It’s no travel secret that we all make lists to help ourselves organize the Top Things We Must See and Do in the city or country we are visiting. After perusing Websites and talking to other travelers to get their advice on what is a must and what is a must-not, that list has been drawn up in a fashion similar to the Bill of Rights. However, certain circumstances in our control and out of our control prevent us from scratching through all those items. This is precisely what happened to me during a recent weekend trip to Baños, Ecuador.
The city’s name, which means bathroom or baths, is known for it’s hydrothermal springs that are located all across the region where you can soak in hot or cool water, which are heated by the active Tungurahua (means “Throat of Fire”) volcano or cooled by the fresh spring water. The greenish shade of the spas are due to the minerals and many people (foreign and locals) flock here to dip into the soothing water, especially during the weekend. The city is also known for the many waterfalls that pour out of every crevice in the region.
If Mother Nature decided to visit you during a trip to Baños (as was my case) do not fret because there are plenty of other activities to do.
I skipped to my #2 on the Must-Do List for Baños. My friend had mentioned this awesome bike ride that takes you to quite a few waterfalls. For only $5 you could have an open road to cycle and waterfalls to explore. Sounded exactly like something I would love. I was sold at mountain bike. Who am I kidding? I was sold at the prospect of an open road that made its way past a total of 19 waterfalls. At breakfast the group was still trying to figure out their plans. I was pretty much set-in-stone with mountain biking. The others were deciding between horseback riding, soaking in the hot springs and taking this walk on a trail in the hillsides. We eventually dropped everyone off at their activity destinations. Three ended up going horseback riding. Two ended up taking the easy hike around the town. I was the only one who chose the: La Ruta de Las Cascadas.
One road. One bike. One cyclist. MANY waterfalls. MANY memories.
It wasn’t long after the start that I passed the Agoyan Dam that helps control the flow of the powerful Rio Pastaza, which is one of the tributaries to the Amazon River. It rages through the mountains in Baños, cutting gorges and valleys with its mighty force. As I continued on my way I couldn’t help but stop and stare at all the green I was seeing. You can’t blame me, I’m an Arizona native. All I am used to seeing are saguaro cacti, dirt and rocky mountains. Here, the mountains looked like massive, lush hillsides. The clouds were flying low beneath the peaks and with close attention you could see water trickling down the crease of the mountain ranges as they twisted and turned throughout the land.
Not too much farther along is the first tarabita (a cable car) that takes you right up to two blasting waterfalls. It stops long enough for plenty of picture-taking opportunities and time to take in the organic beauty of nature’s grace. I got back on the bike (the renter’s provide a chain and lock so it won’t get stolen along the way) and headed through a tunnel that opens up along a hillside. The cobblestone roadway creates an ascetic like no other.
I felt like was riding along the mountains and valleys of some European country and not a third-world nation in South America.
As I followed the trail, it took me over a few bridges all designed in their own unique style. The one that stands out the most is brightly colored in a yellow that contrasts against the green landscape. This bridge is bustling with buses, people and cyclists for one very important reason: the chance to brave-up themselves or watch fearless others take the plunge off the side and swing over the rushing river. While I was there I saw a girl and man both take the leap. known as “puenting”.
I’ve heard stories of it being an incredibly painful experience because it is just a rope-chord and not a bungee chord. Apparently you fall and literally snap after the rope catches and swing back-and-forth. A man underneath will toss you another rope to pull you over to the side and unhook your harness. Anyway, both of them survived. I knew if I took the jump and lived to tell about it my mom would have killed me as soon as I stepped off the airplane back in Arizona so I opted out.
I kept cycling on to my next tarabita ride to the Manto de la Novia (Mantle of the Bride) waterfall. This waterfall and the next few were not as crowded as the very first and very last. I had to wait a bit for the tarabita because as soon as my group was waiting to get on, the other group was zipping back up to the dock and smoke had started puffing out of the pulley-area. They fixed it within 10 minutes and then I was down on the ground and crossing the bridge to get within the splash-zone of the two waterfalls.
My most frightening experience came during the Tarabita San Pedro ride. I hiked along a river near the top of the waterfall until I stepped down a steep staircase and found a serene solitude right at the bottom of it. No one else was round. This was probably my most favorite waterfall out of all those I saw.
I walked through a beautiful mini-forest with a variety of multi-colored flowers, was pointed to the hike by random, home-made wooden signs posted on the wall and porch of a house, trekked through mud and water along the river, was so close to the waterfall drop I was clinging to the railing and muddy hillside, stepped down the steel ladder and was by myself with such an amazing spectacle. Nature is truly appreciated when alone.
The scary part: during my tarabita ride back, the little girl who opened the door had seemingly forgot to lock it properly. As soon as I had started moving and was hundreds of feet in the air, the door swung open! I was shocked and didn’t know how to close it so I had to hold it shut for what seemed like a 30 minute ride back. When the guy came to let me out, I easily opened the door and stepped down. I didn’t even look at him to see he had shown any sort of concerned expression. Instead, I went and unlocked my bike and rode off wanting to forget about my near-death puent out of a tarabita.
During my journey along the Route of Waterfalls I was passed by cars, go-karts (you can rent those in Baños) and even by a man leading his mule. You truly get a taste of Ecuador as you pass through small towns such as Rio Negro and Rio Verde, seeing stray dogs and clothes hanging out to dry on their rooftop lines.
This road is full of culture just as much as adventure.
Rain, which started trickling down early in the morning, got heavier during my ride. By the time I reached my final destination I was soaking wet. That didn’t stop me from making the hike through a well-maintained system that promotes water consevation down to: Pailon del Diablo. This is the main waterfall attraction in Baños. Known as the “Devil’s Cauldron”, not because of it’s super fury of water that falls into a whirlpool before gushing down the river around massive boulders, but because it is said you can see the devil’s face in the rock formation near the side.
There are three platforms you can walk down stairs to reach. No matter what level you are standing on you will get soaking wet from the waterfall’s power. The best part, you can climb (well crawl) through these uphill tunnels and squeeze yourself to another area closer to the waterfall. A few people at a time can climb more stairs that lead you directly behind Pailon del Diablo to see it from a different perspective.
I was waiting for the raging waters to cause a landside and trap me. I did not know how the rocks were still in place.
After I spent my few precious moments appreciating the amazing image before me, I took my soaking clothes and squishy shoes back out to unlock my bike. One of the lovely perks of riding your bike on La Ruta de las Cascadas is people know you’re probably tired afterward. There is an area where flat-bed trucks wait for a group of cyclists to load up in the bed of their vehicle to drive back to Baños for about $1.50 USD. It’s convenient and you get to talk with other bikers about their day and their ride.
My day ended up being brilliant. Probably more fun than soaking in a crowded hot spring. I got muddy and I got soaking wet. As a girl who would rather get dirty by exploring this planet, I can honestly say that having my #2 end up in the #1 position was not a bad move at all.
In fact, I would write La Ruta de la Cascadas in Baños, Ecuador as number one on any of my friend’s must-do list and also remind everyone to keep their own list’s open to revisions.