So much to say about Baños, it has been my favorite place thus far. We stayed six nights and originally were only going to stay three nights. Getting to Baños from southern Ecuador is a challenge though. We left Cuenca and got a bus to Ambato (because there are no direct buses from Cuenca to Baños) and that was about seven hours. Once we made it to Ambato, the driver dropped us off on the side of a busy street and signaled to us that a bus to Baños was on the other side. So we had to run across two busy streets with our packs and hope the bus that was parked there was the right one, luckily it was. From Cuenca to Ambato cost $7.50 and the bus from Ambato to Baños cost only $1.00 since that was less than an hour drive. We got into Baños in early evening and found our hostel, Hostel Plantas y Blanco. It was a great hostel that was named due to the entire hostel being painted white and there was a quaint little garden and plants in various areas. One strange aspect about this hostel though are the "health steam baths." Basically you sit in a wooden box on a bench, with your head sticking out and it's the same concept as a steam room. However the steam literally burned my thighs and I was in pain and uncomfortable the whole time. You sit in the box for five minute increments five times and after each session wash yourself with a cold towel. Then at the end the guy assisting sprays you down with a pretty powerful and cold hose, basically the whole experience was quite unpleasant but apparently it's good for you. So for those interested it cost $5 a day.
But back to arriving in Baños, after checking in we went in search of food. During our entire stay in Baños we ate at a couple places but mostly at Casa Hood since the food was really good and has lots of veggie options. I decided after only a day in Baños I could and wanted to live here as a guide because the area was so great. True it is very touristy but the city is absolutely stunning and there is so much to do. In our time there we went to the hot baths a couple of times, went canyoning and white water rafting, visited Casa del Arbol, went to the zoo & aquarium/serpentario and cycled la ruta de cascadas (waterfall route).
First with the hot baths, there are a few but the most popular (not the best) is La Virgin because it is at the base of a waterfall but there are only two pools and it's always crowded. To visit this pool the cost is $2 and opens at 5am but at night it is also open but for $3. The pool we liked better was El Salado. It is a little out of town so you need to find the local blue bus which costs .25 cents or take a taxi for $1. For the bus go to Calle Rocafuerte across from the lone supermercado in town and there is the bus stop. We did both options. The buses run every 30 minutes (starting at 7am though) and this pool is $3 in the morning/day $4 at night but there are more pools and in my opinion, I thought the scenery was more beautiful. It is right next to Rio Pastaza and there are lush green mountains everywhere. When we went we got there around 6:45am and there were only about eight other people and we were the only white people there. To visit these pools you also need to rent a swim cap (.30 cents at Salado and .50 cents at La Virgin).
Our first full day we went to el zoologico San Martin and the aquarium. In order to get there also take the bus from the same stop I previously mentioned. The aquarium/serpentario was $2 and el zoologico was $2.50. We spent a little over three hours at both. The aquarium side has freshwater Amazonian species and serpents, mostly boas which were incredibly beautiful. After the fish and snakes we thought that was it and it was rather unimpressive until I looked around the corner and there was an entire outside section starting with large snapping turtles. After them were some more snakes, piranhas, and then an anaconda that was sleeping in its watery enclosure. We walked further and were in awe of all the species of exotic birds, lots of beautifully colored pheasant species as well. I made note of every species that was identified because I was so intrigued. My dear aquarium friends, Katie and Joel, would have loved this part. I took so many photos so I'll post them all in the end but the best and also scariest birds were the ostriches. They were massive and kept trying to get to us through their enclosures. At the aquarium there were also land tortoises, iguanas, caimans and then strangely African lions. I have never seen them as close as I did here. Shockingly this "aquarium" was better maintained than I was expecting but I am spoiled after having worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
After we walked to the other side of the street where the zoo was, again better maintained and better enclosures than I was anticipating. The zoo was surrounded by such beautiful scenery and lush green mountains and the Rio Pasataza below. There were several species of monkeys, more excellent birds, jaguar, ocelot, jagaurundi (so adorable), and other animals I had never heard of before. I'll post some photos but not all of the million I took while there haha.
The highlight of Baños though were the "extreme" activities we did. We chose Geotours and I'm so glad we did. There are dozens and dozens of tour agencies but I think Geotours is the best because of their guides. First we did canyoning which is rappelling down waterfalls. There were seven of us in the group with three guides (Tomas, Andres and Chiquito Martin- Andres was boring though). When we left Geotours we drove for about 15 minutes and arrived to a random little shack house where we suited up and climbed up a muddy hill so we could start canyoning. After we got to the top of where we were going to start rappelling our guides had us slide down the top part of the waterfall and then our guides went over safety and how to actually rappel down. Then Chiquito Martin, who was shorter than the other two guides, grabbed some leaves and put them in our helmet so we would look like bunnies, so then we were either called chiquitas or conejitas. I mentioned the guides were fantastic because they were all so friendly and funny. All the guides for the activities at Geotours are 20-30 something year old Ecuadorian guides, so I admit also nice eye candy too haha. But canyoning overall was so much fun. I had never gone rappelling before and doing it down slippery waterfalls was slightly nerve racking but more thrilling. I went slow and simply watched how the guides zoomed down face first or how Chiquito Martin ran down simply like a monkey. For a few of the waterfalls we did the rappelling, one of them we zip lined across and the last we slid down on our asses while Chiquito Martin held the rope from above but of course with dunking each one of us as we went down. We did a half day but could easily have done a full day.
With Geotours we also did a half day of rafting which was more fun and I liked our guide but the three canyoning guides were funnier. We rafted down Rio Pastaza which is a class III but since I had only gone rafting twice before in Montana years ago it was still thrilling. In our raft was me, Michelle, our guide William, and two French people who had never gone rafting before. For most of the time Michelle and I were in the front as captains and William kept yelling right side harder, right side harder (which was my side) but really because Julian (French guy) was rarely in sync with me but we never flipped over. First Katia (not sure if I spelled correctly) fell in, then Michelle and then Julian, all at different points though. Later on we were going through a sections with lots of "holes" or undercurrents and two of the rafts ahead of us had flipped over. So we rushed up and helped a rather large Spanish women and the guide into our raft. This woman was exhausted and slightly freaked out but honestly I think she was just too large to do this type of sport, sorry but my opinion. After a few minutes we got back to the other rafts to drop the people off into their own rafts. We were coming up towards the end and Michelle said to our guide "Lauren never fell in so I think we should push her in," which William acknowledged but didn't act on, yet at least. After a couple minutes, he said "Lauren you broke your shoe, no not that one, the other one," so I pulled my feet out from the safety of under the seat cushion and he grabbed them and pushed me into the river. We all had some good laughs and the water wasn't cold so it was fine. Also during our rafting, it was raining pretty heavily at times but mostly once we finished when we wanted to change into our dry clothes in order to go eat lunch. So needless to say rafting and canyoning was my favorite part about Baños.
As I mentioned we also biked la ruta de cascades, in Baños there are numerous waterfalls but the most impressive is Pailon del Diablo. We went with a Canadian girl named Sarah, from our canyoning group, who we really liked. The night before we also went out with her and two younger French guys from our group for a night of partying. As usual I was the sober one and Michelle and I were the grandma's since we only stayed out until midnight. But we went to a bar club where we met up with our Geotours guides too. So the next morning when we met for biking Sarah was hungover and the French boys didn't even show up haha. We rented our bikes from Geotours, haha we couldn't stay away, and started our bike route from Baños to Pailon del Diablo. We cycled on the road which honestly was more nerve racking than the Death Road in Bolivia, in my opinion. Especially since in the beginning we had to cycle through a poorly lit tunnel with cars and trucks passing us. We cycled on a Saturday (which I do not recommend since the road was busier and there were a lot of people at Pailon del Diablo) but still the ride was beautiful. So many waterfalls and such beautiful scenery. I think I have found how much I love cycling though, I was a speed machine haha. After about two hours or so, maybe less, we made it 18 km or so to Pailon del Diablo, which is claimed as the eighth wonder of the world. I wouldn't go that far but still the biggest waterfall I've seen to date. In order to see Pailon del Diablo you need to pay $1.50 and walk down a forest path for about 15-20 minutes. Once at the bottom you start walking up again a bit and then you see the massive waterfall. There are two entrances but at the time I had no idea how to get to the other that leads to bridges that look down at the waterfall so we had the view of looking up. There are a few viewpoints but the best one is where you have to climb through a really narrow cavelike path and there is a nook where you are under the waterfall, it is also the place where you get completely soaked. So we had our showers and did laundry for the day haha.
After that entrance you walk back down and are handed a ticket to cross a bridge which gives you a full view from further back of the waterfall. It isn't Angel Falls of Iguazu Falls (which I will see one day) but it was still a beautiful and impressive waterfall. After we climbed back up and stopped at a little stand where a man was squeezing fresh orange juice, best orange juice I have ever had. We then retrieved our bikes and hoped on a truck for $1 to take us back to Baños.
After our day of cycling, we treated ourselves to Brazilian waxes, haha I think treated is the wrong word. But the next day I treated myself to a 90 minute massage and Michelle got a facial. Now this day was Sunday, my least favorite day in Baños and Sunday's have easily become my least favorite day in South America. We attempted to go up to Casa del Arbol, where there is a swing that supposedly gives you great views of Baños from above. We took the local bus that would take us up thinking it was a 20 minute tops ride up but it was an hour, we were the only white people on the bus with the roughly 50 plus Ecuadorians that were piled in. It only cost $1 to get up there but it was an incredibly uncomfortable ride. When we finally got to Casa del Arbol there was a long line of people, yay for Sunday's. Oh and then it started pouring rain. Normally you get time to enjoy the swing but since their were so many people & weather considerations you only got like 3/4 swings. It's free but donations are accepted.
Afterward we starting walking back down the hill since there were no other means of transportation and part way down a white and green tourist truck (Rahuatour) picked us up for a $1 and took us back to Baños. We sat in the back, Latin America style, with a family of eight that had been on the bus ride up with us. They laughed at us.
After we got back to Baños, we wanted to go to a place Michelle had read about called Cafe del Cielo, back up in Runtun which is where Casa del Arbol is. After a $5 taxi ride, we got there and found that the place was packed and the menu was lackluster. So for those who hear about this cafe, simply don't go. Even on a weekday it's not worth it, especially for vegetarians. So again we started walking back down to Baños until we were able to flag down a passing taxi which we shared with a local but we paid the $5, not him. So basically wasted $10 for nothing.
As I mentioned in the beginning we mostly ate a place called Casa Hood. It wasn't the cheapest but the food was always good and every time we went (seven different times I believe) I ordered hummus & pita since I have been deprived of that for three months. One day one of the waiters even asked us if we lived in Baños since we had frequented so often. But we also ate at Cafe Hood (same owner, slightly different food items), a great breakfast and sandwich spot which was really more of a local spot and then Sativa Cafe which had amazing vegetarian burgers and fresh salads. Oh and also when we were with the French guys & Sarah they went to a place to eat cuy (Guinea pig) so here was our shot to tag along a try a bite. It was gross, tasted like oily slimy chicken, but we were able to check that off our list.
One last thing you might hear about Baños is about the melcocha taffy. It is only good when they are freshly making it, do not buy any packaged form because it is hard as bricks.
This still isn't every little detail about Baños but all the important or noteworthy events. Leaving was sad but I know that one day I'll return. We are in Puyo now which was a little over an hour by bus costing $2. But those who travel to Ecuador cannot miss Baños, again yes it is touristy but so much to do and it's absolutely beautiful.
Oh and actually hello again from Baños. I swear I left but then after meeting our group in the Amazon we came back to Baños with them. I stayed for a few more days and Michelle a couple days more. When we came back to Baños we went rafting again and I visited Pailon de Diablo again. Rafting Baños take two was a thousand times better since we did the full day. We went with Geotours again of course but our guide this time was Andres (many Andres' in Baños). Michelle, myself, Katie & Juan were in one raft whereas Aleah & our new Belgian friend were in the other raft. Instead of rafting for only about an hour or so we rafted for about three-four hours and the rapids were class III-class V as well as one class VI that we had to let our guides maneuver around since it is a very dangerous hole. So we have rafted three times in South America now and I have to admit I'm addicted. I could easily work as a rafting guide for some time. So if you go to Baños and go rafting then you must do the full day, so worth it.
On another day back in Baños I took Katie, Eric & Aleah (Juan & Michelle weren't feeling up to going) to Pailon del Diablo waterfall. They weren't up for biking it so we took local transportation there. We hoped on the blue bus that was bound for Rio Negro/Pailon del Diablo and arrived to waterfall entrance. I took them to the entrance I had gone to previously & then after found how to get to the other entrance. Basically you walk up the main road for a couple of minutes, take a left and walk down a small hill and you will see a parking lot and the other entrance. You have to pay a separate entrance fee for this entrance but I actually preferred this view more than the other entrance. You start on top of the waterfall and see a cavern like pool that quickly descends and becomes the waterfall. When you keep walking you get to rickety, but safe, bridges that allow you to look down at the massive waterfall.
Baños will forever be a special place in my heart because of all the great stories I have from there. I met and traveled with four amazing people (Katie, Juan, Aleah, and Eric) for weeks and Baños was where we all said our final goodbyes.