Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Hiking and biking around Baños

Baños is very obviously all about the tourism, but so far, not necessarily in a bad way.

We arrived on Thursday afternoon, and were immediately offered a room by an enterprising young man. I had a look, but decided to head towards the center and check out the other options. Ewelina waited with the bags in the central park, and I explored hotels. Prices were all over the map, but more notably, this was the first place in our entire trip where it was common for places to want to charge higher rates for the weekend, and also more than half the places I checked were full for the weekend anyway and could only offer me one night, or in some cases two. And most of the rooms were very small.

We settled on the biggest room I found and the only one with Wifi in the room: in a hostel called Santa Cruz. It was on the more expensive end of the spectrum, at $19 per night for the two of us, but it was the nicest I saw and one of only a few that was actually available over the weekend.

The next day we went on our first expedition, ignoring the myriad tour operators and climbing a few hundred steps to the Mirador del Virgin, which offered an amazing view of the town. From there we took various twisty footpaths up into the hills, following the posted signs to the Mirador del Volcan. The views on the way were amazing, by the time we reached the viewpoint itself we had already been dazzled by the volcano and the most interesting thing was a great view of power lines spanning a small valley.

The next couple of days were rather lazy. We played pool, had nice meals and explored the baths the town is famous for. Ewelina wasn't too impressed by the baths, she correctly observed that they can't really begin to compare with the pools in Iceland. But they were chock full of Ecuadorians who seemed to be having a great time.

By this time the town had become incredibly busy, we were there for the Halloween weekend and, more importantly, the Day of the Dead which is a major holiday here. There was a carnival-like atmosphere in Baños, people everywhere. We went out dancing on Saturday night, and the street with all the clubs was packed with people - young couples mostly, holding hands and dancing.

On our last day in Baños we rented bicycles and went for a ride. Our Lonely Planet had mentioned a 61km mostly-downhill ride from Baños to a town named Puyo, right on the edge of the Amazon Basin. The thought of biking from the Andes to the Amazon was too cool to not at least give it a shot.

In the end we only made it about two thirds of the way, utterly exhausted from all the uphill bits between the fun races downhill. On the way we stopped a few time to admire waterfalls, of which there were many, including Ecuador's most popular, Pailon del Diablo. Seeing it required a short hike, followed by a careful walk across a suspension bridge which only allowed 5 people at once (this rule was consistently broken). After the bridge we scrambled up a crack in the rock behind the falls, to get as close as possible. I stood right under the falls for a moment, getting rather wet from the spray and watching the water raging overhead. Next Ewelina took my spat, but she was helped along by some friendly, grinning Ecuadorian ladies who pushed her right into the wettest spot so she got completely soaked. There was much laughter, and by the time we got back to the bikes she was almost dry again.

After waterfalls and bicycling, Ewelina and I hitched a ride on a very strange truck back up the mountains to Baños. Our bikes were strapped under the truck's platform and we rode up front with the driver and his little family of four. When we got to town he refused payment, in pleasant contrast to what our guidebook said was the norm. Nice people.

Our last evening in Baños was then spent treating ourselves to excellent French food at Le Petit Auberge and playing pool at the Leprechaun pub. The next morning we packed our things and got on a bus to Riobamba, seeking our next adventure: the Devil's Nose train ride.

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