After the Galapagos it was time to kiss the beach goodbye once more and head inland. Our destination this time was the small town of Banos, set 1800m above sea level with a population of about 15000 people. Banos is the adventure capital of Ecuador and after so long bumming around and doing a whole lot of nothing at the beach it was time to get my body moving, the effects of my inactivity were becoming obvious!
So still travelling with Yvette and Jan we got a night bus from Guayaquil to Banos leaving around midnight and arriving around 7am. We had made a reservation at the Transylvania Hostel owned by an Ecuadorian/Israeli couple (and their 2 young kids, dog, rabbit, budgies and hamster). The rooms all had 1 double or 2 single beds. It’s strange but very few hostels in Ecuador have dorm rooms, but for $7.50/night and a delicious breakie included, it was still quite reasonable. Also because Jan and Yvette were sharing a room it meant I got a room to myself!!!! Yes, that’s right for the first time in nearly 6 months I had a room to myself and I celebrated by stripping down and going to bed having slept little on the bus last night. I was all the time a little wary because the woman at reception had said they will put someone in my room if they get a lone traveller but I was still determined to enjoy my space while I could.
View from my hostel balcony
There are taffy making places like this all around Banos and its fun to see them whip, loop and tug the taffy like this over and over again! mmmm taffy!
We stayed there for 3 nights. That first day was pretty lazy and we slept until noon and then roused ourselves only because our stomachs were screaming. It was then that Yvette started to unpack properly and realised that she had been robbed on the bus and someone had taken her document folder and her toiletries bag (probably thinking it had something more important in it). Although Yvette had 2 credit cards this was the first time she had put both cards in the same part of her bag while travelling, along with her insurance documents, claim receipts and spare cash. Fortunately she had her passport somewhere else so that she still had. She reported it to the police but unfortunately now she has to get her mother to transfer her money via Western Union which costs a whopping 10% each time! So we left the hostel and dumped our loaded dirty laundry bags into a Laundromat for $1/kg washing and found a nice vegetarian restaurant to eat at. Then we went to the supermarket and bought Yvette all new toiletries. During our wander around town we had seen signs along the street that said “Volcano erupting tonight 9pm, BOOK NOW”. Curious that Banos’s Tungurahua volcano erupted so precisely on schedule we decided to book a tour for that night. It cost $3 and was supposed to include the bus there, a hot alcoholic traditional drink, a guide to talk to us about the volcano, fire twirlers/jugglers/drummers and of course a spectacular show from the volcano. Funnily enough we only got the first 3 and the guide spoke in Spanish so I only understood dribs and drabs of what he was saying. The performers were a no-show and we couldn’t even see the volcano. It was supposedly active and had had minor eruptions in 2000 and 2006. All around the town of Banos there are street evacuation signs guiding people where to go in case of an eruption. They show people fleeing desperately, which I guess is a little more accurate of what would actually happen than the usual “proceed calmly” evacuation messages.
Anyway the night wasn’t so bad. It turned out that most of the people from our hostel had also individually decided to do the volcano tour that night. On the drive back the bus stopped by a discoteque and the guide asked if we wanted to go in for a drink. We were all pretty keen to get back after our uneventful evening but then the words “free drink” were thrown in and suddenly we were all following the guide into the club. Our free drink turned out to be a round of shooters of a distilled sugar cane liquor called ‘puro’, which they lit on fire. So we all decided to just go with the flow and have a dance and ended up having a fun night. We had bought some wine and cheap boxed strawberry flavoured alcohol drink (it was $1 for a litre) for our volcano adventure but hadn’t gotten around to drinking it so our night was pretty cheap. You become pretty resourceful on a backpackers budget!
The next day we walked down the road and hired bikes for the day for $5 from a local adventure tour shop. Two other guys from the hostel Daniel and Mike from Texas came with us. We decided to do the downhill ride to halfway to Puyo, about 30km, to see the waterfalls dotted along the way. So the five of us set off out of town, I was in second following Daniel. When we came to a fork in the road we were going so fast we didn’t have time to really look at the street signs and Daniel decided to take the uphill fork. We didn’t get very far before we were huffing and puffing and walking our bikes up the hill. I started insisting that in must be the wrong was because it was supposed to be a downhill trek but No, both Daniel and Jan were certain that the signs said that this was the way so we continued struggling uphill for an hour in total. Each bend I would look around the corner and hoping it would start going down only to have my hopes dashed by another mother of a hill! At an hour we were all stopped at a spot in the shade and I convinced the guys to take out the map and double check. By now even they were starting to have doubts and we had only seen one little waterfall that wasn’t even listed on the trail. Of course when we checked the map we were drastically off course and should have taken the downhill fork. The 2 good things about that whole detour
1) I earned myself an icecream by the time we got to the next waterfall, and
2) We got to ride really, really fast back down the hill!!
The cascades tour bike ride
Yvette and I with our welldeserved icecreams going across in the lift for a closer look at the waterfall
This littlle old lady was cutting up and selling raw sugar cane on the side of the road! A nice little energy burst to finish our ride!
Daniel, Yvette, Me, Jan and Mike on the walk down to the second last waterfall
Looking up from behind the second last waterfall
So the waterfalls were spectacular! Especially the last 2, even though they were a hike to get to the second last one we got to climb through rocks and stand behind the waterfall listening to its thunderous roar and the last one we got to go swimming in. However, when it’s slightly chilly and the water in the pool is trickling down from the top of a mountain the swim suddenly isn’t so appealing, but we had come all that way with our swimmers so we took the plunge and MAN! Was it cold! Haha
We went back up and took a few minutes to have a rest and something to eat after climbing over 800 steps back up to the road. Then we found a caminetta (local truck or car) to take us and our bikes back to Banos for a small fee each.
Standing behind the second last waterfall and getting absolutely soaked!
The last waterfall
The return home in the caminetta
Soaking in the steaming pools at the hot springs
That night the only thing we could do was pay a visit to one of the local hot springs to ease our tired muscles. Banos in English means “bathroom” and the town gets its name from the natural volcanic hot springs dotted around the area which are now very popular among tourists and locals alike! It was quite crowded but noice!
Day 3 was a chore day spent updating internet stuff and putting all of photos so far (16G worth) onto DVDs to post back home so that I would have back up copies just in case my laptop were lost or stolen. Postage was quite expensive but I also decided to send some postcards home coz I figured by 5 months it was about time I sent some! We also spent the day trying to plan a trek to Lake Quilotoa, a volcanic lake set high up in a crater in a tiny town of about 100 people.
We set off for this trek the next day and caught a bus to Latacunga. We then found our way across the town and boarded a smaller bus that was filled with locals dressed in local attire and giant rice bags lining the aisle. We were told the bus would leave straight away but we ended up having to wait 45min for the bus to fill up before it would leave. So we decided to pass the time with the amazingly portable monopoly cards, much to the unabashed fascination of the locals.
Playing Monopoly Cards on the rice bags in the aisle of the bus
We got off the bus in the tiny town of Tigua, famous for its local colourful paintings depicting the lake and the life of the local people of the area. The style of art was started by one man but he then taught others and now there are around 200 artists in and around Tigua and Quilatoa imitating his work and making a living off it. We stopped in at a couple of local galleries and bought some of the beautiful artwork.
One of the art galleries in Tigua
Some of the artwork in the gallery
We then flagged down another passing bus and continued onto another small town called Zumbahua. We checked into a small hostel on that Friday night called Hostel Condor Matzi so we could attend the Saturday morning market the next day. There was only one restaurant in town so we decided to buy some ingredients to make some kind of dinner and I ended up making a good old tuna bake haha! I had chest infection and was on antibiotics so wasn’t drinking but that didn’t stop us from having a crazy night and we ate and sat by the fire. I ate so much that I said my button was going to burst and Jan, our dear Belgian friend, thought I said my bottom was going to burst. When he told me this and I understood his reaction I suddenly fell into fits of laughter and those who know me well may have seen at least one of these laughing fits. 45minutes later of continuous laughter, holding a sore stomach and wiping the tears away we washed up the dishes and went to bed.
Jan was so impressed with the high ceiling in the Zumbahua Hostel.
Cooking tuna bake in the freezing cold hostel
The market is not really for tourists but amazing all the more because of it. The men and women are all in traditional dress and there are people buying and selling all sort of animals including llamas, sheep and chickens, fruit and veg, wooden crafts, fried dough with sugar on top (this became a popular snack for us), woven fabrics and artisans. A great sight is the old men on the old singer sewing machines making new clothes and repairs for the locals.
The view of the markets from the Hostel balcony
I bought a hat and this great poncho at the market, which is now in a box on it’s way back to Perth, along with the paintings I bought, as it takes up too much room in my pack
How much can we fit in the back of a caminetta
This poor old duck was in the car but the man made her sit in the back with her potatoes when we asked for a lift. We insited that we sit in the back but he refused! I am sure we were paying more probably!
After that we hitched a cheap ride with another caminetta to Quilatoa, about 4000m above sea level. When I saw the lake from the top looking down into the crater in took my breath away. The photos really don’t do it justice. It sparkled every shade of green and was surrounded by the deep vegetation covered crater walls.
Lake Quilotoa from the top of the crater
The rough path down to the crater mouth
We walked town to the lake for a closer look and by the time we got there the clouds had descended, so that when we walked back up the view back into the crater was completely obscured. We then asked around some of the locals about the bus and although we got mixed answers we eventually gathered that the last bus had passes through at 2:30 and it was now 4pm. So we walked a little way again trying to hitch a ride but everyone wanted $20-$30 to take us to the next town on the loop, Chugchilan. Eventually (cars were few and far between) we flagged down a German couple in a 4WD that had their young daughter in the back. He worked for the embassy in Quito and they were on a weekend holiday. They only had room for 2 (though we could have easily fit 4 ) so I went with Tara, a girl from Melbourne that we had met the day before in Banos. She had overheard us talking about the trip in the hostel. Yvette and Jan ended up hitching a $20 ride, which we realised later, was the going rate, and we split the costs. We stayed at a really cute little place called Hostel Cloud Forest. The views were still incredible and the mist of the cloud forest added a hint of mystery to the place. The cost per night was a little more expensive than we were used to but it included breakie and dinner so I guess it balanced out. The following day we went on a horseback tour up the mountain, out of the community past some little farms to a ‘cheese factory’. I put this in commas because it was little more than a shed with 2 rooms with a very basic cheese making system. We bought a block, or rather a wobble, of cheese from the lady (they like their soft cheeses here) and then rode back on the horses.
Riding the horses through cloud forest
Little boys in one of the communities we passed playing with bike wheels and sticks! So sweet!
Mmmmm fried dough filled with cheese!
We had a wonder round the tiny village that afternoon and bought some more fried dough and a corn on the cob for lunch (all that was available). We then played cards by the fire with a glass of red wine. Then we continued on the loop the next day. We booked a ride with a caminetta for a few dollars each to take us back to Latacunga. A small landslide prevented us from going back the way we came so we turned around to go another route via the small village of Saquisili. I am so thankful for that little landslide because the scenery along this route turned out to be the most impressive on this trip yet! I couldn’t take my eyes away from the window, simply spectacular.
The trip back to banos from Chugchillan to Saquisili
Renting the buggies in Banos
Back in banos we took a couple more days. We rode around town in little motorised buggies and drank some very tasty chai tea in some of the lovely little restaurants. Of course we visiting the hot springs again but I think the best thing was booking our waterfall canyoning tour. This involved gearing up and jumping/climbing down 5 waterfalls on a guided rope:
We also spent these days researching cheap jungle tours in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I have learnt now that the best way to get a good deal on a tour is just to go to the place and book direct, and as it is low season we stood a pretty good chance of getting something reasonable. We met an Irish guy called Sam back at the hostel and convinced Tara to come with us again. So the 5 of us set of for Mashualli for the next stage of our adventure, but I will save that for the next chapter!
So until then Amigos...Adios!!!