The town below Little Hell

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May 28th 2008
Published: June 17th 2008
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From Vilcabamba to Baños

Riobamba should have been our next stop after Cuenca, as we had planned to travel on the famous Devil's Nose train, but other travellers we met in Vilcabamba had recommended against it, and, more importantly, we would have seen very little scenery with all the clouds, so we skipped it and continued north to Baños, one of Ecuador's most popular towns. That's the great thing about Ecuador: it's so small (well, relative to other South American countries) that only a couple of hours separates many of the main attractions.

Baños seems to have it all. It lies in a beautiful location at the foot of Tungurahua volcano, it has a good climate and sits at an agreeable altitude of 1800m. Quito, Ecuador's capital city, is only 3 hours away by bus, while to the east the road drops down to Puyo, gateway to the jungle. The area around Baños offers excellent hiking, cycling, and adventure sports, while another attraction is the thermal baths, after which the town is named. Sounds perfect! The only problem is the aforementioned Volcan Tungurahua (which means Little Hell in Quechua) one of the most active in Ecuador, which seems to
Sendero Sauce HikeSendero Sauce HikeSendero Sauce Hike

Our hike took us high above Baños, and gave great views of town. On a clear day you should be able to see the volcano above the hills behind town.
have been close to erupting for the last ten years. The volcano, currently unsafe to climb, emits gases daily, and is one of the most monitored in South America. In 2000, most of the town was evacuated but the expected big eruption never came.

May seems to be the off season in Ecuador as the clouds which we let behind in Cuenca were here to greet us in Baños too. Tungurahua was completely covered in clouds so we had little chance to see the famous views of the smoking volcano, though one photo I took may have been smoke from the volcano (or else a very odd looking cloud). We stayed in Residencial Timara, a cheap hotel near the centre, which had everything we needed: kitchen, double room with private bathroom & TV, hammocks, dogs and even two parrots. The parrots have learned plenty of phrases and I was caught out on more than one occasion by their "holas" as I walked past. I kept looking around wondering who was talking to me until I realised it was one of them! Also in our hotel were a Canadian family who had just bought a house in Baños. While Baños
Baños from the hillsBaños from the hillsBaños from the hills

Taking the wrong path on Sendero Sauce at least gave us fantastic views of Baños.
is a lovely place, it wouldn't be my first choice of places to relocate to in South America, let alone in Ecuador, as it's surely only a matter of time before Little Hell erupts again.

Walking the Sendero Sauce

Baños is a great place for hiking, with green hills and impressive waterfalls amongst the varied scenery on the trails. The altitude is not so high that you feel out of breath every 10 metres, and there are numerous trails close to the town, many . Our favourite hike was along the Sendero Sauce - a hike we chose because of the great name - which involved 6 km walking through the mountains north of the city. The friendly man in the tourist information office assured us the trails were well marked - well, that was a lie, as what should have been a moderately strenuous 6km hike turned into a much longer proposition when we took the wrong path and ascended a steep path almost to the top of a mountain. We only realised our mistake when the path ended in private property - in the middle of a passion-fruit orchard on somebody's farm. The strange thing was
Taking the wrong pathTaking the wrong pathTaking the wrong path

There were no signs on the Sendero Sauce so we ended up taking the wrong path which took us through someone's farm. Here's Ruth trying to escape.
we had followed what looked like the main path, while the path we should have taken was a tiny trail leading off right. Nevertheless, it was worth all the huffing and puffing as we had fantastic views of town during our little diversion and we still made it back to Baños before dark.

Baños has oodles of places to eat and drink so once we made it back to town we rested our legs in Casa Hood, one of the best cafes in town. They had one of the best book exchanges in town, with books arranged into 6 different categories, but maddeningly you could only swap one of your books with one from a similar category...and they didn't sell any of their books. So there I had my chance to finally get an English edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, only for the owner to deem my copy of Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune not worthy!

We rounded off that day with a visit to Baños Thermal Baths, probably the highlight of the town. The baths are fed by natural springs, and on offer were 4 pools ranging from the very cold to the scorching hot.
Sendero Sauce hikeSendero Sauce hikeSendero Sauce hike

Huge trees and plants on the Sendero Sauce hike.
These baths are extremely relaxing, and it was a great experience sitting in a hot pool watching the sunset fall over the town.

On the bikes

After all that relaxing we needed some exercise again, so the next morning we hired mountain bikes and set off for Puyo, a gateway town to the Ecuadorian jungle, 61 km to the east. This is a popular ride and many agencies in Baños rent out bikes at a very acceptable 5 USD per day. And best of all, it's downhill nearly all the way!

There are many tunnels on the road to Puyo, but we were able to bypass all but the first one. It was about 600 metres long and cycling through it was a scary experience as there was absolutely no light at all. Our first stop was at the Manto de la Novia waterfall, where we left the bikes, and took a tarabita (type of cable-car) high across the river and right above the falls, from where there were spectacular views.

Throughout the rest of the day we passed more and more waterfalls, in one case cycling right through one! The highlight was Pailon del Diablo,
Crossing Rio PastazaCrossing Rio PastazaCrossing Rio Pastaza

At the end of the Sendero Sauce hike
Ecuador's best known waterfalls. Getting to these particular falls involved hiking downhill for about a kilometre to a small bridge over the river, near the falls. By paying 1 USD in a local cafe we were allowed to walk almost under the falls, a fantastic and very wet experience!

Our plan of going all the way to Puyo was thwarted by the heavy rains which fell, rather unfairly, just after we'd finished the two (and only) climbs on the route. We made it as the town of Rio Negro, about 45 kilometres from Baños, before the heavens opened. There was no point continuing so we took shelter in a bus stop and waved down the first bus that passed for a lift back to Baños.

That rounded off our time in Baños, a lovely town, where we would no doubt have stayed longer had the weather been better. The Quilotoa Loop was supposed to be next on the agenda, but with the weather not looking promising we figured we'd be better off seeing museums and churches, rather than getting wet outdoors in the countryside, so we changed plans again and set off for Quito.

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


Fumes from TungurahuaFumes from Tungurahua
Fumes from Tungurahua

Or else a very strange cloud over Baños.
Dinner in the hostelDinner in the hostel
Dinner in the hostel

We cooked Spaghetti Bolognaise for what seemed like the 100th time in South America. And it was just as delicious as ever!
Thermal Pools of BañosThermal Pools of Baños
Thermal Pools of Baños

The pools in Baños are very close to the centre of town, just below the waterfall in the picture.
First waterfall on cycle ride to PuyoFirst waterfall on cycle ride to Puyo
First waterfall on cycle ride to Puyo

The darker water on the right is from the Hydro Electric Power.
Hiking from Baños to Puyo.Hiking from Baños to Puyo.
Hiking from Baños to Puyo.

We passed many waterfalls on the cycle to Puyo, even some on the road, like this one near Baños.
A long way downA long way down
A long way down

View from the Tarabita (cable car) as we crossed the river.
Tarabita across the riverTarabita across the river
Tarabita across the river

A tarabita (cable car) took us across the river for a closer view of Cascada?
Rainbows at Pailon del DiabloRainbows at Pailon del Diablo
Rainbows at Pailon del Diablo

Pailon del Diablo waterfall. Look closely for the second rainbow.
Typical unsturdy bridgeTypical unsturdy bridge
Typical unsturdy bridge

Crossing the river on the 12 cascades hike, a side trip during the cycle ride to Puyo.
The end of the roadThe end of the road
The end of the road

We made it as far as Rio Negro before the heavy rains started. Here's Ruth soaking wet, and waiting for the return bus to Baños.

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