The outdoorsy village of Baños was a very last minute addition. I knew I had to continue south through Ecuador – the goal was to cross into Peru, get a domestic flight down to Lake Titicaca, and cross into Bolivia – but while suffering on the long bus ride to get to Quito I thought maybe I should stop along the way to break up the trip. I perused the options in my guidebook and consulted with Jasmin, who was already planning on going to Baños from Quito. After reading the entire Ecuador chapter, I decided Baños sounded awesome, so Jasmin and I kept going together. (And kept going – we’ll be traveling together through La Paz, Bolivia. Gotta love new travel friends you meet on the road!)
Again, great decision. Ecuador continued to delight with Baños, another great addition to the journey. This small village is like a ski town in the summer; pretty, laid back, and full of outdoor activities. We even kept calling our hostel the lodge. Its wood architecture, outdoor bonfire, cheap bar, pool table, and beanbag chairs around the TV with 400 DVDs to choose from helped this impression, as did the constantly cold temperature. Ecuador finally gave me a break from the heat.
Activity day 1 we rented bikes in town ($5 for the day, I love Ecuador prices) and “mountain biked” the Waterfall Route. Mountain biked is in quotes because even though we were on mountain bikes and zooming downhill most of the time, the route was almost all on paved road next to cars. There were a few parts that went off the road, where cars had to go through tunnels bikes had to go around, but it wasn’t exactly as mountainous as I was hoping. It was still worth it though, we biked 24 km and stopped in the middle to see the Pailon del Diablo waterfall.
This waterfall was huge and fun to wander around. After paying a small entry fee, we were able to get close to the waterfall, even standing directly behind it at one point. We got soaked, but since it had been lightly raining all day anyway we weren’t phased.
At the end of our ride we found ourselves in the tiny town of San Francisco. It had no similarities whatsoever to the San Francisco I called home. Town is even an exaggeration, hamlet would be more appropriate. We didn’t see the bus stop we were supposed to find, but a helpful local woman flagged down a pickup truck to take us back up to Baños. Is it hitchhiking if you pay the guy? It’s more like an unofficial taxi. Ecuador’s version of Lyft?
Ecuadorians are insane drivers. Our Ecuadorian-Lyft driver didn’t just treat the lines separating lanes as guidelines, he flat out ignore them. We passed trucks around curves on mountain roads, or if we were the only car on the road he just drove on whatever part allowed him to go fastest. As we later found out with a taxi driver and a few buses, this is just how everyone drives in Ecuador. Even if you’re driving a 40 seat bus, just honk the horn as an acknowledgement that you’re coming and pass whoever whenever. We survived though, so I guess they know what they’re doing. Nuts.
When we got back we rewarded ourselves with hot chocolate in the “lodge” (hostel). That night we hibernated, putting on Hunger Games and settling into beanbag chairs. At first our hostelmates weren’t too receptive of our choice, but no more than 15 minutes in the entire hostel was watching. We ran out of chairs. The receptionist even made us all popcorn free of charge. There was something sort of awesome about getting a dozen 20-somethings to have a sporadic movie night. And did I mention this was a Friday night? Not like days really matter much to a bunch of backpackers in a tiny mountain town, but still.
Activity day 2 I was supposed to go whitewater rafting but it had rained so much overnight that the river was too high, so rafting was cancelled. Spur of the moment, I decided to go canyoning instead. The water was still really high for this; the first waterfall we were going to reppell down was short but steep so the higher water was very strong, increasing the difficultly of the reppell. Because of this it was optional, and most of the group kept walking to the next one. 6 guys and me decided to go for it. The guides all looked at me skeptically but I made it down fine; it was actually a great introduction to the day since it was short and got us all used to walking down backwards in a waterfall, not to mention being drenched. The rushing water was only a problem one more time…
After reppelling down a long waterfall, Franck and I were watching the rest of the group go from on a rock in the middle of the river. Suddenly he says, “Wow the water has almost stopped.” Sure enough it had slowed down to a trickle. Then it turned dark brown – it looked like molten chocolate cascading down. At this point we got a little worried about what was happening, and rightfully so. A minute later a gigantic tree branch came barreling over the falls towards us. Franck and I jumped off the rock, helped ashore by our canyoning companions, as a massive amount of water followed the branch. Luckily the girl who had been reppelling down the fall had gotten to safety just 30 seconds before the branch came down. Everyone was okay, so we just had to wait for the water to calm down a little before the rest of the group could come down.
The rest of the day was a mixture of pure fun and totally freezing. The whole trip was 6 cascades, with a mixture of short and long reppells down waterfalls, a zipline, and sliding down on our butts. All of that was just awesome. It was the waiting in between reppells that was painful; it was so cold that we were all dancing on the rocks trying avoid shivering. It took me two hot chocolates and a couple hours bundled up inside to recover a normal body temperature.
Saturday night out in Baños helped too. We went to The Leprechaun with a lot of other foreigners and a soundtrack that varied from old school hip hop to salsa. There were locals there too though; we ran into one of our canyoning guides who taught me how to salsa and merengue. The bars closed earlier than apparently everyone wanted them to, prompting many Ecuadorians to take to the streets singing. I don’t know what they were singing but they were all very enthusiastic.
Sunday we spent lounging, watching movies, and staying warm before our evening bus out of town. I probably could have stayed in Baños a lot longer. It’s one of those towns, like Minca, that if I hadn’t imposed a South America deadline on myself I would have just stayed in and hung out for a while.