I’ve fallen in love again, this time with Ecuador’s little town of Baños but she’s not a cheap mistress to keep. It’s one of those epically cool places where you might as well hand over your wallet when you get off the bus. It’s touristy as all hell which means it’s never short on activities, hostels, drinking, generally anything that kidnaps your budget and keeps it locked up in a dark cellar whilst you gallivant around town throwing wads of cash in the air and rolling in the crisp, new $100 bills you’ve been keeping stashed under the mattress for such an occasion. But it’s just so gorgeous, surrounded by stunning hills with a waterfall you can see from town, and it’s got a laid back, chilled out air about it.
I travelled here from Quito with Matthias and Katja who I’d bumped into a few times in Colombia and finally hung out with in Salento, and Valerie, a chick we met in Quito, and on our first night we were offered a trip up a hill in a truck called a chiva where we’d be fed a tonsil melting liquor I forget the name of, possibly because it dissolved the brain cells that information was stored in, whilst we marvelled at Baños by night. Well it killed the time and I thought it was kinda cool but it turned out that most people had been mis-sold the tour as a “volcano tour.” Ohhh-kaayyy. Baños is very definitely at the foot of an active volcano, Volcán Tungurahua, as the large, painted “Via De Evacuación” signs on the roads advising you which way to run for your lives in an orderly fashion in case of an eruption remind you, but the last time it spewed anything was a couple of months ago and that was ash and smoke.
It frequently tremors and erupts violently and sometimes without warning but right now there ain’t no lava flowing down that bad boy which isn’t exactly what the others had been told. They were expecting to see rivers of glowing red lava and when someone asked to have the volcano pointed out to them they were shown a hulking mass of blackness. Bugger. We were just there for the free grog and the view of the town really. Also thrown in you get a little campfire which they keep going with the aid of gasoline. No carefully building pyramids of kindling for them or blowing on the embers to keep the fire going. Oh no. Fire going out? Add more fuel. Love your work, lads. There’s also a local comedian who does a short stand up routine which sounded hilarious going off how funny the Spanish speakers found it but it meant nothing to me.
But there’s other stuff and things that are cooler than a trip up a hill. Aside from the bridge on the Ruta De Las Cascadas (more on that in a minute) which Valerie jumped off there’s a bridge on the edge of town called Puente Colgante San Francisco, puente being the Spanish for bridge, and if you decide to jump off these bridges they like to call this puenting, possibly on account of the fact it’s always good to have a snappy buzzword to put on your flyers to lure the wallets – I mean tourists – in. The jump length is the same for both bridges, about 25 or 30 metres, but San Francisco bridge is a lot higher and I do so like jumping off high stuff with a rope attached. This isn’t a bungy, it’s a swing and it’s a proper, working bridge which you have to climb onto the railings of as cars and vans trundle past. Bypassers are attracted to the scent of fear like sharks are attracted to blood and a previously empty bridge will become packed with onlookers, foreign and local, as soon as someone is strapped up and ready to go.
Matthias and Katja jumped together, backwards, the brave buggers. I’m yet to do a backwards jump, I can’t jump backwards into a swimming pool, backwards is as unnatural to me as driving on the right so I jumped forwards at the same time as Marion. And here’s the thing, it’s not jumping I’m scared of, it’s falling. I was wary of standing up all the way and I didn’t let go of the rope in front of me until it was time to jump. Once it’s jump time, sweet, I have no problems letting go and launching myself off a platform. But falling? Nooooo! Falling is bad. The human mind is a strange little thing.
Another Baños must is La Ruta De Las Cascadas, one road which has several waterfalls which you can either view from the road or take a short walk down. Most people rent bicycles which is what the Germans, Matthias and Katja did, but I don’t do cycling. Last time I went cycling I felt like I’d been kicked in the cunt for three days. It’s painful, uncomfortable, I don’t like it, I don’t do it. The only things that are certain in this life are death and taxes and the lack of bicycles in my life. The grass is green, the sky is blue and Claire doesn’t do cycling. Ever. Period. End of. So me and Valerie rented a little buggy to take us from waterfall to waterfall, the aim being to let the Germans get ahead and catch them up. I wanted an ATV but you’re not allowed two people on one. What? Why not? You’re allowed two people on a two wheeled motorbike but not a four wheeled ATV? Bitch puh-leeze!
Our plans were scuppered by the police who pulled us over before we even left town because we weren’t wearing helmets. Apparently, tourists have to wear helmets in the buggies. Oh for fucks sake. So let me get this straight; Family of four locals, 250cc motorbike, no helmets, this is fine. Two gringos on the back of an ATV or in a perfectly safe buggy with no helmets, not fine. Your logic melts my brain. We got our helmets like good little tourists and off we went, behind the Germans all the way but it was an awesome ride and I drove on the right for the first time in my life. How. Fucking. Weird.
The buggy was automatic which was a good thing because every time we came to a junction my left hand wandered off the wheel to find the imaginary gear stick. Suddenly the helmets seemed like a fabulous idea. I just can’t get my head around changing gear with my right hand whilst my left hand, my weaker hand, controls the vehicle. Once I’d talked myself into the fact I was just driving an over sized go-kart I relaxed a bit but seeing traffic come towards you whilst you’ve had 29 years of oncoming traffic being to your right and suddenly you’re driving on the fucking right is a head fuck. On the Ruta De Las Cascadas it was fine but once we were back in town, at every junction I had to think hard about which way to look for traffic.
We finally caught the Germans at Cascada Pailón Del Diablo, a stunning waterfall you have to walk a little bit down to, after we’d spent some time doing a trolley ride to Cascada San Jorge to get a better view, and Valerie jumped off a bridge after a small amount of coaxing. And I rephrase, we didn’t catch the Germans, they came back to find us. Clearly they pedal too fast and it’s nothing to do with us faffing about on trolleys and bridges and getting in trouble with the cops. Ahem.
Next stop was Cascada De Machay. After a small amount of bitching and moaning we finally resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to have to part with a dollar each (I know right? A whole dollar!) to get down to the waterfall you could swim in and off we went down the kind of hill where you try and block out the return journey for fear of your calf muscles rebelling. But it’s so worth it, we clambered over to a rock away from where most people sit, ate a packed lunch, drank a beer, went for a swim and generally hung out. You know this is my idea of pure bliss. Give me a waterfall to sit by and I’m happy. Let me swim in it and I’ll love you forever.
We figured we weren’t going to get much further today so Matthias and Katja caught a bus back with their bikes and me and Valerie headed back in our buggy which clearly gets us more Cool Points. And what better way to wind down after a hard days pressing a gas pedal than a nice, hot bath? When in Baños it’s compulsory to take a dip in the aguas termales. There’s 4 or 5 of them but one of them, Piscina De La Virgen which is the one right by the waterfall, opens from 6pm for those who prefer an evening dip. That’ll do. We bumped into Marion who we know from Quito here an all which was cool, gotta love the gringo trail, and spent an hour or so soaking in hot water then jumping into cold water which apparently is good for your body in several ways.
Good for it? What? Hot and cold like a fucking Katy Perry song, my poor body didn’t know what was happening to it. After I dragged my carcass from the nice, toasty, hot water and plunged it into one of the cold pools I’m sure my circulation was pumping just fine and my pores were doing all kinds of exciting things that pores like to do but I just wanted to head back to the warm safeness of the hot pools. The one downstairs is brutal though, I lasted a minute before I feared for my top layer of skin and retreated back to the open air one upstairs. Yep, you can take the pom out of England but you can’t take the whinge out of the pom. Valerie told us that as you switch from hot to cold and back again your skin should feel like it has sparkles all over it. I had no idea what she meant until it actually happened to me. I’m still not sure if it’s healthy or not.
There are so many other things to do in Baños from white water rafting to rappelling down waterfalls but in order to see as much of Peru as I want to I need to cut back on costs. Not that costs are too epic in general but I’ve got my little heart set on doing Peru and Bolivia to death and I’ve done well here to not eat out every night (which, in some towns, is cheaper than cooking yourself and a very easy habit to fall in to) and drink at the same rate as the others. Time to move on now. So Baños, it was awesome to meet you and I’ll be back on another trip, I’m sure. But until then, it was fun giving you all my money.
Baños, Tungurahua, Ecuador
Stayed at: Plantas Y Blanco Hostel