Canyoning, Hiking and Soaking in Baños, Ecuador

The Journey to Baños

Beneath looming Tungurahua volcano, Baños seeks to claim the title of Ecuador’s best adventure destination.  It’s easily (and affordably) accessible by bus from either Quito or Guayaquil, although you might have to stop and transfer in Ambato, a larger town about 40 minutes away.  After we had exhausted our time in Guayaquil, we got a taxi to the Terminal Terrestre (bus station) there.  Everything I had read so far indicated that transportation to Baños was about $1 USD per hour on several different bus lines, which equated to $8 for this long ride.  We had sought out (Baños Transportes), but inside the Terminal Terrestre (bus terminal) in Guayaquil, we let ourselves be led to a different bus line than planned when a man speaking decent English asked us where we were trying to head.  I’m sure any experienced tourist knows to watch out for these ticket-hawking guys, but we had only been butchering the poor Spanish language for about 30 hours at that point, so pardon our naivete.

In any case, the bus company was a legitimate one, and they had a bus leaving at noon (in 5 minutes) instead of 12:50 as we had read online.  We bought our ticket to Baños for $10, a mild rip-off, and scurried outside to load our bags underneath. We kept our valuables on us in small bags, which will be an important topic of discussion in a later blog.  There was some discussion between someone from the bus company and the driver when we hopped on the bus – our ticket said Baños explicitly, and several others on the bus said so as well when I asked where we were going in halted Spanish.  Sadly, I couldn’t decipher what the driver was arguing about, and the bus left the terminal immediately after we sat down.

The bus ride itself was pretty exciting for a guy who hasn’t been on South American buses before.  We were on a two-lane highway headed northeast from Guayaquil, and the bus frequently passed semi-trucks and farm vehicles with oncoming traffic as though it were a Fiat on some Italian motorway.  We ducked in and out of our lane, aggressively passing everything possible but counter-productively stopping often to pick up juice or snacks for the driver from small roadside stands.

We began gaining elevation, and the bus labored up a very steep grade for over an hour.  The temperature dropped, and they turned off the A/C, favoring some open windows instead.  The bus driver’s crony would hang out the side door, yelling, “Ambato Ambato!” to people waiting for a bus headed in our direction.  We would stop and let them on, and some would stay for either a few stops or the whole ride.  We stopped a couple times to transport big sacks of rice and potatoes in the lower storage area of the bus, and when we passed through Riobamba and Ambato, the driver would exchange them for cash after taking some circuitous back roads to meet whoever he was delivering them to.  I’m guessing this is common practice to make a few extra bucks on the bus trip.

We climbed and climbed some more, and for the first time, I began to see the traditional clothing of the Ecuadorian highlands that I had always seen in photos.  Colorful ponchos and small dark “panama” hats became common , especially in the small towns.  The driver stopped again to use a roadside bathroom and to pick up some food – I was famished at this point, but Jason and I had a small reserve of beef jerky that we managed to ration out for the duration of the trip.  Suddenly, we were above the treeline.  I caught a glimpse of a couple of alpacas (wild? Doubtfully), and I had a clear vantage point of several amazing volcanoes along the way.

I believe this is the Chimborazo volcano near Riobamba, at 20,564 ft!

I believe this is the Chimborazo volcano near Riobamba, at 20,564 ft!

So, to cut the bus ride story a little short – we stopped in Ambato instead of Baños, and the driver basically told the remaining 8 or so passengers that this was the end of the road.  The Ecuadorian couple across the aisle from me began a heated discussion with the driver, essentially saying that they had paid to go to Baños, not Ambato.  The driver grumbled a little and didn’t seem to care.  The male passenger began outright yelling at him, and the driver said OK OK, and he kept driving.  He took us to the edge of Ambato and tried to drop us off again, but the remaining passengers on the bus through a complete fit.

Jason and I deciphered what we could – I definitely caught him saying, “we aren’t stupid, this isn’t Baños you asshole.”  The passenger pledged to leave the bus line bad reviews on trip advisor, facebook, etc, with the name of the driver included.  That seemed to motivate him, and he kept going, but let his crony out at some house a few minutes later.  At the very edge of Ambato, we stopped again at a home.  The driver got off, had a few words with someone which may have been his son, and they switched places.  The bus started up again without our original driver, who now appeared to be home for dinner. The new guy drove us the remaining 45 minutes or so into winding into the mountains to Baños.  Jason and I were sure grateful for the other Spanish-speaking passengers on the bus.  Without them, we would have been up shit creek without a paddle.

La Ruta de las Cascadas

We checked into our hostel successfully, and the next day we rented bikes down the street to check out La Ruta de las Cascadas, the Route of the Waterfalls.  Each of us packed a rain jacket, a little map, some water and food, and we set out from the rental shop on our halfway decent, hard-tail Trek mountain bikes.  Apparently the decent are usually $8 for the day, as opposed to the shitty ones which don’t shift for $5.  The first part of the ride was just bombing along the highway with no shoulder, but we took the opportunity to shake our legs out and get some speed.  We probably looked like real assholes blowing past all the other bikers.  We were yelling various profanities in English as we hopped from asphalt to dirt and back again, trying to catch air on any lump of dirt that we could.  We gave everyone plenty of room, though, and we were pleased to find that the cars were even more cautious of cyclists than in the States, usually giving us a heads up that they were approaching with a polite honk.

Before long, we were following the Rio Pastaza gorge and were within sight of beautiful waterfalls, as promised. The weather was perfect, and the trail often wound onto dedicated bike paths that were clearly marked, passing outside of the tunnels used by vehicles.

The canyon below La Ruta de las Cascadas

The Rio Pastaza canyon below La Ruta de las Cascadas

There were several opportunities to crank our fun meters up to 11 along the way, including a rope jump from a bridge, but we decided to take a cable car across the river to the top of Manta de la Novia falls, for a whopping $1.50 USD.  The view was incredible, and the guy operating the cable car stopped it for about a minute halfway across to let us take pictures.  The cable car lurched suddenly when it started back up, and luckily I had a death grip on my camera.  At the other side of the gorge, there was a small hut selling snacks and drinks, and we picked up a couple of things before heading back across.  It was about this time we realized it was Christmas Eve, and that we were very far from home in an amazing place.

Manto de la Novia waterfall is only a quick cable car ride across the canyon.

The spectacular Manto de la Novia (Bridal Veil) waterfalls are only a quick cable car ride across the canyon.

We actually missed the most dramatic of the waterfalls, El Pailón del Diablo, or Devil’s Cauldron.  To be honest, Jason and I were taking turns looking at each other’s spectacular butts while riding at high speed, and we blasted right past it even though it was clearly marked on our map.

There’s a sizable hike down to the base which we had planned to do, and apparently a gondola ride is available too.  We realized our error too late and decided to hike down to Machay falls instead, from Pequeno Paraiso restaurant (where they charged us $1 or so to enter).  It was actually a pretty brutal hike down, I would estimate 500-600 feet of descent with a rope bridge at the end.

Small hanging bridge at the base of Machay Falls

Me cheesing hard at the small hanging bridge at the base of Machay Falls

Machay Falls

Machay Falls in all its splendor

We hiked up a different way than we came down (apparently two different places up top allow private access to the falls), and at the top we waited for a half hour or so to catch a ride back to Baños with our bikes for $4.  Altogether, La Ruta de las Cascadas was an awesome self-guided adventure, even if we missed the “best” waterfall.

Casa Del Arbol

The next day, we hired a taxi to take us to Casa Del Arbol (Tree House), often called the “Swing at the End of the World” for $10.  It was a decent 25 minute drive to get up there, and being mid-morning on Christmas Day, there were lots of people hoping to take pictures at this excellent photo spot.  Ecuadorians aren’t big on waiting for … well anything really, and the technique seemed to be to let one family member wait in line, then let the other 7 hop in sequentially.  I used my patented, passive-aggressive American technique to bypass the line cutters, and I pretended to laugh heartily at something Jason said while stepping in front of them.  This worked really well and I highly recommend it.

Casa del Arbol, the treehouse at the end of the world

Casa del Arbol, the treehouse at the end of the world

Casa del Arbol

Casa del Arbol

While the pictures make it look more dramatic than it really is, Casa del Arbol offers great views of Baños.  The clouds were just beginning to obscure the town below when we arrived, which gave the sensation of being up in the sky. I busted out my trusty cape to really enhance that sensation, and a few Ecuadorian children were pretty stoked on that.

Even superheroes attend El Casa Del Arbol

Even superheroes visit Casa Del Arbol

Instead of taking a bus or taxi down, which appeared to be difficult with the hordes of families arriving, we chose to hike home.  It took about two hours with stops for photo opportunities, and it was a bit muddy in places, but it was really nice to get some exercise and get into the woods for a bit.  We passed greenhouses and cattle;  Jason tried to tame and ride this steer Bear Grylls style, which would have been really cool, but he failed and we had to walk the whole way like stupid pedestrians.

My friend Jason locking horns with this young bull

Jason locking horns with this young bull

The trail down was pretty clearly marked, and we followed signs to “Le Virgen” along the way.  La Virgen turned out to be a dilapidated statue of the Virgin Mary, which provided some great views as well.

The view from the La Virgen monument above Banos

The view from the La Virgen monument above Banos

Apparently, no visit to Baños is complete without a visit to the several hot springs that are in town.  That night, we checked out Termas de la Virgen, not far from the statue we hiked past, and it was really nice but seemed to be a total mad house, being famous for the waterfall outside with healing properties.  In the morning, we checked out El Salado instead, which was just a $2 taxi ride on the edge of town.

El Salado thermal baths, nestled beside Rio Bascun

El Salado thermal baths, nestled beside Rio Bascun

We were instructed to shower before entering the water and to wear little swim caps, which we rented.  I guess over time all that hair could present a problem (I’ve seen girls’ showers before), so maybe there’s some logic there.  There were several different pools to check out, ranging from freezing cold to slightly-too-hot.  The locals soaking looked at Jason and I like we were total freaks.  I can only assume that in my case they had never seen anything so white, and in Jason’s case, they had never seen so many individual ab muscles.  Still, everyone was totally friendly, and we spent a few minutes speaking with a retired doctor from Colorado who started an orphanage in Baños.  I was glad we made the stop.

Jason and I getting our soak on in one of the warm baths at El Salado, with our stylish swim caps

Jason and I getting our soak on in one of the warm baths at El Salado, with our stylish swim caps

Overall, our 3 day visit to Baños wasn’t enough.  I could have easily spent 2 weeks there, with the friendly locals, the affordable food and lodging, and the excellent adventure opportunities.

Baños cheat sheet:

  • Get there:  Take a bus from Quito or Guayaquil on Transportes Baños, Boliviarano or several others ($6-10 USD).  Make sure it’s a direct bus, or be prepared to transfer in Ambato.
  • Hostels: I stayed at Backpackers Santa Cruz – Monica (and visiting Juliette from California) were awesome.  Stay at the main building if you can – the expansion building is a little quiet and harder to meet people.
  • Food:  Look for the local spots – desayuno and almuerzo are available for $2-$4 if you poke around a bit, usually in the spots without the flashy signage.
  • Tours and Rentals: We had great luck at Geotours – Cindy was working the front desk, and she spoke great English, which made our lives a little easier.  You can get a $5 discount on many of the tours/adventures if you book through your hostel or mention they sent you.