Friday, 23 March 2012

Baños de Agua Santa

About a week ago we left Quito for good and headed south to Banos, a small town popular for its thermal pools and countless spas that proffer every sort of self-indulgence you could imagine (they also conduct intestinal cleansing, if one is inclined or in need of such a thing). The setting is gorgeous, as you can see below. The town is perched on the banks of a river surrounded by steep slopes of the Andes. The weather is much nicer than that of Quito and the town has a decidedly laid-back feel to it, which we welcomed after our few days back in the chaos of Ecuador's capital. 

View of Baños de Agua Santa from across the river.
Having neglected to write down the address of our hostal, we asked a local policeman for directions and set out based on his guidance. We ended up a few blocks short but a pharmacist was happy to point us in the right direction. The hostal was really nice and even had a pool! And, of course, a plethora of aesthetic treatments and massage options were available onsite. We had a great view from our balcony and could even see the small waterfall behind the hostal, near La Virgen hot springs.

The day we arrived just happened to be St. Patrick's Day, which just happens to be one of my favorite "holidays" of the year. We'd originally planned to be in Quito but our early return from the Galapagos put us in Banos instead. I was a little concerned about finding a proper venue in which to celebrate, but my fears were assuaged after Jill did a quick google search at home and discovered an establishment called "Leprechaun Bar" located a hop, skip and a jump away from our hostal. How lucky, I thought!  ............... we left our hostal ready for fun night of beer and all things "Irish" only to discover that Leprechaun Bar was closed. As in, NOT open. On a Saturday. On St. Patty's Day!!!!! What?? We couldn't help but laugh at the absolute irony, commenting on how all the pubs at home would've had line-ups outside them by 10am and been busy all day.
View from our balcony at Hostal Chimenea in Banos. 
Fortunately, I'd made a back-up plan just in case something like this happened (which it does a lot in Ecuador...). We rerouted ourselves to Jack's Rock and were encouraged by the loud music audible from far down the street. Upon entering the bar, we found only the bar man crouched at a computer behind the bar and a lone cat, curled up on a speaker under the stairs. Not a four-leaf-clover or pot of gold in sight. We decided to have a beer anyway and see if things picked up after a while. In the meantime, Chris tried unsuccessfully to befriend the cat and we surveyed the vast array of band posters including Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and Nirvana. Wait, what? Yep, Nirvana is now a classic rock band. Apparently. 

When things didn't pick up at Jack's (and we'd had our fill of Metallica), we wandered around Banos in search of another establishment that might satisfy our desire to celebrate St. Patty's Day. We found another bar that had more people in it and settled onto some stools overlooking the busy street. It wasn't long before we started seeing other gringos prowling around, wearing something green in the spirit of the holiday, looking thirsty and keen to party. And then increasingly confused when they couldn't find somewhere to unleash their inner leprechaun. 

We watched one couple walk in the direction of Leprechauns only to return a few minutes later. They saw us from the street and ended up joining us in the bar where we commiserated about the lack of St. Patty's Day cheer. They told us that Leprechauns had opened but was empty. Haha. We played a game of pool and then walked over to see if the atmosphere had improved. The bar was very busy but it was the farthest thing from an Irish pub that I can fathom. It was several floors of strobe and flashing colored lights, pumping dance music loud enough that I'm sure it could be heard in all the nearby indigenous villages. And then there was the giant bonfire centered on the patio in the rear of the bar. It seemed rather out of place considering the rest of the scene. And a rather dangerous furnishing for a drinking establishment. I guess people drink around campfires all the time though... We ended up getting a table close to the fire and enjoyed a few beers with our new friends (who were from New Zealand; she a family doctor, he a physical trainer) and another couple from Chile who had remarkably good English. Despite not being the most Irish St. Patrick's Day I've ever had, it ended up being a pretty fun night! 

The next day we wandered down to the river where we watched daring tourists bungee jump off the bridge. It cost less than $20, which immediately got my spidey senses tingling... After crossing the pedestrian suspension bridge and taking note of the numerous missing panels and others that were in bad need of replacement, I was certain I didn't trust the local safety standards enough to throw myself off a bridge with only their equipment to protect me... All four of the people we watched jump came away unscathed though.

After lunch we treated ourselves to an afternoon at the spa. First, pedicures (yes, even for Chris, though he opted not to get polish), then herbal facials and full body massages. It was SOOOOOOOO nice. The facial was very different from what I expected from past experiences. There were no harsh exfoliating treatments or close inspections of every flaw and spot on my face followed by a long list of products that could help restore/improve/turn me into a beauty queen... Nope, just homemade masks of honey, chocolate, beans, avocado, mint, cardamom, clay and lots of other ingredients I couldn't detect (or translate from Spanish). They felt nice but I'm pretty sure they didn't do too much in terms of rejuvenating or purifying my skin. Oh well. It was a treat. The massage was really good, however. Not nearly as good as the ones I get at home (love you M.J.), but very relaxing and thoroughly enjoyed after >3 months of deprivation!

We'd planned to rent bikes in Banos to bike a portion of the Routa de las cascadas (route of the waterfalls), also known as the hi-way to Puyo, but the weather was pretty crummy the first day we were there (hence the spa day...). The weather was better on our last day so we decided to ruin all the good done by our facials and massages and head out on a ride. Although the route is mostly downhill from Banos, the wind was in our faces, making pedaling necessary more than we'd hoped (haha) but it felt good to get some exercise. And the views were spectacular!! Riding on the virtually shoulderless hi-way was pretty nerve-wracking as the kamikaze buses and transport trucks whipped past us at ridiculous speeds, but it was all part of the adventure. The route has a few long dark tunnels that are really unsafe for cyclists. Fortunately, the province has built paths around the tunnels so cyclists can avoid being hit in the dark narrowness. Unfortunately, a major rockslide blocked the path not far from the start of the first detour. It looked like it had happened quite some time ago but, perhaps not surprisingly, the bike rental shop neglected to warn us about this fairly significant obstacle before we set out on the route. Undeterred, we very carefully "portaged" our bikes over the heap, acutely aware of the deep gorge immediately beside us, and continued on our way. 

After biking about 20 km we made it to the small town of Rio Verde where the trailhead for La Cascada el Pailon del Diablo can be found. It's a 2.5 km hike down to the viewing platforms and the trek was well worth it. The falls are spectacular, pounding down into a deep rocky gorge from 80 meters above, and the platforms allow you to get really up close and personal (i.e. drenched). If you're brave enough to crawl under a rock outcropping "braced" with some wood supports, you can make your way up to a closer platform and even go behind the falls! Chris went up to the viewing platform and touched the water but didn't go behind - it looked sketchy. Shocking. Surprisingly not sketchy was the suspension bridge spanning the gorge. The other side offered a nice view of the falls from a distance and the opportunity to dry off after getting soaked by the spray. After hiking back up to the town, we rode to the hi-way and caught a bus back to Banos. It was a great excursion and, although the spa experience was pretty awesome, I'd say it was the highlight of our trip to Banos.

At Cascada El Pailon del Diablo near Banos, Ecuador.
From Banos we headed to Riobamba to spend one night at a super cute hostal (Oasis) before busing to Alausi to ride La Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose), a famous portion of the Ecuadorian railway. Chris hasn't had a chance to edit the photos so I'll leave that experience for the next post, which should wrap up our time in Ecuador!


  1. Anyone else see the Galaga ship in the second picture? >.>

  2. Since some people might not know the game >.>

    Old school arcade game.