On the hunt for hot springs and waterfalls: Baños
Partially defrosted from my Cotopaxi adventure, I woke up early with a plan to further recover in a town called Baños. Baños is known for being an adventure haven surrounded by waterfalls, and thermal hot springs heated by the enormous Tungurahua volcano. The grandmother working at the family run hostel I was staying at, Hostel Central in Latacunga, offered me a cup of coffee and an artisanal bracelet before leaving. The coffee was on par with most South American coffee, not that great, but we had a nice conversation and she offered advice on a place to stay in Baños: Princesa María. Baños is about two hours southeast of Latacunga, and two busses later I was pulling into the small town. Surrounded on all sides by mountains, the town was very picturesque. Taking the woman’s recommendation at Central Hostal, I booked a room at Princesa Maria and walked through town. Coffee shop after coffee shop, the town was obviously a tourist destination and immediately identifiable.
I had a five bed dorm to myself and after settling in, I headed out to find food and the famous hot springs. Both were easy finds in town, but the hot springs were not natural. They were filled concrete pools, and heated or cooled to different temperatures. Although it would have been great to be in natural volcanic springs, I wasn’t going to complain and spent the next two hours changing from icy water to reduce swelling to hot water to loosen up. Feeling like I had spent two hours in hydrotherapy, I satiated my ever present hiking hunger once again with an empanada and headed to bed.
Early to bed and early to wake, life as a solo traveler was back on track. There was a market inside an interesting open sided building around the corner from the hostel. I negotiated with the women dressed in traditional clothing selling fruits and vegetables to remove the “gringo pricing,” and headed back to the hostel. Another famous landmark in Baños is a treehouse up on a mountain overlooking the city called Casa del Árbol. It is one of those places that travelers feen to get a cool picture. After my egg and vegetable breakfast, I skipped the 25 minute shuttle that was taking people up the mountain and decided to hike. Yes, I had just climbed a big volcano, but I still had the itch to explore. On the 2000+ foot 4 mile hike I barely broke a sweat walking through a mixture of stone steps, trail, and road. Much lower in elevation than I had been on Cotopaxi, my body was more than acclimatized to handle this journey. Snapping pictures along the way of the city, before I knew it, the trail turned to road and the Casa del Arbol was in sight.
In addition to the tree house, what people really go crazy for is a set of swings that swing well over the mountain edge into the sky. Personally, I thought it was overhyped, and after a few swings I was ready to head back down. However, a man with long hair struck up a conversation with me and switched to English in excitement halfway through a sentence exclaiming he had an apartment in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Born in the Amazon and currently a guide leading a group of French tourists, the two of us had a long funny conversation, and I shared a shuttle back to town with his group. We had beers and laughs for hours, and a bunch of the other local guides joined us following their work day. It was one of those people experiences I look for while traveling: to be amongst a group of locals shooting the breeze in Spanish and being accepted as part of the group. Before things got out of hand, I received a message from a group of English friends who had come to town. With an hasta pronto (see you soon) to the guides, I met my friends for dinner and planned a future meet up somewhere along our future crossing Ecuadorian paths.
Baños wasn’t really my kind of town. Although beautiful, it felt too exploited and tourist heavy. With one more must see in the area, I planned an early morning bike ride along the routa del cascadas (the waterfall route). The route was a road that went from town, about ten miles out, and had tons of waterfalls along the way. For $10 I rented a black mountain bike full with shocks and in good shape by bike rental standards. The ride out of town was easy, and the route was pretty self explanatory: ride along the road, don’t get hit by a car, and stop at waterfalls along the way. The road was mainly downhill, which was nice, and surrounded by towering canyons of green on both sides. After peddling a short distance, I passed a couple of restaurants selling trout and saw a sign for a set of waterfalls. I pulled in along a dirt road and found a spot on a fence with several other bikes locked up. A man wearing a US Army hat came over, said that there was $1 admission, and explained the route to walk to two waterfalls on the property.
Having lived in San Francisco for a long time where bike thefts are the norm, I wrapped up the bike like a present with a long steel chain and locked it to the fence before starting my walk up river. Expecting a flood of people, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself alone most of the walk up river. The roaring waterfalls near the Pueblo of Ulba, where I was, were incredible. The thundering sound came flooding through the trees, and when the waterfall came into sight it was much different than the falls I had previously seen. The waterfall was intimidating with the vast endless rush of water crashing and spraying on the rocks at its base. After staring in awe, I walked to the other waterfall where people were repelling down on a guided adventure. I was intrigued, but decided to stick that adventure in my back pocket for an undecided future date.
Back on my bike, the ride was spectacular through tunnels burrowed into mountains, waterfalls, and huge lush canyons. My endpoint was a waterfall named Pialon del Diablo. As expected, this was the largest multi level waterfall along the journey and the most developed. A carved out trail complete with stone steps took visitors from a series of restaurants to the waterfall. When I arrived there was spray shooting everywhere, and I climbed to a viewing platform where a rainbow was visible over the base of the fall. To get higher up, there was a small cavern carved into the side of the mountain where visitors could crawl through, up, and out. The waterfall was impressive, but as with most spectacles of nature, I appreciated the ones a bit more off the beaten track.
I hiked back to where my bike was locked up, had a chicken empanada from a woman who complimented my Spanish (I’m easily flattered when it comes to this), loaded my bike into a pickup truck, and headed back along the uphill winding road to downtown Baños. Approaching 3:00pm, I had closed the tab on Baños and ran to a bus leaving for a city called Riobamba. Sweating after my run to the bus with a 35 and 10 pound backpack, I grabbed a seat and sent a message to a couple of German guys who I had run into in 3 cities in Ecuador (including Baños the night before). 10 seconds after I hit send, a hand grabbed me by the shoulder, and one of the German men was laughing as I turned ready to confront whoever was grabbing me in the middle of Ecuador. The world of travelers in Ecuador was very small, and now these guys were on the same bus connecting through Riobamba before heading to the Galapagos. The more I travel, the more I enjoy running into or meeting travelers I previously crossed paths with: they are familiar faces on a long expansive journey.