Disculpen!

“In case of volcanic eruption … run away!” This sign, seen in Baños, is common in towns near volcanoes; they indicate evacuation routes in case the volcano erupts.

(Excuse us!) It’s been a while since our last post. We’ve been quite busy, actually. We have more to post soon, but in the meantime I wanted to share some of the funny names (at least, funny to an American) that I’ve come across in Ecuador.

Ecuador has its share of what you would consider typically Latin American city names; most are based on religious themes, for example, Montecristi, Santo Domingo, Santa Elena. Some are not religious, necessarily, but “sound” pretty typically Latin American, at least to a gringo’s ears: Salinas, Quevedo, Ibarra. Ecuador’s rich history and multifarious indigenous groups are also reflected in many city names: Quito is named for the people who lived in the area in pre-Incan times; legend has it that Guayaquil is an amalgam of the names of two star-crossed indigenous lovers who were killed by the Spanish. Other cities and towns bear indigenous names as well. For example, many theories exist as to the etymologies of some of Ecuador’s volcanoes — including Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and Pichincha, as well as their eponymous provinces — but all are based in Quechua (pronounced “ketch-wa”), the language of the indigenous people of the Ecuadorean Andes.

But there are others that don’t follow any of these conventions. For example, a number of cities and towns have surprisingly literal names: Cuenca (it literally means “basin”); Lago Agrio (“bitter lake,” possibly as a result of contamination from the ubiquitous oil rigs in the region); and my personal favorite, Baños. “Baños” means “baths,” and the town is called this because of its thermal springs, heated by the volcano Tungurahua, which looms over Baños and has been actively sputtering lava and smoke for the past several years (the verdant and picturesque town has not been in any danger, yet). Similarly, there is a city named Bath in western England, so-called because it, too, has thermal baths — sans volcano, of course. (Can you imagine a volcano in England? I find this idea quite funny.)

Speaking of funny, “Baños” also means “bathrooms.” A native-English-speaking visitor to Ecuador, accustomed to asking “Dónde está el baño?” when looking for a place to answer nature’s call, can’t help but chuckle the first time (or two) at the thought of a town being called “Bathrooms.”As you drive south out of Quito, after a while you start to see signs showing the directions and distances to various towns. Of course, before too long, signs start to say things like “BAÑOS 18KM.” A gringo can be forgiven for thinking, “Ah! In 18 kilometers, I will finally be able to go to the bathroom.”

Other towns are not quite as literal but are just as fun (at least to American ears). There’s a little town near the coast called Jipijapa (pronounced “heepy-hoppa”). There’s a number of towns that end in “-bamba,” which in Spanish means a kind of dance, but likely has other meanings in Quechua. There’s Riobamba and Guayllabamba, among others — indeed, they sound to me like the names of a certain style of Latin dance — and Bolivia is home to my favorite: Tacobamba. Haven’t been there yet.

Finally, just over the mountain ridge that serves as the eastern border of Quito is a booming suburb; it is peaceful, a bit warmer than Quito (thanks to its lower altitude), and rather wealthy — in fact, it is home to most of Quito’s richest people. Sounds pretty swell, right? It has been aptly bestowed the name “Cumbayá.” Yes, it is pronounced just like it looks: “koom-ba-YAH.” I still laugh sometimes when I hear it. “Want to go to Cumbayá this weekend?” Of course! Who wouldn’t? We’ll all sit in a circle under the warm sun, hold hands and listen to Joan Baez …

The risk of writing this post is to sound like a naive, provincial tourist who scoffs at local names and customs. I try not to be one of those. (Indeed, I used to get annoyed to no end at the bloated, stumbling-drunk out-of-towners in Chicago’s River North neighborhood who couldn’t stop yukking it up about the fact that their hotel was located on Wacker Drive. “Whack her? I hardly know her! Haw haw haw!” etc., ad nauseam.) So, I get it. But getting used to the names is part of getting used to a new place — they mean something different after a while.

And sometimes, they just make you laugh.

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