Baños and a Shy Volcano
Baños, adventure capital of Ecuador, sits under the mighty Tungarahua volcano (5023m), which is so active that very recently its output actually caused the road into Baños to be blocked. Consequently, our esteemed and conservative UK foreign office advises caution when travelling here. But there’s one thing nobody tells you…these big volcanoes are shy!
Quito to Baños is a three-hour bus trip from the Terrestre Quitumbe bus terminal (itself a longish taxi ride out of Quito’s centre). We’d been told to expect issues on Ecuadorian buses, particularly out of Quito, so were primed to take full defensive positions in the bus terminal against potential bandits. As it turned out, the terminal was extremely modern, clean, spacious and seemingly security-conscious. As has often been the case in South America, we arrived, bought tickets and were on a bus within ten minutes. Still, better not be complacent, as it was the actual buses people really moaned about, so we re-assumed our defensive posture: scanning the few passengers for criminal intent. Only problem being that old ladies and kids don’t look evil (excepting Cruella de Vil, Damien from the Omen etc.). Needless to say, all passed without issue and we descended in Baños happy campers.
Although we have (touch wood) had a clean run, it is worth taking precautions whilst travelling on South American buses. There are many scams and lots of stories of bag slashing, distraction-based robberies, kids crawling under seats and more. There is some very good advice here but simply put: stay aware at all times of your luggage, your surroundings and the people around you. When people get off and on, look outside to ensure any luggage stowed underneath the bus doesn’t walk off in the company of someone else.
So having demonstrated our innate streetwise-ness-osity and not been robbed, we walked straight into taxi debacle #1. We blame the lack of internet in Quito for this. Let me explain:
- Distance from bus station to hostel <= 25 yards
- Cost of taxi to drive several blocks and deposit us at hostel within sight of original bus stop = $1.50
- Taxi driver = complete git for not pointing at hostel and suggesting we walk the few paces required
- Quito internet outage prevented us from having checked locations in advance => Quito internet at fault
We noticed our bags were a bit wet as we checked in to our hostel (highly-recommend this one) and settled into our room. Then we noticed that they smelt a bit fishy or, rather, a lot fishy. Something nasty in the luggage compartment had clearly leaked all over our luggage. Fortunately, the hostel cleaning lady concocted a bucket of something very strong using three separate unmarked cleaning fluid bottles, which I sincerely hope are never left in the presence of unaccompanied children. Problem solved after three daily applications + sunshine + fresh air (well, so long as you don’t sniff too closely).
Baños is a “gringo” party town, full of people on the tourist trail wanting to jump off bridges, go rafting, canyoning, ziplining etc. It is full to the gunnels of restaurants too, from Ecuadorian tipicos to Swiss fondue restaurants. And it rains quite a lot. Unsurprisingly, a large section of real-estate is devoted to the promotion of friendship bracelets and stripy stuff. So, an easy and fun place to be; but not really “Ecuador” as far as we could tell.
There’s a lot to do in Baños and lots of tour companies to help you do it. We chose a couple of DIY activities that combined mild exercise, rain and some spectacular views of the insides of clouds.
Above Baños sits a Mirador with a cross, a Mirador with a Virgin, a posh restaurant/cafe and a small town called Runtun. High above Runtun an old man lives with a weather station, two cats, a small bottle of Mexican tequila and a cool-but-dilapidated treehouse (Casa del Arbol), underneath which sits a swing. This is “The Swing at the end of the World”.
Each day at 14:00 a rundown old bus makes its way up from Baños, full of schoolkids that evaporate into the mist on the way up as they flit off home like sprites. It would appear to be mandatory that the driver stops halfway, opens the engine cover inside the bus and whacks some stuff with a spanner. Maybe it makes him feel better; maybe it makes the bus feel better. I’m not sure we felt any better though.
At the top and inside a cloud, a small climb takes you to the old man’s home. He proceeds to be very grumpy until the first donation of $0.50 is made, whereupon he transforms into the picture of kindness who explains his unique role in maintaining such an other-worldy swing out of his own pocket. He unlocks the padlock and you get to swing out over a fairly steep drop all the while in a cloud. And you love it!
We decided to walk rather than bus down and proceeded to get lost in the farm tracks around Runtun whilst trying unsuccessfully to get a glimpse of the volcano. Finally we found our way to the Cafe de Cielo for a very expensive and accordingly tasty icy, creamy concoction. Alison had an Oreo Smoothie, now you know they exist you should make one…genius just blend the hell out of a load of Oreos with milk, ice cream, brandy, whatever! The view from here over Baños was fabulous: the cafe sits on a cantilever with full height windows overlooking the valley. The view from here to the mighty Tungarahua, however, was obscured in cloud (do you see a pattern here yet?).
A further muddy walk took us back down into Baños just in time for an aperitif and dinner. During the descent we came across a Japanese chap, stinking of beer, who accosted us, determined our origin and promptly demanded whiskey before stumbling onwards as dusk fell. I think he was having a good time.
There is a road out of Baños that runs down towards Ecuadorian Amazonia (our next destination) along the Pastaza river. The river cuts a gorge into the rainforested mountain sides and, as a result, there are lots of waterfalls, hence “La Ruta de las Casacadas”. A favoured trip from Baños is an 18km cycle ride down the valley taking in the waterfalls, ziplines and culminating in a walk to the Pailon del Diablo, the grandest of the falls and apparently tenth something in the world of waterfall minutiae. Despite internet research, we never figured out what its legitimate claim to fame was, but it was certainly watery, fallery, misty sprayery and, actually, quite spectacular.
The cycle ride is along a main road with buses and lorries but they seem to be aware of the tourists so it’s not too hairy. Various tunnels are often circumvented for cyclists with paths around the valley edge. The scenery is lush, densely forested mountainsides, shrouded in cloud with a raging river in the valley floor. There are quite a few hydro-electric installations en-route and, of course, the various waterfalls of varying magnitude. For the brave of heart, there are lots of ziplines across the valley. It was pretty wet on our excursion and there didn’t seem to be many people zipping across the lines.
We almost passed straight through the village next to Pailon del Diablo (the devil’s cauldron) before an energetic middle-aged lady called Mercedes almost knocked us off our bikes, provided free bike parking and despatched us down to the falls with a promise we’d return to her restaurant for lunch.
The walk down to the falls takes half an hour or so and at the bottom you reach a house/restaurant where you pay a $2.00 fee to enter. There are a series of viewing platforms at the base of the cauldron that really expose the sheer power of the water and mist. Further up you can clamber through a narrow undercut tunnel in the cliffs and climb close to the top of the falls, almost but not quite behind the water. At this point I though it’d be a good idea to stand right next to the wall to allow Alison to capture me and the water and was, accordingly, duly drenched. There’s also a suspension bridge over the gorge that gives you a more complete view of the falls.
Back at Mercedes’s lair, we feasted on beautiful, freshly-made Empanadas (both savoury and sweet), Choclo and Queso (Corn and Cheese) and beer. These were the best empanadas we have ever had, period. Whether it was because we were wet and tired, because they were freshly made for us or that some had chocolate and blackcurrant in them, doesn’t matter a fig.
Finally, it was ready for the 18km uphill back to Baños. Fortunately a nice man with a lorry sits and waits for tourists in such a predicament and – for $2.00 -takes you and the bike back, covered from the rain and still very fresh from the natural shower.
We stayed three days and we stayed alert for any glimpse of the monster that towers above Baños. We walked down to the bridge in the evenings to see if the clouds would clear, we even saw two eruptions, with gigantic vertical columns of smoke and ash and even a tantalisingly small glimpse of the volcano side. But we didn’t see the volcano itself. Even the locals only see it rarely…they’re shy, like I told you. And it’s easy to hide yourself in plain sight when you’re big enough to generate your own weather!
It was down to the bus station in yet another downpour that Thursday morning, no taxi required this time. Destination Puyo: to go live with Jaguars and a Kinkajou.