Friday, April 06, 2018

South America (Ecuador) Day 156 - 159: Banos

We had a relaxed morning, returning to Café Andino for breakfast before paying an extortionate 18 bucks to get a taxi to the ferry. Buses do go there, but only at 7am, 7:30 and 8am because for some reason they don't seem to think people have flights later than that. We then jumped on a TAME bus to the airport. Here's something you need to know about airport buses: you are only charged to get on the TAME bus. If you get on another bus, it's free. Even then, you are only charged for the trip out to the ferry. Going back, as we did that morning, we expected someone to take the return ticket we'd paid for on arrival, but they didn't. However, the airport don't tell you this, instead pushing tickets onto you at $5 each way. It's completely unnecessary, and when we took our ticket back to the bus counter to get a refund, we were stonewalled at first. After they admitted they lied about us needing to pay though, it became apparent we weren't going anywhere and they coughed up ten bucks. So, to repeat, *do not pay for a bus from the airport to the ferry*. Just jump on a non-TAME bus, until the mayor (who according to Johan was not happy about the situation) pushes through legislation to stop the bus company aggressively gouging people.

The flight back was uneventful and we landed in Quito mid-afternoon before getting an uncomfortable transfer to the bus station. From there we took a three hour bus south to Baños, and walked to Great Hostels Backpackers 1km away. We were greeted warmly by Lucas and were taken to our huge en suite triple room which we'd managed to bag for $11 a night, half the price of a double. I'm not entirely sure why or how, but we weren't complaining. Not only does the hostel offer free breakfast, but three times a week they also give free dinner. Amazing!

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We crashed out and the next day set about hiring bikes. Baños is considered the adventure capital of Ecuador, basically a South American Queenstown. The streets are lined with places offering canyoning, rafting, zip-lining, quad bikes and normal bikes. Tom and Sally had recommended cycling along the Ruta de las Cascadas (waterfall route), and given the beautiful backdrop of Baños with a huge volcano overlooking it, we figured a bike ride to see more scenery would be equally spectacular. There are umpteen shops hiring standard bikes for $5 and up to $10 for slightly better ones. MTS had been recommended, and we haggled them down to $7 for good bikes since we were in low season. However, though mine was fine, Gilly's was a little clunky. It lasted the duration of our journey but I'd probably look elsewhere in future - there is no shortage of choice. Once we were kitted out, we stopped at a bakery for some snacks before setting off on the main route. Cycling is almost all downhill or flat, but there are some places where you'll definitely have to work your quads!

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After riding past the hydroelectric plant, you'll get to the main route which is lovely. It takes in numerous waterfalls small and large, as well as a plethora of extreme swing places which offer to push you over the edge of the hill attached to a harness. We had a look at a couple of these since they are all springing up along the side of the road (CANOPY DOBLE! CANOPY TRIPLE! CANOPY EXTREME!), and it seemed like they'd all been thrown together with a few bits of metal attached to some rope. At one point a tour bus nearly took out an overhead cable at a work-in-progress swing, almost snapping it. If it had, the workman in the carriage it was attached to would have plummeted to the ground. At that point we decided that they weren't for us, and decided instead to enjoy the scenery.

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The waterfalls themselves were impressive even from a distance and we saw Àgoyan, Puerto del Cielo, and Manto de la Novia before arriving at the main attraction: Pailon del Diablo (Devil's Cauldron). This is part of the Rio Verde and is the most impressive waterfall of the route, since you can hike up a steep section and actually walk underneath part of it. It's a tight squeeze between slimy rocks and then a tiny area that you have to pull yourself up, but the sheer power of the waterfall up close makes it worth the effort. There's also a circular staircase leading down to a viewing platform at the base of the falls where you'd expect to get drenched, but you only get covered with a light mist.

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After emerging slightly sodden, we stopped for a Shaman craft beer at a local restaurant before cycling back across the Rio Verde bridge and turning left to follow a path to the other side of Pailón del Diablo. From here you can climb up to a couple of bridges overlooking the waterfall for a completely different perspective. It might not have the majesty of Iguazú Falls but your proximity to it makes for a great, damp experience.

Before we knew it the clock was hitting 4pm, so we had to head home. Fortunately there's no need to cycle the entire 20km back again, since the savvy Ecuadorians have spotted a market in lazy gringos and set up a host of trucks at various points on the route to ferry you and your bike back to town for two dollars per person. We were totally on board for that. Even better, good timing meant we'd arrived on a free dinner day at the hostel, so after a couple of celebratory caipirinhas we had a filling bowl of spag bol on the house for a great end to the day.

After breakfast the next morning we took the 11am bus up to Casa del Arbor (tree house). This is where you can "swing over the edge of the world", or rather over the edge of the hill overlooking the volcano. There are great views, but it's much better when it's not cloudy. We were lucky, given that it's rainy season the weather had been lovely and sunny with only a little cloud near the top of the volcano. And of course, swings are never not fun.

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After we'd had our fill of swinging and hanging off the rather tame playground-style zipline, we were pretty hungry. Gilly had earmarked Café Good for lunch, a place that really undersells its cuisine with its name, but then Café Magnificent would be setting the bar pretty high. A trout in white wine sauce and chickpeas in curry sauce was followed by a yummy brownie, and it was all delicious. I hadn't had enough of an adrenaline rush, so thought it'd be a good idea to jump off a bridge. This is a practice called puenting, which mixes a bungee-style jump with a swing once the cord tenses. It isn't actually bungee rope though, so I was expecting it to be quite painful, but a few other English guys had just done it by the time we arrived and told me it was fine. So I handed over twenty bucks, stepped into a harness and jumped off the bridge.

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Compared to bungee jumping it wasn't quite the same rush, and it was over a lot quicker, but there's nothing that compares to hurtling towards a canyon floor for getting your heart going. Once in the swinging position, the guys dropped me down a few times too, which was also pretty fun. To say the outfit looked sketchy would be an understatement, given that it was three guys sat on a bridge with a few lengths of rope. It certainly wouldn't pass any sort of safety law in the UK, but this is Ecuador and sometimes fun things that you can't do at home have an element of risk that you need to be comfortable with. Gilly decided she preferred to be on camera duty.

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We had done precious little cooking on our travels, but we had two bags of pasta which we had planned to use in Galápagos and hadn't, so Gilly cooked us some for dinner and we shared a bottle of red in flagrant disregard for hostel rules about bringing in outside alcohol. Because that's the kind of mavericks we are.

For our last full day in Baños, we decided to get wet. We'd booked in a half day of rafting combined with a half day of canyoning the night before at Imagine Ecuador, and the bus picked us up at 9am with Sam and Kuba from Toronto. After trying on laughably large wetsuits at the shop, we were driven up to the Pastazi river and given the run through of commands needed in the raft. To be honest, I wasn't particularly impressed with Juan (the company owner), as not only was the raft lacking a dedicated pocket at the front to secure your foot other than a strip of canvas, the commands and positions he gave were contrary to everything we'd experienced before.

Still, we were soon paddling along the river, doing our best to hear his voice over the water. It got worse in the rapids, and we were constantly looking at each other to see if anyone had understood if we needed to keep paddling or stop. It was around a grade 4 in terms of difficulty, so not particularly easy sailing. When we got to a place where Juan told us that the raft ALWAYS tips over, things got pretty tense...somehow we powered through with sheer willpower, and made it to the other side unscathed.

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We didn't get away easily though, add ten minutes later a huge wave dumped me and Gilly into the murky brown water. We were both inside the raft again within ten seconds thanks to the other guys, but it was a bit of a shock! That was the last event of note, as the remaining rapids were a lot smoother and we hit the bank at around midday. It wasn't the worst rafting we'd done, but even though Freddy in Cusco was completely insane, we still felt much safer with him than Juan.

We were starving, and although the agency had told us we'd be having lunch after both activities (contrary to what they'd said the night before) we did end up eating straight after rafting since another couple from the U.S. were joining us for canyoning. After a plate of chicken and three different carbs, we squeezed into our sopping wetsuits once more. Canyoning is essentially rapelling down waterfalls, combining two things which Gilly is not keen on: heights and fast-moving water. Still, she decided to brave it anyway. There were six waterfalls we had to descend, and this was done alongside Juan, Mede - who had basic English - and another guy from the company who spoke basically no English. Mede was leading our group and was possibly insane. Him and Juan would rappel down to the bottom of each waterfall to secure the lines, and then we'd follow attached to harnesses and safety lines. Descending was almost identical to how we got down the Urban Rush building in La Paz, except for the fact that the rocks were a hundred times more slippery than concrete, and we were also being hit in the face with water.

The surroundings were beautiful, but we struggled to fully enjoy them since we were concentrating too hard on not plunging to our doom. Early on there were two waterfalls we could jump from into pools below. They were deep, but one of them still had quite a painful rock at the bottom, and the other felt pretty dangerous, with another ledge jutting out underneath the jumping point. I didn't trust myself not to smack my head on the way down, so opted for the slightly lower jump point, while Gilly decided that she'd rather rappel. At another of the waterfalls, the guides set up a zip-line for us to slide down. There were also ample opportunities for us to swim under the base of a couple of falls to get a "natural massage". After the first few waterfalls though, and what seemed to be a disregard for the safety of all of the group by the guides (Gilly actually slipped once, and was hoisted into a position which was both uncomfortable for her and the rest of the group crammed into a tiny ledge), our focus was to just get through the two hours with our lives intact. We succeeded, but the entire event wasn't something I could say I enjoyed. Combined with the haphazard rafting experience, I'd honestly expected a lot more from a company so highly rated. I think we'll need to do more rafting as soon as possible so we can confirm this was just a one-off blip.

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Back in town in the evening, we had a blissfully warm shower before stepping out for a cheeky beer at Stray Dog Brewery followed by food at Casa Hood. Along with delicious falafel, we'd made the mistake of once again underestimating South American spice levels, and asked for an extra hot Thai curry. I think the fact that the waiter wrote down that we were English on our order may have had something to do with why we were shortly sweating from our eyelids. Really good curry, but unexpectedly hot - a nice ending to a hit-and-miss day. Baños was definitely worth visiting though, and lovers of outdoor activities would definitely enjoy a few days in the town.

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