Baños de Agua Santa is a town of only 15,000 inhabitants, but it is known as the adventure capital of Ecuador. The town is nestled in the foothills below the Tungurahua volcano, whose nearly constant activity kept us a bit uneasy watching the large plume of smoke fill part of the sky.
We knew we only had a short time in Baños so we had to narrow down our adventure options from the myriad of choices available to us: biking, white water rafting, rappelling, paragliding, hiking, etc. After spending more than two weeks in the expensive Galapagos Islands, our wallets were a bit skinnier and we opted for a couple of the exciting but more economical options.
For our first full day in Baños we decided to try our hands at rappelling down a series of waterfalls in the mountains just outside of town. We had a blast bouncing down the face of the waterfalls and even water sliding down one of the smaller waterfalls. It only cost $20 per person and the tour company outfitted us with thick (and very well maintained) wetsuits, waterproof jackets, helmets, and shoes. It was just the two of us with a guide so we were able to go at our own speed and do a few more challenging descents than the larger group behind us were able to do. Unfortunately our guide was not the greatest photographer and the blurry photos and go-pro videos don’t capture what a truly amazing time we had.
Our second adventure involved renting bikes and following the road as it leaves Baños and heads towards Puyo, 60km away. We only did the part of the route known as Ruta de las Cascadas since we were more interested in the waterfalls and scenery than finishing the whole path. We stopped along the way to take photos as well as ride a tarabita (a cross between a cable car and a zip line that propels you across the canyon towards the waterfall on the opposite side). We were expecting a gentle ride that slowly chugs along toward our destination, akin to something you would find at an amusement park used to give guests an overview of the park as they ride along. For this reason, we were a bit shocked (as were the three Ecuadorian couples riding with us) when we were slung at a pace that made all of us hang on so that we didn’t wind up in a heap on top of each other (or falling to the canyon below).
Our bike ride also included one torrential downpour. Luckily we found a small, dining facility with a sturdy roof on the side of the road. We were thankful for the shelter but disappointed that the place was closed as a hot beverage would have been welcome in our slightly soggy state.
We finished our ride at Pailón del Diablo, the spot on Rio Verde that signals the end of the Ruta de las Cascadas. The ride back was quite simple as there were multiple trucks parked on the side of the road, ready to pick up gringos with their bicycles and transport them back to Baños.
Baños gets in name from the thermal springs that surround the town. As it only cost $3 to lounge in the pools of hot water we figured it would make an appropriate addition to our muscle straining days. The water has a high iron content but I don’t think we were quite prepared for just how brown and almost opaque the water would look. We also don’t think we were anticipating how crowded the pools would be. It was like sitting in a murky, pool sized hot tub with dozens of people and a total lack of personal space. The water was warm and relaxing but the constant shuffle to avoid anyone encroaching onto our laps meant that we lasted less than an hour in the various pools.
We were sad to leave Baños as there were many more activities that we would have loved to try, but we knew we needed to get moving again. We took a bus down to Riobamba and then a second bus to the small town of Alausi.
On the backpackers circuit, Alausi has one claim to fame: it is home of the Devil’s Nose Train. The train is a 12 km ride down from Alausi into the valley below. When they train route was built it was the first motorized means of transportation connecting Guayaquil on the Pacific lowlands to Quito in the Andes Mountains. A trip that took 25-30 days with cargo was now reduced to under 48 hours. The mountainside is so steep that the train has to do a series of zigzags, changing directions each time, to get down to the valley floor. Historically you could ride on the roof of the train as it snaked its way down the track. Unfortunately, due to a tragic accident a few years ago, riding on the roof is no longer permitted.
On the valley floor there was a small train station and cultural center. It seemed a bit oddly placed as this train line was not currently connected to the rest of the rail infrastructure, so the train just brought tourist down into the valley and then back up to Alausi. The cultural station had a small one room museum, a cafe, and a small open air market with a few vendors selling traditional items. There were several people, dressed in traditional clothing, who put on an exhibition of cultural dances. It was interesting how many of the dances mirrored life activities such as washing clothing, taking care of babies, or tending crops. One of the dances was similar to a maypole demonstration with all of the dancers weaving in and out around a pole with brightly colored ribbons. At the end of the performance the dancers chose audience members to join in the dancing. Kevin resisted but Lisa was lured in. Lisa is not tall but felt like a giant as she danced with one of the Ecuadorian men who was quite a few inches shorter.
After around an hour at the cultural center it was time to board the train again and head back up to Alausi. The ride was beautiful but we couldn’t help but thinking that the whole experience was a bit overpriced for backpacker standards. Many of the buses we have ridden on so far in our trip have provided us equally spectacular views (and often adrenaline jolts as you look out the window and straight down a cliff or pass another vehicle on a blind turn of a 2 lane road) for a fraction of the price.
We we are off for another bus ride now, through the mountains to Cuenca. Cuenca is a town we have looked forward to visiting since we started our trip.