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South America » Ecuador » South
April 20th 2012
Published: May 31st 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Banos, Cuenca and Vilcabamba

Obviously it’s no surprise we were happy to be on our way to somewhere new, hoping to get a different perspective of Ecuador (not that it’s ever fair to judge a country on one spot obviously). The one last parting gift from Quito we got was on the ride out of the city to Banos. Nate had his eyes closed while resting in the seat while Jessie was looking out the window, when all of the sudden her eyes popped out of her head and she smacked Nate with the force of a thousand hammers (ok not quite that hard). “Baby, look at this guy!” Nate turned and looked just in time to see a grown man’s bare ass hanging off the sidewalk just about on the road while the man was reaching around with what we can only hope was toilet paper in his hand. We truly didn’t think we would see something quite like that until we got to India, but what a treat huh? I mean, who wouldn’t want to see someone laying brown snakes in the middle of the road. I guess we should be thankful. After all, at least he was

decent enough to clean himself right? I guess maybe he gets a passing grade for attempted hygiene? Probably not. It was definitely one of those “could’ve done without that” moments.To this day we can’t quite get that bare ass out of our stained forever memories.

Luckily, the vibe for us changed within about 10 minutes of entering Banos. It was nothing like what we had experienced so far and people seemed genuinely nice and cheerful right away. We could tell it was going to be a bit touristy, sure, but the town was so cute that it really didn’t even matter. On top of that, we found the greatest family run hostal to stay at complete with all of the “bells and whistles”, including an English channel on the TV in our room! Seriously! We always love being able to stay at family run places anyways, but the old man who owned the hostal really couldn’t have been nicer and he was sure to tell us to ask if we needed any recommendations on things to do or companies to use for different activities. We even had a nice little kitchen to cook in and somehow we managed to arrive the day before the fresh veggie market right behind the place, where we took advantage of loading up on cooking supplies for the entire time we would be in Banos.

One of the things that makes Banos special is all of the people you see throwing monster loops of taffy around a wooden hook on a door frame and stretching it out over and over. We would end up fighting the temptation to buy the handmade deliciousness until the very end, but we finally broke down and bought a packet that turned out to be sweet enough to make your teeth rot in about an hour. You’ll find all sorts of flavors here, so you’re sure to find something you like. You’ll probably quickly notice that as you walk past all of this little sweet shops and craft shops that Banos is one clean little town. It might be due to the fact that the garbage truck has a very deceiving sound to it. As we were walking down the street we heard the sound of an ice cream truck, or what we THOUGHT was an ice cream truck. But on the contrary, it was the garbage truck instead! It definitely gets your attention and makes you remember to take out the trash, but how funny would it be to see a the confused look on a kids face who isn’t from the area as they ran up to the truck and didn’t see which flavors were available. They might see things that LOOK like chocolate, strawberry and vanilla… but guaranteed they sure as hell won’t taste like it.

Excluding all of the friendly people who live in Banos, the greatest thing about this town is definitely the setting in the mountains. It was right up there with Salento in Colombia and you could take a postcard photo from just about any high point outside of town. We had heard of many people taking a bike ride down the mountain past lots of waterfalls and then getting a cheap enough ride back up to the top. With such amazing scenery, we figured we had better take advantage of it! We went with a place that was 2nd on the list of companies recommended to us since the other one was closed for some reason. There was definitely a part of us that wanted to say “screw it” and rent a motorcycle or little dune buggy for the day, but we knew that just wouldn’t be in the budget. The fact that the entire trip was downhill was especially inviting for us. The only part of the bike trip is that you’ll have to deal with a fair amount of traffic on the road flying past you. Or, if you’re Nate, you might have to deal with a bike that you can’t shift because the chain just falls off every time. Yeah, after nearly gashing his calf open a few times, and racking his balls, there were a few choice words flying out of Nate’s mouth along with the slight possibility of the bike being accidentally dropped off a bridge into the river. Having said that, there was only about 30-40 minutes of uphill peddling the entire trip.

Literally every time you’d get around the next mountain you would see another waterfall in the distance. We had never seen so many of them in one stretch before, and you can probably guess that we stopped more than just a couple times for Jessie to get her fair share of pictures in. For those of you who are looking for some extra adventure, be sure to bring a little money with you if you want to do a little zip-lining, most of which you get to do in the “Superman” position. The only thing we decided to do was take a little cable car ride over a high gorge from mountain to mountain for a whopping $1 each. We have to admit, it was a little nerve-racking about half way across when the guy operating it stopped us for a lot longer that we thought he would right over the monster waterfall we were passing over. The look in some of the peoples’ eyes was sort of like, “I think I’m gonna piss myself if we don’t keep going soon” (not like any of would blame them at that point as we were swinging in the breeze).

Eventually we made our way to the bottom, or as far as we wanted to go anyways. The very last waterfall, Pailon del Diablo, may not be the highest or the most spectacular you’ve ever seen, but the sheer volume that comes out of it is pretty amazing. Let’s just say it’s more than enough to make you have to pee if you just had something to drink, but times about 100. Jessie was trying to get Nate up to one of the higher parts, but after feeling the freezing cold mist from the water and watching people coming down completely soaked, he decided against it. This really isn’t anything new. Jessie does anything to get a great picture, and Nate will too…except get cold…God forbid. We ended up buying a Coke from a lady when we got out of the park who “let” us park our bikes in front of her restaurant for free. Of course there are plenty of people offering this amazing free bike parking service at this point. What a deal, huh? And here we thought parking was at least $20 per bike. The actual “deal” was getting back to the top of the mountain we had just flown down for only a few bucks. The thought of trying to bike back up that beast was enough to make you OK with paying $100 per person.

After our adventurous day we decided to go try some food at a little café we had seen and we literally had one of the best vegetarian burgers we’ve ever had along with some fresh, delicious coffee and all home-made. What better thing could we do at this point to end an awesome day other than visit the local hot springs? So that’s exactly what we did. One thing to keep in mind here is that you’re much better off getting there as soon as the thermals re-open since they clean the pools at the end of the day. Because, as soon as an hour or so rolls by the pools will literally be FLOODED with locals getting in their after-work soak. With these being all natural pools, you’re not exactly going to find chlorine and other cleaning agents in the water, so the water isn’t exactly going to be the cleanest. Sure you shower off a little before you get in, but it’s pretty doubtful that some warm water will get all of the nasty…ok you get the picture. Nevertheless, the pools are a perfect way to relax and if you can stand being in the hottest one (which most can’t for more than about 10 minutes at a time), you’re sure to get warmed up in a hurry! Even though Banos can get a little chilly at night, you’re probably not going to feel it after the hot springs until about an hour later when your body finally loses all the heat. Aahhh…we would definitely be going back for seconds in our time here.

Of course it was hard for us to leave Banos after the great experiences we had in this beautiful little mountain town, but we were off to Cuenca. The ride started off a bit different than what we were used to. In fact, you’re just about guaranteed to have someone on the bus trying to sell you something, singing or trying to rap, or even putting on a puppet show in hopes that you’ll give some money. To tell you the truth, some of it was painful enough to make us want to give money to the people just to stop them from talking anymore. Upon arriving in Cuenca, it looked as if someone had tried to clone a European city and somehow dropped it off in Ecuador…along with a handful of hookah bars! Seriously, these things were everywhere! To tell you the truth we saw more teens and young adults there than anyone. Hey why not? Instead of heading to the movies or to the park after school you just stroll into the local hookah bar for a smoke. Did we join in? Of course! How could we not? When in Rome…or, in a European-like city in Ecuador, same thing. And, if you’re looking for some shopping, you won’t exactly be bored here. Although you aren’t going to find much in the way of cheap arts and crafts, there are PLENTY of options to choose from and lots or restaurants along the way to keep you going. The one down side to our time in Cuenca was that it rained every, single, day. Once about 2 or 3 o’clock came you might as well settle down inside somewhere because you aren’t going to be walking around the city much unless you have your rain boots and Mary Poppins’ umbrella.

Other than seeing the city and possibly going on a bus tour to be sure you catch it all (which we just couldn’t be bothered to do), there really isn’t a TON to do in Cuenca. However, we were definitely going to take advantage of the shrunken heads display in the Banco Central Museum. How could we not? The fact that when we showed up and found out it was completely free made it that much better! Although we have to say, the rest of the museum wasn’t all that interesting for the most part, but the shrunken heads were pretty awesome! They had about 5 different heads all in their original forms on display. You could literally still see the facial hair, eye lashes, and wrinkles on the heads. Nate; “This is perfect! Baby, instead of being buried or cremated, I want you to shrink my head someday when I day and put me on the mantle so I can watch over you. Ha!” Of course Jessie could only shake her head at her weird ass man and think to herself… “Well as long as I get to sew your lips shut like some of the heads here it might be ok.” (Just kidding, she didn’t really think that) Most of the heads here really DID have the lips sewn together and it was in order to keep the evil spirits from escaping and seeking revenge. For us, this was the highlight of our time in Cuenca.

It was hard to believe our time was coming to an end in Ecuador. It seems like just yesterday we were falling in love with Colombia and here we were about to move on to Peru. But first, we had one last stop to make in Vilcabamba. From what we had heard it was going to be something similar to Banos, which we were truly looking forward to. For being people who love the beach so much, we sure have found a new love for the mountains after being in South America for a little while. Vilcabamba is a pretty small town. In fact, if you blinked while driving through it you just might miss the entire thing. The place we wanted to stay was supposedly about 2K from town, which normally we would walk. However, with Nate’s foot still trying to heal we figured it might be better to take a taxi, especially if it was going to be uphill. After about 5 minutes BOTH of us were glad we did as we looked at each other wide-eyed thinking the same thing, “2K my ass!” It was a hell of a lot longer than we thought it would be and using 4 wheels instead of climbing uphill in the heat was a much better option.

Our new home had an absolutely beautiful setting outside of town with a picture perfect view from the restaurant area. Granted it was a bit of a hike from everything else to eat, but we were plenty satisfied with the choice we had made. Not to mention, the breakfast we got was one of the best we’ve had yet! How can you beat eggs with all you can eat homemade bread, fruit salad, granola and yogurt? We MAY have sat there for a good one and a half hours stretching our stomachs with as much free food as possible…and possibly grabbing some bread for later. Hey, you do what you have to do to save money sometimes. Besides, our first experience with lunch at one of the local cheap options didn’t exactly go over very well. Usually we love the local food, but this was a rare miss. It may or may not have had something to do with the surprise we both found in our soup bowls…chicken feet but with the toes already eaten off! We know there are plenty of people out there who would consider this a delicacy, but there are just certain body parts of animals we would rather NOT put in our mouths if at all possible.

The only thing we could do after the taste bud and memory scarring meal we had just endured was wash it down with some Coke and take a look around the town to take our mind off of it. Vilcabamba is a tough town to describe. It’s known as the valley of longevity and for its tranquility, but for us it had the oddest vibe to it with its mix of uber-hippies and ex-pats pretty much occupying a good 60% of the town. We’re not saying it was a bad thing, it was just…a bit odd for us really. Although, Jessie DID manage to find some jewelry from one of the local artists that she really liked which obviously made her happy. Other than a little bit of exploring, chillin’ out or doing some shopping in the few little craft shops, the only other thing to do here is go trekking. This was going to be the test to see how Nate’s foot was going to hold up in a couple of weeks for Machu Picchu. We were hoping it would be OK since it had quite a while to heal now, but when you’re traveling and trying to keep moving it can be just about impossible to take some time for much needed rest. Let’s face it, when you look at a decision of 4 weeks of rest and taking a month off your trip or just saying screw it to keep moving forward, it’s a pretty easy decision.

We decided to go on the easiest hike, which was about four hours round trip through the mountains to test it out and absorb some of the scenery. The views from the trail and the actual path were great, following the water drainage ditch through fields and over landslides. Even though Nate’s foot wasn’t holding up so well yet, we managed to complete the trek but it made us wonder how we were ever going to hike to Machu Picchu if it wasn’t better in the very near future.

Our short time in Ecuador came to an end very quickly and as we ate our last meal while we waited for the night bus to Peru, we couldn’t help but discuss how it had made quite the impression on us, mostly the beauty of the mountains. Sure we gave the coast a miss, some trekking along the way and the Galapagos but tough decisions will always need to be made. And of course, we keep the thought in our minds at all times…”there’s always next time!”

So on to Peru, but first things first…we’re off to the beach! The mountains have been great and we’ve definitely enjoyed ourselves, but let’s face it, we’re beach people and we just can’t wait to get our feet in the sand again.

Traveler Tips

Getting There

Banos-As we said in our last blog, taxis in Quito are very expensive. We took an $8 taxi, called from our hostel, to the Southern Terminal. The bus ride to Banos was easy and cost $3.70 each including the terminal tax.

Cuenca-We walked to the terminal to catch the bus to Riobamba for $2 each then had to change buses for our trip onward to Cuenca, the 2nd bus cost $6. Upon arrival a taxi to the center in Cuenca will run $2 if you grab one outside of the terminal.

Vilcabama-From Cuenca, you’ll need to get a bus to Loja first for $7.10, again including the terminal tax. From Loja it’s a quick ride and only costs $1.40. The buses to Vilcabamba leave very frequently and run all day.


Banos-We would highly recommend Princesa Maria Hostal. The place is super clean and run by the nicest family. A private room was $14.

Cuenca-We stayed at Posada Rio II, it was a nice place with friendly owners and very centrally located. We paid $18 for a private room with shared bath.

Vilcabamba-We stayed at Izhcayluma based on other traveler’s recommendations. The place is beautiful and very relaxing. The breakfast is well worth the steep dorm price coming in at $10 per bed.


Banos-Café Sativia was our favorite spot for fresh coffee and veggie burgers. The menu is limited but the food is really great and the owners are super nice.

Cuenca-Any of the Hookah places have some good falafel. We also heard the Indian place is amazing but didn’t try it!

Vilcabamba-Load up on the breakfast if you are staying at Izhcayluma, the rest of the food there is super pricey and we didn’t think very good. In town, things are somewhat over priced as well. We ate mostly sandwiches with avocado, tomato and onion.


Banos-Renting a bike is the best way to see the amazing scenery, $5 for the day plus $2 back in a truck to town…doesn’t get better than that!

Cuenca-We used our own two feet, the taxis are very reasonable though.

Vilcabamba-Four wheel drive pick-up trucks will take you anywhere you need to go. A ride to Izhcayluma will cost somewhere between $1-$2 depending if you have an honest driver or not.

Additional photos below
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1st June 2012

2 experts
Yes, definitelly, you are becoming experts of the roads!!! hahaha and your pics are excellent. Hugs. Graciela.

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