in the shack that the family who maintained the property ran to soothe the nerves of excited tourists.
The region's main settlement is the town of Baños, Ecuador's adventure capital, dotted with outfitters selling rafting, bridge jumping and zip lining tours. But beneath the thrill-seeking reputation, Baños has a more deep-rooted, death-defying streak.
The town's full name, Baños de Agua Santa (holy water), comes from the surrounding hot springs loaded with mineral content and known for their healing properties. Some pilgrims claim to have seen the Virgin Mary appear by the waterfalls on the edge of town. A sculpture of the Virgen de Agua Santa protects the town's central Basilica. On more than one occasion, the highly active Tungharua volcano has sent the residents fleeing and so, Baños has had its fair share of close calls. In fact, the ex-votos in the Basilica paint the picture of the town's many brushes with death. Car accidents, snapped gondola cables, floods, eruptions—all are documented by pious devotees who credit the Virgin of Baños with saving their lives.
We made our temporary home right between the town and the seismic treehouse, at eco lodge Luna Runtun, a spot known for incredible views suspended between the valley and the sky. It's a pricey refuge, but a dip in the hotel's hot pools nestled in the mountains will drown any financial regrets. Peeking over the edge, the town spreads sim-like and isometric beneath us. It's hard not to feel invincible in a place like Baños!