Country Ecuador | Dates July 14-17 | Accommodation Selina Baños
We took a bus from Montanita to Guayaquil, then transferred on another to Baños. The ride was unpleasant as we were tried from our big night out, but we enjoyed some hot pan de yuca on our way. We had to do a quick bus change in Ambato. Dumped onto the side of the road by a gas station, we followed another (more knowledgeable) passenger closely while remaining vigilant with our bags, as bag theft on buses is a huge issue in Ecuador. We arrived late to freezing cold and rain, but our hostel was brand new (2nd day open) so we got the entire place and never-used-before facilities to ourselves.
Baños is located on the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon and known for its thermal baths, as you can guess by its name. The town sites nestled deep between the mountains, in a verdant valley often shrouded in low-hanging clouds and frequent showers. We went for a very specific reason – to see the Casa de Arbol and Swing at the End of the World.
Casa de Arbol & Swing at the End of the World
A must see for backpackers and locals alike, Casa de Arbol is a treehouse sitting high atop a mountain outside of Baños. Accessible via a lengthy and confusing hike or a 40-minute bus ride, it has become a bit of a tourist attraction in recent years. Originally it was built by an old man as a simple tree swing, but has since been reinforced with metal, staffed by men pushing the swings and expanded to include other attractions. It cost $1 to enter.
We awoke to some rare sunshine and a break in the clouds, so we decided to take the 11am bus to arrive asap at the swing. The bus ride was standard – speeding up a narrow, steep hill around blind curves. Except this time while rounding a particularly tight curve we heard a grating sound – we collided with another bus! While the drivers angrily surveyed the damage and we sat leaning off the road in a ditch, the woman next to me attempted to converse. I couldn’t comprehend a word with her strong accent, so she resorted to showing me alarming selfies on her phone while her child sat on my lap. Meanwhile, my sister was seated next to a travelling magician.
Finally off the bus we bypassed the imitation treehouse (“swing to heaven”) and headed up the path to the right. A bit more crowded than expected, we stood our turn to wait for the giant swing which was faster and scarier – and more nauseating – than expected, but did not disappoint. We smiled and screamed as we flew over the side of the mountain.
We decided to hike back down, as there was a clear path on our map and the guys we asked for directions made it sound simple. 1.5 hours later, after going in a circle, ending up at a dead-end, and walking through deep mud next to a farm on a sloping side of the mountain, we found ourselves back at the main highway barely 2 miles from where we started. Obviously, something had gone wrong. After walking a while on the side of the road we found a bus stop, but the scheduled bus never came. Eventually we hopped into a passing tourist van to ride back to town. We were overcharged $1.50 each (only $1 for the local lady!), but we couldn’t have made it otherwise. Upon researching we found the hiking path is notoriously confusing and unclear and we weren’t the only ones who got lost (at least not this time…).
Around the Town
Baños was bigger than expected, although easily accessible on foot. The town has a bar street, 3 breweries, entire blocks dedicated to selling candy and fresh sugar cane juice, and, of course, the thermal baths. Although I must say my favorite sight was a priest dressed in his white robes sprinkling holy water onto a broken-down car with its hood up. Seriously, one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.
The main draw of Baños is its thermal baths, filled with water from the volcanic hot springs and alleged healing powers. There is one bath in town, Termas de la Virgen, located under a waterfall on the mountain where you can buy empty water jugs to fill. We planned to bathe here – it’s popular with locals – but a glimpse at the murky brown water with debris left us with second (and third) thoughts.
Instead we hiked 2 miles outside of town to another thermal bath, El Salado, we thought would be slightly cleaner and less crowded. We thought wrong. We put on our stylish neon bathing caps (mandatory, purchased outside for $.50) and hopped into the filthy, mandatory pre-bath showers stained orange and smelling strongly of sulfur. We hesitantly joined the crowd in the first bath, a brown/yellow rectangle of murky lukewarm water and floating filth. We exited quickly to find the hottest bath, rationalizing the heat would “kill the germs” yet knowing this logic didn’t hold up as it wasn’t boiling. After 5 minutes we were burning up, and decided to give the ice cold plunge pool a try. Nearby a child asked, “Daddy, why is the water yellow?” Good question.
15 minutes later we were dressing in the dank changing rooms; hardly the 3 hours we’d allotted for the baths. I forgot a change of clothing but absolutely did not want the contaminated swimsuit on my body, so I walked the 2 miles back without any underwear.
A random tourist debating whether to enter asked us how it was, “Ehh, it was ok…” we replied, failing to reassure him. Many people love the baths, but they definitely weren’t for us. Truth be told, we kind of wish we’d broken our budget to go to the luxurious (and clean) Luna Runtun spa baths we saw advertised in town.
Ruta de las Cascadas
Baños has many canyons and waterfalls, and not wanting to sit on a bus ever again we decided to bike to them rather than take the Chiva, an open air bus. You can bike a full 60km to Puyo on the edge of the Amazon, or “just” do the first 18km (one way) to the falls circuit. Of course it was raining the day we planned to do this, but we forged ahead. Two minutes after we hit the road on our rental bikes ($5USD) we wanted to die as cold water slapped our faces and soaked our pants. The bike route was along the side of a major highway with sharp curves and dark tunnels, which the bike man failed to mention lacked a bike lane or even shoulder. I would have been scared on a good day, but with the rain it was terrifying. The paint strip was slick and side partially flooded so it was hard to stay over, and cars spend by splashing us. The sidewalk was impassable with missing bricks and telephone poles, so not an option. We eventually made it to the first waterfall, at which time we approached a Chiva hoping they’d take pity on us and allow us to ride the rest of the way. The man took one look at our miserable faces and soaked bodies, and was loading our bikes in before we even asked. Well worth the $5 it cost.
The Chiva, blaring loud party music, took us to all the falls we failed to reach by bike, as well as various attractions you could pay extra for. We took a cable car that did not seem remotely safe out over the canyon ($2). When it paused in the center, presumably on purpose for a view, I stood in sheer terror and gripped the slick blue metal of the car as if that would save me if it fell. We skipped the zip lining activities, looked unsafe and miserable in rain, and ate a hot plantain instead. We also stopped unexpectedly at a candy factory where we watched the bright red sugar melt and received free samples. The last stop was the massive waterfall, Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron), which was far better than expected. A quick hike lead us right up to its roaring water and powerful spray. A random lady asked us to take 20+ photos of her, advising us on the most flattering angles.
Hiking (and Running Away from Strangers)
Our second day we set out to do some hiking on the trails accessible nearby town.
Bellavista | A quick 45 minute (ish) hike…straight up the side of the mountain. It was quite steep, and the viewpoint at the top – an aerial view of the city and giant cross – were not that exciting. It was so steep in fact we had to run down some parts to keep from falling.
La Virgen | The entrance to this one is up behind a huge cemetery, not where it looks like on the map. It took me longer to find it than to hike. The stairway leading up should be a warning; the hike is steep and almost entirely composed of concrete stairs (probably thousands of them) going nearly straight up the side of the mountain. Sarah was tired so I went this one alone, being advised it was about 45 minutes. About three minutes in I encountered some youths sitting on the steps. Irrationally convinced they were laying in wait to rob me, I determined it best to run up the steps and put as much distance between myself and them as I could. And so, in excessively high altitude, I took the steps as fast as I could, quickly becoming very short of breath. Ok that’s an understatement, I nearly passed out. Obviously they were harmless, but needless to say I arrived at the top in only 16 minutes, which I believe must be a record. The view was good, the statue of La Virgen not that exciting. At top I could see a muddy path leading down — the rest of the path we failed to find after Casa de Arbol.
Eating & Drinking in Baños
The restaurants in Baños were not great. Our first dinner at Garfield Pizza was touristy and bad, and our lunch at Don Enrique Restaurant was gross and cold, plus we were ignored by staff.
Breakfast & Bolons | We ate bolons, balls of fried corn dough with cheese, or pork, or something else, twice in Baños, trying two competing restaurants on the same street. Aki A Lo Criollo was exceptionally good ($1USD) or part of a combo breakfast for $2.50. I was so excited to try the bolon I couldn’t wait for Sarah to wake up and went alone to scarf down my first one, sitting at a crowded table alongside locals. When Sarah awoke we went back for more. We also had amazing pastries at Rico Pan, and delicious hot chocolate at Aromi Cafe y Chocolate.
Mercado Central | Our best meals were at the small (and cheap) stalls in Mercado Central where we had fresh juices ($1) and two delicious lunches of the local specialty, Llapingachos (rice, avocado, sausage, fried egg – $2.50).
Street Food | We also made friends with a plantain vendor, returning to her small stall (randomly selected out of a row of 10 such stalls) for hot, sweet fried plantains and batches of delicious popcorn kernels several times per day. “Vamos a regressar” we told her no less than 5 times, and regressar we did.
Cane Sugar Juice | We drank cups of the straight cane sugar juice Baños is known for, squeezed fresh from stalks right before our eyes. Sickeningly sweet and delicious, we had our choice of 20+ vendors in a row and received a sugar high for only $1. As if we needed more sugar, we also ate Espumillas, or marshmallow in an ice cream cone.
Breweries | There are surprisingly 3 breweries in the small town, although one was more of a brewpub and we later found the other 2 were based out of Quito. We visited Cherusker, which had exceptionally good beer (and free corn snacks) and Stray Dog, which was a brew pub with Ecuadorian beer that was vile. Visiting the third, Ale’s Art, was out of budget but seeing as we tried their beer at Stray Dog and it was gross we didn’t feel too bad.