Ecuador (Part 2)

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South America » Ecuador » Centre » Baños
December 31st 2012
Published: January 28th 2013
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Friday 28/12/12 – We woke early, ate left over pizza for breaky and prepared for the short ride to the city of Banos - nestled in the valley below a volcano that started erupting just a few weeks ago. With fingers crossed, the bikes fired up and we hit the road. A short one hour ride ended up stretching towards two hours when we missed the turn off to Banos and wrongly guessed the next road would also take us there. After countless small towns, sharp right turns and one big town consisting almost entirely of roadside stalls selling denim jeans and jackets, we crossed a bridge spanning a deep canyon and arrived in the city of Banos. We pulled into a hotel and after a pleasant chat with the owner unpacked our gear and locked up the bikes. Then there was another chat with the owner which wasn’t very pleasant and end in him telling me I was crazy and didn’t understand anything, and I told him he was crazy (which he was) and didn’t understand anything (which he didn’t), all in poor Spanish. I then went on a quest to find another decent hotel with a more reasonable owner which ended just half a block away. After moving all our gear and locking up the bikes at this new hotel we realised this hotel owner was also a little crazy, but not offensively crazy like the last guy.

We went for lunch at the local food market where I think we were the only tourists. There was a fantastic arrange of food to eat including Guinea Pig (which I am sure is actually rat) and pig with chillies sticking out its nose and ears. I decided on a $2.50 soup and beef stew with a drink. We then walked up a nearby hill along a bush path which had 654 steps to (yet another) giant statue of Mary which over looked the city. I climbed the fence and statue to sit on Mary next to the baby Jesus which was larger than I was! We then walked back down the mountain side to a waterfall, then to a bridge spanning a deep canyon, and finally around the city. The city is perched between a steep mountain range on one side (which includes a volcano), and a deep canyon on the other. The city is also well known for its taffy (soft, chewy candy), many store fronts have wooden hooks out front where men wash the sugar cane, shred/pulp it, boil it and then fold it many times over the hook into a long thick rope which they then cut into strips of taffy. We bought a selection including strawberry, grape, passionfruit, mint, orange and bubble gum flavours.

Saturday 29/12/12 – After scoffing down breaky, we headed to a tour company that we had organised to take us white-water rafting and canyoning. The transport turned up about 20 minutes late which made us wonder if today would be another disappointing tour day. We got driven about half an hour out of town along River Pastaza which had a frightening amount of water running in it. It was just myself, Kenz, Zac, Renee, two Ecuadorians and two guides for the trip. Whilst they were pumping up the raft, a local man came out of the bush with two donkeys dragging logs towards our location. He then showed us one log which had a hollow space that was obviously full of a local variety of small bees. He then produced a chainsaw from somewhere (which seemed totally out of place for a man using donkeys to drag wood through the bush) and cut the log open to reveal a bee’s nest inside. We all reached in and took some honey out which tasted amazing (almost like it was alcoholic). The man was picking up chunks of the hive and eating it whole, but we took the more sensible option of squeezing a small section of hive open and dipping our fingers in the flowing honey. Surprisingly the bees didn’t seem too fussed – no one got stung or swarmed in bees.

After all the excitement, we jumped in the raft and practiced our skills and teamwork. Whilst we were all distracted the instructor pushed Kenz into the freezing water to test our rescuing skills – she was not impressed! He then made everyone jump in and be rescued; the water took my breath away. We then attempted our first rapid and it went horribly wrong - I think the instructor meaningly made us almost flip with half the people falling out as a rescue training simulation. After everyone was rescued, we spent the next hour and a half having a great time in level 3 and 4 rapids. Sometimes it was pretty scary when the raft went into a hole and there was a wall of water about a metre high in front of you! At one point the river was a little wild so we had to climb out and walk along the shore, but otherwise it was great fun – it was the most intense rafting I have ever done.

After the rafting we had a nice lunch in a local house-front restaurant and got suited up for canyoning. Canyoning is something I have always wanted to do, it typically involves following a river that is flowing down steep terrain using abseiling, a small amount of rock climbing, plenty of swimming and jumping off water falls. It was just us four and two instructors for this adventure which took about an hour and a half. We walked for about 15 minutes through jungle and arrived at a crystal clear but fast flowing small river. First we got to jump over a waterfall about 6m high, then ziplined (they set this up using the ropes they had bought with them) from the top of a waterfall down to the pooling water below. It was an amazing location with no one else around and very little evidence of people being here before – we went with this company as they do the canyoning in their own place away from the other tour companies. Another waterfall jump was scary because the water pool at the bottom was only about 5m wide before it went to another waterfall about 15m high! When you jumped in, the instructor threw you a rope which you grabbed so you wouldn’t flow over the edge. We then had to climb a short ledge and abseil down the 15m cliff along the waterfall which was amazing. At one point I slipped and fell across the face and into the waterfall. After struggling to my feet I regained my composure and continued down. Both myself and Zac slipped at this point, but both the girls cruised down easily like they did it every other day! After another section of abseiling, climbing, swimming and jumping we came to the end which was a beautiful opening in the jungle where we goofed around jumping off a big rock into the water. A short hike out of the jungle and up a steep mountainside took us past a fish farm. The locals have used a natural flowing river to flow through some large ground pools filled with rainbow trout. It was an amazing and simple setup in the middle of nowhere. It was all gravity-fed meaning they didn’t even use any electricity on the farm!

Sunday 30/12/12 – After exhausting the list of activities available in this area over the last few days, we spent our last day relaxing in Banos. Kenz and Renee went and had a massage whilst we men did manly things. I got the most expensive shave I have ever had (I must remember to ask how much before they start next time). In the evening we walked around the town and ended up at the local theme park which had a spontaneous ankle-deep 3m wide river flowing through it. There were plenty of rides and games to play, I watched the boys playing on foosball tables whilst the lights above them blinked on and off (the extension cord running the lights was also underwater). It was also quite surreal watching women in traditional dress helping their children get on and off the dodgem cars. One the way home we also passed the local volleyball courts, it seems like volley ball is serious business over here. The men were all playing and cheering their friends on, whilst the women stood outside looking in through the fence watching their men play from outside – they obviously weren’t allowed inside.

Monday NYE 31/12/12 – Our quests for today included riding back into Quito in one piece, surviving New Year’s Eve without getting mugged or burned alive, and waking up tomorrow morning with my staunch track-record of heterosexuality still intact. In explanation: The Ecuadorian NYE celebrations are quite unique, everyone lets off fireworks, burn down life size puppets of themselves, and many of the men dress up as women for the night. The burning of puppets is meant to represent burning away the bad memories or regrettable events of the past year; it is a way of starting the new year afresh. All along the highways and roads were lines of puppets for sale, many of them depicting famous people, politicians and cartoon characters. The men dressing as women represent the widows of the puppets that they burn, however more recently it is just an excuse for straight men to let their hair down in a unique way. These days the men dress in incredibly outrageous ‘cher-like’ costumes and they stand in the middle of the road erotically dancing and won’t let cars pass unless they give the drag-men some small change that they then spend on more booze which further fuels their dancing.

We woke up early, somehow got the bikes started and rode towards Quito. There were already many young men dressed in drag at 10 am and starting to rig up road blocking devices across the highway; we saw many ingenious boom gates being built to stop traffic. On the way into Quito the men started walking onto the roads dancing and asking for money – luckily we look fairly intimidating on our large bikes and all-black bike gear so we didn’t get accosted.

In the evening we grabbed a deck of cards and walked into town to the central park. There wasn’t a lot going on so we bought a few fireworks and let them off in the park. We then went down to the restaurant/bar district which was much livelier. I was laughing and taking photos of these two young guys dancing in miniskirts and corsets who were stopping traffic and collecting coins. They thought it would be a great idea to come and dance around me until I paid them some money, unfortunately for them I like to get my money’s worth and am a little partial to public dirty dancing with men in drag (!). It was great fun until one of them started pulling dance moves which I have never seen outside of dodgy hiphop videos – and that was enough for me to freak out a little, give them some change and scurry off into the night. Later we passed some Indian men outside an Indian restaurant dressed as Indian women in sari’s and listening to Indian rap music – it was very surreal. We then sat outside a bar in the middle of the bar strip, playing cards and watching the partiers. On the way home we passed plenty of piles of ash until we came to a woman with her children squirting lighter-fluid on a puppet in a gutter and setting it alight.

For the rest of the night there were huge BOOMS of fireworks going off for about 4 hours straight. The noise reminded me of the snippets of news reporters I have seen from the Gaza Strip or Afghanistan where you can’t even hear the reporter speak. The windows were rattling for most of the night and the night sky was full of colourful flashing. Eventually I managed to fall asleep and started dreaming of tomorrow’s destination: The Galapagos Islands.

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