Our journey to Banos started with another crazy ride on the public transport in Quito- it took us about 2 hours to get to the main bus terminal (not fun with backpacks!) and then a further 3 and a half to get to Banos. However the second half of the journey was much more enjoyable with great views, including an ash eruption from volcano Tongaruhue. Banos is a very chilled out place, its main attraction are the thermal baths that are naturally heated and used for relaxation by tourists and locals alike. It was a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Quito- and we could walk everywhere (no public transport- YAY!).
We checked into a cute family run hostel which has a lot of bang for its buck. We have a kitchen, huge living room, bathroom and two bedrooms to ourselves (we don’t use both) and what’s more we have a great view of an epic waterfall that towers above the town.
Despite its relaxed vibe there seems to be a lot going on. The first evening we came across a 5 day religious celebration that involved dancing, a live percussion band and a group of merry people parading the virgin de la agua around. We stumbled on it after looking out the window to check someone had not been shot- in fact it was just rather loud homemade fireworks being let of outside the basilica.
We visited the thermal baths early in the morning and so we shared them with locals having their morning dip. It was a strange experience. The setting is beautiful lying at the foot of the waterfall; in fact the cold showers are directly taped from there. However we did not look great- we were made to wear shower caps to keep our hair out the water and so were not a pretty picture. The water looked murky but this was just from the high mineral content which some say are good for the skin. Some locals showed us ropes whilst yelling ‘caliente, frio, caliente, frio’ meaning we should go into the hot pools then the cold showers and repeat.
Our third day in Banos was a bit of an adventure – we rented mountain bikes and hit the road to Puyo. This route stretches over 40km and is known for its wonderful waterfalls and great views of the amazon basin. After a rather hairy cycle through a dark and wet tunnel we reached the first set of waterfalls, our favourite was called Pailon del Diablo. There were many different viewing platforms and the highest involved scampering under the rock face, almost on our hands and knees at one point. This waterfall was huuuuge!! We got soaked just standing on the platforms as the spray was so intense.
Reaching Machay waterfall was tough (even tougher on the way up) with nearly 400 steps to the bottom, but eating lunch at the base of the falls and a refreshing dip in a plunge pool made it all worthwhile. Just a shame I (Mike) decided that our waterproof camera was better suited to life as a rock and sent it on its way down the river (damn loose pockets)…
Getting back to Banos was more of an adventure than reaching the falls themselves…We had to hitch a ride in the rear of a truck, with our bikes dangling off the back and sitting on handmade wooden ‘benches’ that weren’t even nailed to the floor…Banos is great!!
After another scenery packed bus journey interspersed with plenty of sleep we arrived ready to take on Cuenca – seeing the cities sights within our tight 36 hour time frame.
Colonial Cuenca is one of Ecuador’s most impressive cities, with its incredible architecture and cute cobbled streets; it’s not hard to see why Cuenca is popular with the tourists. It is the third largest city in Ecuador, therefore we foolishly presumed tracking down a padded envelope would be straight forward, but after being sent on a wild goose chase from one corner shop to the next we realised this was not the case (sorry Sophie – your b’day prezzie may be late).
However the city did not disappoint, we planned our arrival well as it was national holiday; the town was celebrating both Independence Day and Halloween. As a result we were treated to a parade of soldiers in full dress uniform during the day and a mini festival including an antique car display in the evening. This all took part in the main plaza which is surrounded on all sides by amazing colonial structures including a pretty impressive, blue domed church. The benches in the middle of the square provided a perfect spot to pass time people watching, in the shade of giant trees.
There was also a cute market tucked along the river banks celebrating the countries remarkably diverse indigenous culture. Here you could buy locally made crafts from each of the different indigenous groups ranging from bracelets to musical instruments.
We also spent some time at a cool museum that amongst other things displayed a number of human shrunken heads, and a sloth thrown in for good measure (as the tradition is now banned for use on humans).
As it was our last night in Ecuador and we were about to embark on a rather stressful night bus involving a border crossing, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal. We chose a cosy restaurant with real fireplaces and great food. As if that wasn’t enough we also grabbed an ice cream at a local hot spot by the square and watched as the evening festivities unfolded…