After our ride on the Devil’s Nose train, we’d decided to make the journey straight to Baños on the same day since there was nothing else to see in Alausi. We’d also eaten at the only restaurant with any hope of vegetarian food, so our only option for dinner was being the only people at the no. 1 restaurant (of 4) on TripAdvisor yet again. After the train we headed straight back to our hotel, collected our bags and jumped onto the first bus to Riobamba, the nearest city to Baños along the Pan-American highway. We were headed for the small town of Baños, an hour further east of the main highway, but Riobamba was as far as we could get on a direct bus from Alausi.
The bus wound its way north and soon enough we were arriving in the Riobamba bus terminal. The bus next to ours was heading to Baños, but we needed to buy tickets before boarding so we headed into the terminal to buy them. The counter was easy enough to find so we queued up an ask for two tickets. The response from the woman behind the counter was “no hay boletos” (there are no tickets). Since it was late in the afternoon this was a little worrying so we had a quick look around for other bus companies going to Baños (there were none) and looked at other options including taking a bus up to Ambato and then a more frequent bus to Baños. Luckily someone who was behind us in the queue had noticed our confusion and came over to tell us that there was actually a bus at 5pm to Baños so just to double check we queued up again and asked for tickets to Baños. This time same lady that we’d spoken to not five minutes before asked for $4 and gave us two tickets. We could only assume that since the previous bus had now left she was allowed to sell tickets for the later bus, and had neglected to explain this to us the first time around! Mostly just relieved to have tickets we sat down to wait.
Our wait turned out to be short however as at 4:30pm the man who hangs around near the ticket counter shouting destinations (most bus companies seem to have one of these guys just shouting destinations and pointing people towards his bus company) approached us to tell us that our bus had arrived. Possibly feeling bad for our experience with the ticket lady, or maybe just out of the kindness of his heart, he led us out of the terminal and pointed us towards the right bus.
We deposited our luggage and boarded the bus, we’d managed to buy the first two tickets and subsequently had the front two seats so we watched the bus fill up and luggage get loaded. Eventually it was 5pm and our bus set off. The route from Riobamba to Baños winds up through the mountains. About halfway we noticed a build-up of grey/black powder on the road which I must be ash from the local volcano (we later discovered that eruptions often close the road). We wound through the mountains and eventually started to descend our way into Baños.
Baños is a small town nestled in between several mountains in the Ecuadorian highlands. It was originally famous for its volcanic baths but has since earned itself a reputation as an essential backpacker stop, due to the variety of ‘extreme’ sports and other outdoor activities that are available there. Having just had a few quieter days in Cuenca we were ready for a little excitement so we booked ourselves into “Great Hostel” (that is its actual name) that featured a bar, pool table, and staff who would be more than happy to organise tours for us.
We arrived just after dark to the bus station on the edge of town and retrieved our bags. The shortest route to our hostel was via some very quiet looking roads along the edge of town, but after a slightly nervous walk we arrived safely and checked in. The guy behind the desk took us to our rooms and proceeded to explain in perfect English exactly what we should try to see in his town, even though most of our options didn’t involve booking anything through him at all! It was late and the hostal was having a ‘buy a pizza, get a free beer’ night at the bar, so we settled in and ordered our pizza. We decided that the next day we’d take a taxi up the mountain high above town and then walk down stopping at sights on the way.
The next morning was beautiful and after a short lie-in we took our taxi to our first stop the “Casa del Árboles”. The Casa del Árboles is basically a tree house at the top of a hill with a couple of large swings that, when the photo is taken correctly, make you look like you are swinging out into the sky. Unfortunately because it is the ‘must have’ photo in Baños we’d heard stories of people queueing for 30 minutes in order to swing for a just a few moments! Luckily our early morning (well ok 10am) taxi strategy meant that when we got to the top and paid our dollar (literally just one dollar) there was no queue and we could swing for as long as we wanted to (I naturally went twice).
After we’d taken as many pictures as we wanted to we attempted to find the path back down the hill via a large cross (lit up at night and visible across the town) and the Cafe de Cielo (sky cafe) which has a great view over the town. Unfortunately none of these places were marked on any of the maps I had, and the tourist map given to us by the hostal was pretty poor so we aimed in vaguely the right direction and hoped for the best. We found a trail that appeared to be little used and kept us away from main road despite occasionally being somewhat steep and slippery! About one third of the way down we heard barking and suddenly a huge dog appeared ahead of us on the path barking at us. While this incident would probably be fairly routine to some of our dog loving friends who have a better understanding of canine behaviour, having both grown up with cats we were slightly intimidated. Alex suddenly disappeared behind me ostensibly to ‘find a stick’, but knowing that we’d have a long walk around if we backed off I stood my ground hoping that the dog was fairly used to people walking the route and might be more interested than aggressive. Luckily after a few moments the dog appeared to calm down and we slowly approached it and carefully walked past it sighing a breath of relief. Eventually we found the cross on the hill and stopped to admire the view.
After accidentally giving some youths the wrong time (due for once to our inability to read a watch rather than our poor Spanish) we resumed our walk down the hill and after 10 minutes came upon a path advertising the Café de Cielo as 522 metres away. We were hungry by now so we decided to follow the path. What we didn’t realise however is that the 522m was nearly straight back up the hill and when we eventually walked into the café dripping with sweat we realised we’d climbed up so much that we were now looking down on the viewpoint at the cross. The café was pretty empty so we found a table away from the other patrons and ordered some lunch. While we were waiting a film crew and reporter appeared from nowhere and starting interviewing the head chef complete with sweeping ‘crowd’ shots over both occupied tables. Luckily I think they probably quickly noticed that we were sweaty and had various items from our rucksack spread over the table, not quite conveying the look they were going for, and they seemed to spend more time pointing at the other group than us. After some food that wasn’t bad but didn’t really merit a TV interview, we continued down the mountain and wandered back to our hostel for a brief siesta. We emerged a little later for dinner in search of ‘Stray Dog’, a bar that advertised ‘artesanal’ beers. We found the place easily and quickly ordered an IPA and a Veggie burger for me and an actual burger and a pale ale for Alex. Having drunk only the local Ecuadorian pilsner or spirits for the past secven weeks I was in heaven and quickly ordered a second even after once calculated that I was basically paying London prices for the privilege.
The next day we’d opted to go white water rafting so we were up at a reasonable time and were collected from our hostel after breakfast. We were only a group of six plus the guide and safety kayakers so we all fit into one boat. We drove to the start point and, received a detailed and engaging safety briefing. I was assigned a seat at the front of the boat with a big tattooed Dutch guy called Dennis and once everyone was seated we set off. As we got going Dennis and I made a pretty good team, keeping in time with each other while being buffeted by walls of water.
After about an hour of running grade 3 and 4 rapids the guide suddenly asked us if we’d like to try a grade 5 rapid. This is something Alex and I had done before in Zimbabwe (albeit many years ago!) so we readily agreed along with the rest of the boat. We took a fork in river around rocks that took us to a more turbulent stretch of water. At this point the guide told us that this was the only the second time that he’d run this rapid with a tourist group this year and that he was nervous and full of adrenaline! This didn’t really reassure us and we started to wonder if we’d made the right decision. It was too late to turn back though so on we went. We hit the rapid and did our best to follow the guide’s instructions, manoeuvring the boat into the right place in the river. Suddenly I was hit by a wall of water so strong I could feel it pushing my helmet back and immediately afterwards I could feel the rapid shifting and starting to flip the boat. Somehow however we seemed to just save it our balance and before I knew it we were through the worst of the rapid. I looked back and noticed that our raft was now two people short, one of whom was the guide! Luckily both were close to the raft and while the guide climbed back onboard we helped the Australian girl back in. Once the boat was secured and we were all back in position the guide pointed out where they usually get out and walk the boat around that rapid.
About an hour later we came to the end of the rapids and, after changing out of our wetsuits, we were taken to a restaurant for some lunch. While we were eating we got to know the Australian girls a little better and they told us about some hot baths at the top of the mountain (and as it happened located at the same place as the Café de Cielo from the previous day). Thanks to having run the grade 5 rapid we ended up getting back to the town a little early and a couple of hours later a CD arrived at the hostel containing the photos that the safety kayakers had taken during the trip, not bad for a $25 tour!
That afternoon we decided to head up to the hot baths in time to watch the sunset, so at around 4pm we caught a taxi up to the top and paid our entry to the baths at the Luna Runton hotel. The baths themselves consisted of three hot pools of differing temperatures along with a swimming pool and jacuzzi. While the view above and around us from the some of the pools were pretty good, a couple were infinity pools so you could see off the edge and down into the town below. We got chatting to a Swiss couple and as they left the Aussie girls from earlier turned up (it was their recommendation after all). We enjoyed the sunset together while drinking a mojito and enjoying the view.
After a couple of hours we caught a taxi with the Aussies back into town. I was in the front of the taxi trying to practice my Spanish with the driver and about halfway down the mountain he stopped the car and asked if we’d like to get out and watch the volcano. It was pretty dark so I wasn’t expecting more than maybe a faint view of cloud/smoke but I thought it couldn’t hurt so we climbed out of the taxi and peered into the sky. Almost immediately we saw red lava rolling down from the top of the cone. We stayed for a few more minutes and saw a couple more small eruptions it was so dark and far away that we couldn’t get a photo. We got back into the taxi and headed into town saying goodbye to the Aussies in the centre. They had recommended a restaurant to us called Plantas y Blanco which translates as ‘Plants and White’ and to me makes no sense in either language but we’d walked past it the previous day and it looked interesting so we decided to check it out. Upon entering the restaurant you have to take off your shoes and they give you clean socks to put on. The tables are raised 30cm from the floor and you sit cross legged on mats on the floor while you eat. I quite enjoyed the novel dining experience but Alex, being slightly less flexible had to keep shifting around to avoid getting pins and needles! The food was pretty good especially the starters with a pretty convincing guacamole. The mains seem to entirely consist of barbecued skewers which were a little overpriced for what they were, but a nice change from what we’d been eating elsewhere.
The next day was our last full day in Baños and we’d saved one of the most unique activities for it. We got up and walked into the centre to find a tour company where we rented bikes for $5 each. They were actually pretty good bikes for $5, equipped with suspension and disc brakes and the company was happy for us to pick the bikes with the best tyres and ride the around the block to check the ride before commiting. Our money also got us a basic toolkit and spare inner tube plus a lock and a map. Our route for the day was a ride on the mostly downhill highway out of Baños to Rio Verde which was about 24km in total. We started on the highway (which is much more beautiful and not nearly a busy as it sounds) and were pleased to see many signs warning the traffic about bikes. The traffic gave us a wide berth so we felt pretty safe. We cycled out of town and soon enough came to the first tunnel. This was the only one we’d actually have to pass through but it was 250m long so we checked behind us for traffic and cycled through as fast as we could.
Shortly after the first tunnel we came across the zip lines. As this is a popular tourist route and we were cycling along the side of the valley lots of enterprising companies have set up zip lines across the valley. They appear to vary in terms of distance and quality but all basically feature a thick steel cable strung across the valley and pulleys that are hooked over the cable and tied onto you so that you can speed across the void. There are a number of ways that you can be attached from the regular sitting position, to lying on your front superman style, to dangling head down from your feet. We cycled past the first few but stopped for a break at a cluster of them that also had a few shops selling drinks and snacks. While we were having a drink we watched one particular line that seemed to be more popular, looked a bit smarter and featured two parallel lines so that couples could zip across face first, superman style while holding hands. We watched this for a while. I was quite keen to have a go but Alex was having none of it so after debating it for a while I decided to have a go on my own.
Before I knew it I was being strapped onto a zip line and then my leg were picked up and strapped behind me so that I was pointing across the valley face first. I’ll admit to being a little nervous at this point but as they opened the barrier and pushed me out across the valley all nerves disappeared. I was purely in awe of the fact that I was speeding across a valley face first looking down at a river with a waterfall rapidly approaching. I soared over the waterfall with an incredible view and before I knew it I was approaching the other side of the valley where a man awaited with a rope to slow me down. After being unstrapped from the cable I was instructed to walk five minutes up a hill where another zip line awaited me. I climbed up and was instructed to wait for a couple of minutes. I suspect this was to allow me to catch my breath as soon enough the guy followed me up and strapped me back onto another cable that ran back across the valley. Again after a second or two of nerves I was suddenly flying across the valley back to where Alex was waiting on the other side with the camera. Seconds later it was over and we were walking back to our bikes to continue the journey.
Although the road in front of us featured three long treacherous tunnels they were actually replacements for an old road that ran around the outside of the mountain. As we approached each tunnel we saw a sign directing bikes onto the old road which was a narrow track, tight for lorries but perfect for bikes. After the last tunnel the old road led us straight into Rio Verde. We followed a sign for free bike parking and found a couple of restaurants and the entrance to the Pailon del Diablo (the devil’s cauldron) which is a waterfall that you walk down into the valley to reach. It was a short walk until the first view of the waterfall but we heard it long before we saw it thanks to the vast quantity of water pouring down the falls. When we reached the waterfall we were able to climb down some stairs to a lower viewing platform and also up a narrow crack in the rock to a platform higher up the falls and a path behind the falls where we quickly posed for a photo and then escaped before we got totally drenched.
We walked back up to the top and stopped for an Empanada. After eating we walked out of the restaurant and immediately saw a van full of tourists and bikes ready to depart for Baños. Luckily the driver spotted us, managed to find room for our bikes in the back of the van and space for us in the cab (which looked a lot more comfortable than being crammed in the back with the other tourists and bikes). Soon enough we were back in Baños and were returning our bikes.
That evening we’d arranged to meet up with Stephanie, one of our friends from the travelling classroom. She’d been in Cuenca for a few days longer than us but had now reached Baños. She suggested Café Hood in the centre of town which offered an Ecuadorian take on Indian, Thai and Mexican food which was actually a lot better than it sounded and was probably the best food that we had while in Baños.
After dinner we went for a drink. The tour operator that Stephanie was using had invited her for a drink and she didn’t really want to go alone so we swung by the tour office and he suggested somewhere to go. Unfortunately the place he recommended was closed so we had a look round the block and found a place called Leprechaun Bar. I’ll admit that I normally avoid Irish bars as you can find them anywhere in the world but the we didn’t see much choice and the Aussie girls had mentioned it, so we decided to check it out. We walked in and were surprised to find a large open air bar at the back with a roaring fire in the centre. The staff quickly came over and offered us free shots and not wanting
to look a gift horse in the mouth we quickly accepted and went over to the bar. The free shots turned out to actually be three layers of different coloured spirits that looked like the Ecuadorian flag that were then set on fire. Having not had a flaming shot for many years we were suitably amused and went back to order some drinks. We quickly realised that the bar was Irish in name only. After a while Stephanie’s tour operator turned up and turned out to be an interesting guy. We spoke for a while and then he suggested we dance some salsa as they’d only be playing salsa music for a few minutes. This seems to be pretty common (and somewhat admirable) ploy of Latin American men. As soon you as hit the dance floor it is very hard not to be impressed by their dancing. Anyway Stephanie and the guy danced while Alex and I practiced our basic steps (including a few spins). The few minutes of Salsa actually turned out to last for quite a while so eventually we staggered off the dance floor exhausted! After a few more drinks we eventually headed back to the hostel for a well earned sleep!
The next morning we checked out of the hostal and headed to the bus station to start our day’s journey. Unfortunately Alex had just started to feel a little under the weather the day before and was now starting to feel quite sick. We had flights to catch however so there wasn’t really any other option. Our first bus from Baños to Quito was four hours and reasonably comfortable. Alex felt pretty sick but managed to survive by looking out of the window and trying to sleep. We reached terminal Quitumbe on the south side of Quito and searched for an airport bus. After a short wait it arrived and we climbed on. This bus was really just a local bus with nowhere to put our luggage and small uncomfortable seats. We were embarking at the first stop so we got seats but the airport was the last stop. Nearly two hours later we arrived at the airport with Alex now starting to feel really ill. We checked in and rushed through security so that Alex could relax and we grabbed a bite to eat (well I did) and stationed ourselves near a bathroom. The call to board came quickly and we boarded the plane. Alex was now feeling really quite ill and disappeared to the on-board bathrooms at every opportunity. The flight was mercifully short and we landed in Lima in the early evening. I’d reserved our first night on using my priority club points so we got a taxi to the hotel and checked in. Alex was still feeling terrible so I got some room service and an artesanal beer white Alex ate the occasional bite of my food while groaning.
We didn’t know it yet but this was the start of both of us getting ill for the first time on the trip. While this put a little downer on our time in Peru it was inevitable that we’d get ill at some point during our adventure and was probably partly brought on by us stopping taking Doxycycline, our malaria tablets that, as an antibiotic, had a side effect of protecting us from bugs at the expense of our gut flora. Looking back I wish we’d taken a probiotic supplement alongside the Doxycycline but in all honesty I have no idea whether it would make any difference.
I’m a sorry to end this post on a slightly sad note, but when travelling it is inevitable that everything won’t always go to plan and you’ll see how we got on in the next post. The good news however is that since these events happened a little while ago I can confirm that we both recovered and we’re having the time of our lives once again!