Quito had treated us so well, I was almost sad to see it go, however, of all places Baños is not a terrible concession prize. Four hours by bus from Quito and you can find yourself in Baños. We arrived with little difficulty and found our way to the charming guest house called the Princess Maria, where the owner's son, Francisco, gave us a long detailed introduction to the guesthouse and Baños, giving us all sorts of information on the many activities to get involved in.
After managing to pull away from our very friendly host, we relaxed in our cozy and VERY reasonable $14/night room. After wasting a bit of time online, we threw our shoes on and took a spin around Baños.
At first glance, Baños is just about as cute and picturesque town as it gets, settled in a lush green valley, surrounded by largely overwhelming mountains with impressive cascading waterfalls adding to the fable-like setting. The town is set up like many Latin American towns; grid street plan with grassy open plazas with old colonial cathedrals towering over.
On this particular day, a cool, misty fog was settled over the town. We strolled through the streets, orienting ourselves and checking out the products and services available for purchase. Eventually, we came across a grocery store and stopped in for supplies for our stay.
We settled back in our guesthouse and kept warm from the chilly mountain temps with a bottle of red and left over Colombian chocolate.
After a blissfully restful slumber, we arose with plans to mountain bike down the "Ruta de Cascadas" 22km mostly downhill to the neighboring town of Rio Verde passing dramatic, plunging canyons and a half dozen beautiful waterfalls. It seemed, however, that yesterday's wet weather wanted to stick around. We thought it best to leave the 22km downhill for a day when the roads aren't wet and slippery or we might risk plunging down one of those waterfalls ourselves.
Instead, we layered up, threw on our hiking shoes and raincoats and made our way to the nearest trail. Francisco recommended a nice 3-4 hour hike starting with a steep climb to the Virgen Maria statue perched on a lookout high over the town.
As we climbed up the never-ending stairs, the layers slowly started pealing off as our heart rates escalated and perspiration began developing on our foreheads. We stopped a couple times to take in the exquisite beauty of our surroundings and of course, catch our breath.
Near the top we passed an older gentleman on his way down who was pouring with sweat. He mentioned to us that it was his third trip up and down the mountain that day. He had gotten up at dawn and was repeatedly climbing the mountain as a 'Punishment from God". Hmmm...not sure what he did, but I'm hoping God will cut him break before he has a heart attack.
At any rate, we got to the lookout after 20-25 minutes or so of climbing. The lookout was in fact, beautiful and well worth the climb, however, this was only the start of it. We snapped a few photos overlooking the quaint town below and continued the upwards climb towards the top of mountain.
We hiked along the side of the mountain climbing up and descending with the rolling terrain. At one point we came to an inpass. A large brown horse stood directly in our path munching of the lush, green shrubbery. To the right steep upwards mountainside, and to the left a dramatic cliffside drop off. We heard it's never wise to walk/stand closely behind a horse, specifically when a swift kick can send you down the side of a mountain. Of course, I had no intention of getting between a hungry horse and its food.
Luckily for us there were two brief pauses between bites that we were able slip carefully passed the hungry horse without getting nips by his oversized horse teeth.
Within the hour we made it to the fork in the path where we can continue toward the giant cross lookout or continue upwards toward the volcano lookout. We decided to head up and see what we could see. As we ascended up the muddy path we heard a steady and unnervingly loud rumbling. We looked up to the sky, and by this time the thick foggy overcasted sky had dissipated to a very thin layer of broken clouds with even bits of sunshine creeping through.
Well, it certainly doesn't appearto be thunder. As we continued climbing the rumbling continued and even appeared to be getting louder. Within a minute it occurred to us that the rumbling was in fact the unstable, angry sounding volcano. Was this normal? All I can say is that if this puppy was erupting there was certainly no saving us.
Before long the steep trail we were following dissolved into an open field. We saw a teenaged girl and her parents tending to their farm crops. We asked the way to the volcano look out and she pointed up a steep grassy hill. And so we continued to climb, up and up and up.
By this time the volcano was getting quite loud, yet we still couldn't see a thing. Eventually the path lead us to several houses built high up the mountain. Dogs and chickens roamed the yard as we crept through hoping to not stir the dogs or the families inside as we made our way past the houses. We looked around confused on which way to go, when the lady of the house came out and pointed straight ahead. We followed her direction and continued down a dirt path.
We had been relatively lucky until this point, but it seemed the dirt path was no match for wet rainy weather from the morning and the previous day. The path quickly transformed to a mucky, muddy pit. Adrian and I looked at each other with a mutual look of disdain. And soon after turned around.
Instead of heading down the path we cut across the field to a clearing in hopes of catching a glimpse of the volcano, to no avail. Hungry and a touch defeated we sat down on the hillside next to the dried out corn stalks and dug into our rations of apples and almonds.
After a peaceful and relaxing 20 minute break. We started down the hill to the mountaintop town of Runtun. We made it there within 30 minutes. The town had a deserted ghost-town feel that kind of creeped me out, and so we kept walking. Eventually we had gotten to the road. We could turn right and head up the steep hill to check out an exciting house built around a tree or head back down and check out the cross lookout. By this point I was pretty over uphill and the prospect of heading up another brutal one wasn't very appealing, and so we turned left and began heading down the hillside. We traded off descending via dirt path and road several times until the uneven muddy path became too steep.
By switching back and forth between path and road it eventually became apparent that not only did we miss the turn off to the cross lookout, but we were taking a very long and indirect way to get back. What was supposed to be a 3 hour hike turned into more like a 5 hour affair.
Eventually though we made it back to town. We walked down the busy, bustling calles of Baños on that Saturday afternoon. We walked through the markets and past the street vendors. At one point, I stopped dead in my tracks when I witnessed one of the more terrifying displays of streetside carnivorism; dried, roasting guinea pigs; faces, tails, claws, the whole damn thing. I shudder just at the thought of it. The pungent BBQ aroma was wafting in my face when I finally was forced to B-line far past it and wait as Adrian got his fill of photos.
We made it up the last hill back to our hostel, where we promptly kicked off our shoes, and sank into the bed with a huge, audible sigh.
It wasn't until it was time to make dinner that I was finally able to rouse myself into action. We headed to the kitchen and got to work on our evenings feast of veggie soup. We ended up cooking enough soup to feed a small army, I guess I know what we're eating for the next few days.
After dinner we cleaned up and decided to take an evening stroll into town to see what Baños has crackin' on a Saturday night. To our surprise, the town was really happenin. There was an incredibly loud procession of dumpy Hyundais and Chevys souped up with such state of the art sound systems, Xzibit would be jealous.
We followed the parade of blarring techno beats to the strip of bars and discotechs. The music was bumpin, the Club Premiums were flowing... And this is what Saturday night looks like in the charming, unassuming town of Baños, Ecuador. Unfortunately for us we're old and boring, so we found an ice cream stand for me and a corner store with a couple frosty brews for Adrian and we headed back to the quiet comforts room number 3 at the Princess Maria hostel.
In the morning, we woke up to the rooster crowing welcoming in the new sunshiny day. The wet weather had let up and today was the day we would take on Baños and the 'Ruta de Cascadas' on two wheels.
After breakfast and a stop for coffee, we rented our mountain bikes, threw on our helmets and hit the open road. The 'Ruta de Cascadas' though beautiful is a touch sketchy in that much of it is along the highway with no bike path as you bomb down at 40kph with diesel spewing trucks and buses barreling past you at alarmingly close distances. Yeah, a touch sketchy.
Eventually we turned off to a bike designated area and saw several gorgeous waterfalls, beautiful green mountains falling away to a vast canyon with a white, rapid flowing river down below. We took a ton of photos and soon continued on.
Our next stop was at one of the many ziplines that are set up along the highway. Operators of every level of shadiness were scattered along the highway offering kilometer long facefirst ziplines across the steep canyon. We watched on as a few people zipped across until we decided to keep moving.
One of the coolest, and certainly most dangerous operators was set up just another ten minutes down the road. Two old bridges erected right next to each other is the perfect location to set up what they call a bridge swing.
An exceptionally daring individual stands up on the edge of the bridge and jumps off, only to fall 30ft, be turned and flipped onto their back and whipped and swung below and under the bridge, kind of awesome and kind of insane. I wanted to do it and totally didn't at the same time.
We looked on and watched awkward fall after awkward fall. It sort of looked like it hurt. Adrian was convinced the climbing rope that they were using as a bungee cord can only take so many falls before you switch it out, and these cowboys didn't look concerned with taking care of their equipment. So with our best, most responsible judgment on hand we hopped back on our bikes and continued down the steep winding highway.
Eventually after a few stops for photos along the path we made it to Rio Verde. We parked our bikes and headed into the park to check out the mother of all waterfalls, Pailon del Diablo.
We hiked down the very steep and very crowded path to the entryway to the park. We paid our $2 entry and made our way through the crowds to the base of the waterfall. The fierce torrent of water plunged down to the river below with billowing surges of spray soaking us to the bone. It was an incredible sight. We then hiked up the hillside and continued on as the path cut it's way into the mountain through rocky tight cave passes and back behind the powerful waterfall. The soaking wet spray prevented Adrian getting any good photographs, but safe to say is was an awesome experience.
We waited as the crowds subsided and eventually climbed through the cave and back through to the path on the other side.
We stopped once more at the bridge for a photo op and then decided we had enough of the crowds and climbed the steep path back up to the entrance and back to our bikes.
Back in Rio Verde we debated whether or not to coninue on. Apparently because of the weekend it would be impossible to get a ride back to Baños from a further town, so we did the lazy thing and grabbed a beer and waited until the truck was ready to take us back. We figured yesterday's expedition allowed us to cut a corner or two today.
We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, until it was finally time to enjoy the luxorious namesake of town, Baños. We threw on our swimsuits and grabbed our bikes and headed to one of the towns largest thermal pools. It was a Sunday night and the pools were packed with locals. We managed to make our way in despite them telling us it was full.
We slowly made our way into one of the less crowded pools. Let me tell you, it was by far the hottest water I had ever been in. I could only manage it for a couple minutes before escaping the heat and plunging into the ice cold bath that sat directly next to it. It was so cold it instantly took your breath away, but felt amazing.
We continued to alternate from piping hot to freezing cold until we eventually had our fill and were ready for some dinner. That night we feasted again on veggie soup, and by 10pm were drifting away to peaceful and much needed sleep.
In the morning, it was up early and back on a bus. We would be heading to the old, colonial town of Cuenca. It was another 8 hours+ bus trip. Here we go again...