We met Franco El Blanco in the lobby at 4:30 AM. After a few checks to make sure we had everything we needed Frank introduced us to our ride. It seemed that Cary and I couldn’t escape from Ecudar’s two primary modes of transportation: buses and single cab trucks. Cary rode up front, three across with Frank and our driver; I just hopped in the back.
Luckily, the baths were just a short ride away. Situated just north of town, Termas El Salado are a bit newer than most of the other local baths, owing to the fact that they were completely destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1997. Rebuilt on it’s ashes, you can see the remains of the former site if you look closely at the surroundings.
“We can have a nice soak if we get there at opening time, before the the crowds.” Frank told us.
In America only a few events can illicit a crowd at 5AM. A new Harry Potter book. An iPhone release. In Ecuador, the daily opening of the baths during Carnival in Banos is equivalent. When we arrived the hot pool’s slurry of yellow sulphur and tan-skinned inhabitants was already beginning to look like human soup. The two warm pools were filled with children on flotation devices. Only the cold pool was left alone, save for the occasional contrast bather passing from take a quick dip to cool off.
We hung out for a while, moving from pool to pool to try them out. I did some contrast bathing myself. When I get back I’ll have to engineer a way to do this at home. An hour later when we left the sun was rising and so were the real bath-goers; we walked out passing a line of latecomers who cared very little about beating the crowd. After a quick breakfast at the Hostal we headed out for our next event: Canyoning.
Canyoning is simple. You hike to the edge of a cliff, attach some ropes to yourself and rappel down. Then you find another cliff and do it again. Think of it as the opposite of climbing (though you have to do some of that to get to the cliffs). In Banos, canyoning usually meant descending into the canyons created by the many waterfalls.
We met up with a group, donned our wet suits harnesses and performed our first descent. It was little more than a practice round to get us started. Our second drop consisted of being dropped off a sheer cliff into the mouth of a roaring cascade. It was fun, but so far the guides were doing all the work. I was beginning to wonder if they knew that Cary and I weren’t exactly amateurs at this. We took a long hike out of the canyon and met up as a group close to where we started.
“Ok, now we go to the next waterfall.” Announced Jonny, one of our guides.
At this point the rest of our group descended the hill off into the morning, while Cary and I climbed even higher with Jonny to another waterfall. This is where we got to do a couple of real drops into waterfalls with a little movement. We made a few more descents, then thoroughly soaked called it a morning on canyoning. We headed back into Banos to get cleaned up, grab a quick lunch and head off for our next little adventure: Cycling on the narrow, bus-filled roads of Ecuador.
Las Rutas de Cascadas, or the Route of the Waterfalls, is a cycling path from the city of Banos to nearby Puyo. You ride out of Banos on the main highway heading East and along the way pass eleven or so waterfalls.
Cary and I didn’t intend to make the entire ride to Puyo, which usually takes a day. We instead rode out assuming we’d stop about halfway. In what became another adventure in “Cary and Grant Don’t Know What The Hell They’re Doing”, we pedaled out of town with little more than a vague photocopy of a map that sort of showed you where to go. After riding a few miles without seeing any cascades, it became obvious that our map wasn’t to scale.
Yet we rode on into the waning afternoon sun, eventually stopping at our first waterfall, which was a roadside attraction equivalent to Rock City. There were food vendors everywhere. A zip line ran from one cliff launching tourists headfirst over the deep valley to the other side. There was also a tarabina, or cable car, for the less adventurous. We watched a few of the zipliners superman over the cut in the Andes before jumping on our bikes and heading on.
As we made the route, we passed several of these tarabina pitstops at each waterfall. I noticed several derelict and rusted out tarabinas, indicators of a tourist boom the area couldn’t sustain, perhaps even remnants of the country’s economic bust a decade prior.
There are other attractions along the way. Much of the local power is generated from a small hydro plant nearby, and the ride across the bridge provides a view in the maw of the dam. There are several tunnels, though only one that cyclists are allowed to pedal through. After two dozen buses pass you by at an ear’s breadth, the sparsely populated detours around the tunnels are a welcome retreat from the stress of riding on main road. Small towns dot the route, where other tourist industries have found a foothold. In one town visitors can bungee jump from the bridge into one of the canyons. Cary and I rode past, tempted but not enough to risk a trip to the hospital in Ecuador.
Side Note – Healthcare in Ecuador: Frank informed us that for an Ecuadorian, healthcare is quite expensive. A trip to the local clinic costs $30, and in a country where a couple hundred a month is the living wage, that’s a big chunk. Often, Frank will loan the cash to one of his many employees in the hostal to take their children to the clinic. Often, the trip to the clinic takes a detour to the local shaman instead.
“There are buses running to take you and your bike back to Banos along the way until 8:00” the agent at the bicycle rental shop assured us. We hadn’t seen a single bus, truck or car carrying any bikes back to Banos and we’d ridden the better part of three hours. Darkness was descending and Cary and I were beginning to wonder how we were going to get back. We consulted our poorly scaled map at intervals to guage our progress. We had a decision to make. Ride on hoping we came across one of these mythical buses to take us back, or turn around and start riding back to avoid riding too late into the night on a narrow road in the Andes frequented by brake-averse bus drivers.
We rolled the dice and rode on.
An hour or so later we came across the little town of Rio Verde, which was too wrapped up in it’s own Carnival celebrations to pay any mind to two gringos on bicycles. We rode around for a while, certain that this had to be the place where we would meet one of these mythical buses. After making a few confused circles in what looked to be the most crowded area of town, we shrugged and rolled the dice again.
“A Banos?” A mustached man jumped up as we approached and pointed to his pickup truck. We must have nodded hard, he quickly opened the back and started to pull the bikes out from under us an throw them in the back. We sat down on the makeshift bench in the back and breathed a little easier knowing we wouldn’t be out on an unknown road in the middle of the Andes in the dark again.
Back in Banos we returned our bikes and grabbed dinner at a little parillada we’d been eyeballing called Le Chiminea. It was a fine end to our time in Banos, which in only two days managed to feel like a week. Our trip to the Helen of Ecaudor complete, we fell into bed, ready for our last bus ride, which would take us out of the Andes and towards the sea.