Finding the Baños

Friday, April 02, 2010

I spent a day recovering from the climb to Cotopaxi’s summit at the Secret Garden and then set off the next morning at 11 for Baños. With me was Bjorn, an Icelandic guy that had also done the trek. The Secret Garden shuttle dropped us off at Machachi and from there we waited on the Pan American highway for a bus heading south and rode to Ambato where we taxied to the other terminal and continued on to Baños. We had been recommended a hostel called Plantas y Blancas (lit: Plants and Whites) and found it a short several blocks from the bus station. The dorms were decent and definitely spotless. Upstairs, a terrace with a breakfast cafe, $1 beers, and games from backgammon to awari awaited. Downstairs, for those so inclined, were steam baths and other spa-related amenities. Of course, having just arrived, we stowed our stuff (lockers would be welcome here) and looked around outside the hostel. The first thing you’ll see when you walk the streets of Baños are row upon row of buggies, quads, and small jeeps for rent. Next are the men whipping toffee by hand in doorframes of candy stores. Travel agencies are lined with photo mosaics of everything from Cotopaxi/Chimborazo to Amazonians in loin cloths and unlucky travellers caught squatting in the wilderness. Navigation is never difficult as the town is flanked by tall mountains with a waterfall on the eastern side and a virgin blessing the town from the hills over the west. Despite its tacky tourist charms, I had a feeling I was going to like it here.

Aside from $1 beer on the patio, the first thing Bjorn and I decided to do was rent a buggy for a few hours to explore the numerous waterfalls on the road west of Baños. Everybody here says you only need three or four hours – but that’s if you don’t want to get off and actually do a bit of walking to see the actual waterfalls. Not knowing this, we negotiated a pretty good rate for three hours of $20 but as soon as we hit the road in our buggy it became apparent that 3 wouldn’t cut it. In the end we paid $7/hr for 5 hours which was still pretty decent. We didn’t plan it but somehow each waterfall we visited grew in impressiveness. The first stop was a double-fall with a really fast cable car to the bottom. From what I’ve heard, this was more of a rush than the white water rafting here. You can also opt to take a different cable car which actually takes you our directly above the waterfalls and stops there to give you a dizzying view straight down. We also passed an old bridge with swing jumping – which is to say bungee jumping except you swing out into a ravine after a bit of freefall instead of falling to the bottom and bouncing back up. We put that on the todo list for our return and motored on. The route takes you on small paths outside the network of tunnels on the main highway so you can see how beautiful the area really is and Bjorn and I took turns driving the buggy up towards the final waterfall of Machaya.

Machaya was beautiful – a really spectacular waterfall from great heights into a valley far below. We walked down to the bottom in a light drizzle only to arrive in pouring rain which only served to fuel the waterfall further. At the bottom there were “Jacuzzi” tubs set along the riverbank, an unused and dull looking ‘canopy’ tour, and yet more views of majestic Machaya. Then we basically ran back up to the top in a record-setting 10 minutes and tried to dry off in a small cafe. We had saved Pailon del Diablo, a very impressive looking beast, for last but now it was raining really hard. We shrugged it off and set out in our buggy once more, finding that the rain abated as we approached the Pailon. Again we descended, crossing a high suspension bridge and finding ourselves face to face with the most impressive waterfall yet. It had carved a pillar of rock out of the cliff face and bounced like a pinball between the cliff and the rock pillar. There was a staircase up for closer looks at the waterfall and beyond that you could crawl up a small cave to emerge literally at a viewpoint near the very top of the fall from which you could reach out and touch the water roaring past you. A few more stairs and the waterfall was over top of you and all you could see was a blanket of white. In the end, the day exploring the countryside around Baños turned out to be one of adventure and Bjorn and I were happy we’d opted to do this.

However, we were chilled to the bone but in a town called Baños this is easily remedied. At 6:00 we headed to the hot springs with our kiwi roommate, Berin, and an English girl named Sarah. After alternating between really hot and really cold water several times we felt brand new and invigorated. We also met some people who’d heard of us from the Secret Garden in Cotopaxi and whatsmore were traveling with two Saskatonians named Rich and CJ. I met them the next morning after introducing Bjorn and Berin to three-player pool and cutthroat and also a rousing game of foosball with the owner of one of the bars who really did love her foosball. She practically had a holster for the WD-40 she carried around and her team never lost. Anyway, the Saskatonians seemed pretty cool though I didn’t get to spend much time with them. After meeting them and having one of the delicious if slightly pricey Plantas y Blancos breakfasts (mmm, double pancakes) Bjorn and I set out on a hike into the mountains standing above Baños. That is, after we were accosted by what I’m pretty sure were fake “immigration officers” demanding to see our passports – which we obviously claimed not to have on us. We made our way up and up and all the way up to the treehouse from which there were commanding views of the nearby volcano, Tungurahua. It was also a good place to have a snack, a drink, and sit watching the clouds slowly clear off the peak. From there we made our way back down, past a lady who was very upset I’d taken a photo of her home (nobody visible in the photo) to the virgin and finally back to town. The whole trek was about 6 hours and tiring but worthwhile.

Though we regularly breakfasted at the hostel, lunches were either sandwiches or else taken from the market building which had really nice set lunches for practically nothing. We were the only tourists eating in the place when we went, which is pretty impressive for a town with as many tourists as Baños. And if we thought it was bad earlier in the week, the last night was the beginning of Easter and was downright nuts. The streets were lined with people in sleeping bags waiting for church at 6 AM. We went out for one last night on the town with a sort of quirky American guy named Scott and also met a few American girls. Finally, Bjorn and I caught a bus out of there to Riobamba the next morning, but not after wandering the town and seeing everybody in all-out party mode. Cuy, or Guinea pig, was roasting everywhere (this is a holiday delicacy) and the candy shops were swarmed. Religious icons were being snatched up by the dozen and the streets were more alive than anywhere I’ve seen since perhaps Asia. But, though I felt funny to be leaving a place at the height of its popularity, we had covered everything I wanted to see there and we had a pretty good plan in mind which was to go to Riobamba, mountain bike the next day down Chimbarazo, and then take the lengendary Devil’s Nose train towards Guyaquil where we’d hopefully catch a flight to the Galapagos islands. So we can hardly be blamed for setting off that morning – and Riobamba would hold its own surprises Easter weekend too.

Baños Photos

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