That time we went to a country literally named after the equator to be cold and wet for the duration of our stay.
Where? Banos, Ecuador
When? July 2018
With whom? Martin
In Manaus we met a couple of Spaniards who had the same flight as us to Ecuador, which worryingly had a 7 hour layover in the world’s second most dangerous city, Caracas. Initially, we thought we would leave the airport and explore, perhaps get some food. Upon further reading and talking to people, we discovered that that is a sure way to get murdered. We discovered the following things:
1. The homicide rate in Caracas is insane, more than one in 10 people are murdered at time of writing.
2. They are amidst an economic crisis, in which there is no food, cash, water, or anything. Some Venezuelans we have met travelling say that half the population have fled the country, and of the people left, many are dying from simple infections because the country lacks the funds, water and medicine for people to recover.
3. There are approximately 4,000,000 bolivars to the pound (Venezuelan currency).
4. The police and security guards within the airport are corrupt and will steal your stuff.
We had all heard stories of cards being cloned in the airport so when we landed we went in search of an official currency exchange only to be told that there was no cash. Instead, we ended up negotiating in a burger joint with Euros to get fed.
All four of us paid the extortionate fee to have our checked luggage wrapped in plastic at the airport in Manaus, in the belief that it would make them safer, however, Gon (one of the Spaniards we’d met) got to Guayaquil in Ecuador to discover his bag had been cut open and his phone and medicines had all been stolen somewhere en route. If you’re flying through Venezuela there’s not much you can do about this and the internet is full of stories of travellers who’d had similar experiences. My advice is to avoid it altogether, despite the temptation of cheap flights!
We got lucky when we landed as we headed straight to the bus terminal and managed to book ourselves into the last bus of the day to Baños.
Baños had a huge backpacker vibe to it. It’s a small town but travellers seem to spend a similar amount of time here doing the same sorts of activities so you get to know people fairly quickly.
On our first day, we hired a couple of bikes to cycle the waterfall route, ruta de cascadas. Google told us that today was the best weather out of our three day stay, which governed our decision to do the cycle route. Google lied. The weather was, on the whole, rubbish. During our stay, Banos was greyer and wetter than the UK, and apparently as unpredictable. If you go, take a waterproof to whip out at any moment. We were glad we had brought with us our waterproofs for this journey, as the promised sunny and partly cloudy turned into perpetual grey skies and rain.
The cycle route was mostly downhill, and shouldn’t be much of a challenge for any level of fitness. The start takes you out of town on main roads and dual carriageways with trucks and lorries but this soon turns into a road with fewer vehicles, but still many trucks. The road/cycle track hugged the cliff edge and gave spectacular views.
There’s a 20km route or a 60km route to Puyo. We are not experienced cyclists, so we were more than happy with getting as far as the Diablo, the main waterfall feature of the ride. Along the way we saw 4 waterfalls. Each came with its own kind of attractions. Waterfall number 2, Rio Blanca was accompanied by a tourist area with activities such as zip lining and bola extrema. What is Bola Extrema? Good question. It is a ball-shaped cage suspended above a canyon. People sit inside and harness in while the ball gets spun out over the abyss repeatedly. We did this. As we were cycling rather than on a chiva tour, there was nobody around when we arrived and so ended up with a longer turn. Ordinarily, this would be a good thing, but with all the extra spinning we felt quite nauseated afterwards. As we were leaving, a chiva full of tourists arrived and we heard the chocolate covered strawberry vendor up his price from 50 cents to a dollar. Sneaky.
The main waterfall is the Diablo, which is utterly incredible. To get to it you cross rickety wooden bridges giving you great view of the river and letting you feel the sheer power of the waterfall. At the end of the trail there’s a chance to stand under the waterfall itself obviously getting you very wet. We were already wet from the amazing equator weather so we went for it!
The roar of the water crashing down around you is overwhelming and is an absolute must for anyone in the area, but all this fun came with a price. A 2 dollar entrance fee to be precise, and while this might not sound like much, it’s an awfully large amount of money when you have 7 dollars in your wallet and still need to pay for the bus back rather than facing the 18km uphill cycle ride back to Banos.
We found a dodgy looking bloke with a truck, and with a little negotiation and more than a fair share of pleading we managed to convince him to take us back to town with bikes in tow.
Baños is famous for its affordable extreme sports like rock climbing, canyoning, water rafting and paragliding, (of which we can recommend canyoning and whitewater rafting enthusiastally) but also for what is known in the travelling world as the swing at the end of the world. To locals, it is called Casa del Arbol. It is on the top of a mountain in close proximity to the volcano, looking over the rest of the mountain region where Baños lies.
There are numerous ways up to the swing. Most people get a chiva, which is an open air mini bus that plays loud music and has flashing neon lights, some might call it a party bus. This can cost as little as $3.50 per person, plus the $1 entry to the swing but takes significantly longer than any other option and tends to drive around town for a good hour before actually taking you up the mountain. You can always hike if you fancy the three hour climb or you can do what we did and what we would recommend; take the blue bus. Costing only a dollar and heading straight up the mountain you get there before the hordes of other tourists, you have a much shorter time queuing and can spend longer flinging yourself into the air over the cliff edge on the swing. It leaves the town centre at 4pm, getting you up there for 4.45pm and comes back down at 6pm, which is plenty of time for you to explore the area.
At the top, there isn’t much to do other than queue up for the main swing (there’s actually 4 swings but only 2 give you the classic famous photo view). There are some smaller swings, a café, a free mini zip line and plenty of vistas. The queue for either one of the main swings on each side of the tree house is definitely worth the wait. For a few seconds, it feels like you’re flying. There’s even staff there who will happily throw you higher and higher, eliciting louder screams from the tourists. Most people go for that insta shot, so while you are queueing, have a practice with the people who are on the swing before you so you can find the perfect angle and lighting for your own photo.
Baños is a great place to meet people and we did extraordinarily well out of fellow travellers’ recommendations for food. Our favourite was a little place called Zumo which you’ll find just up from the main square. This is a Japanese restaurant that also does insane wraps, sandwiches and cocktails. The portion sizes are big enough to keep you going all day and the price is disgustingly cheap. This was our feasting place of choice while in Banos.
Info: getting to Banos is easy from Guayaquil or Quito with direct buses. Once there, we’d recommend staying in Erupcion hostel as the beds are comfy, it has good WiFi, but most importantly it has a common area on the roof complete with a Netflix area.
Product of the week: In South America, we often don’t know where we’re going to be in a few days’ time. We’ve been using the hostelworld app to sort out our accommodation when we have some sort of semblance of a plan. It’s a free app that is incredibly easy to use and uses very little data.
Tip of the week: Shop around. We did a day of white water rafting and canyoning. When we shopped around at different agencies, the price varied from 40 USD per person to 150 USD per person. Upon chatting to other tourists, we are pretty certain we HD the best price. Booking through hostels might give you some comfort or feelings of security in your booking but they almost always take a commission.