Saturday, June 27, 2009

Baños; a city in hot water

For a moment there we were feeling pretty brave, reserving a car to do a self-drive tour around the highlands and down to the jungle (The Baños-Tena-Quito Loop). But then the exorbitant cost of a rental car, coupled with the lack of a map and the experience of the stress of driving in a foreign country caused us to change our minds. And for the price of one day’s rental Click for larger viewwe hired a driver to take us all the way from Quito to Baños (about 3hrs away) in relative comfort and peace of mind. And Jorge knows  the area, stopping at the side of the road in Latacunga to buy some cheese wrapped in a banana leaf (queso de hoja).

On the way in to Baños we were offered  brilliant sourced from Flikr (ironmanixs)views of the Tungurahua Volcano spewing ash and smoke. I later regretted not stopping to take a photo as the conditions were never as good again.

Baños felt like a tourist trap, with tour operators on the corner of every block. We stayed at a musky old hostel in Baños called La Petite Auberge which is all creaky wooden floors and woollen blankets. It’s alright, nothing special, but the price is good and the host fellow really tries hard. The included breakfast of toasted baguettes, butter, jam and coffee left a little to be desired – so says Julie. I thought the homemade jam was sweet-as! [aaww…she didn’t like that comment]

We had three goals in Baños: Julie wanted to go horseback riding, Andrew wanted to soak in the hot baths, and Julie wanted a massage since Nuala had highly recommended a place here.  Through a little bit of clever scheduling we managed to get all of them done in one day!  The horse ride was unspectacular although it did provide a Julie looks the part of a cowgirlglimpse of the volcano puffing smoke through the clouds, but it was ruined with an unannounced additional charge for a visit to the guide’s buddy’s landslide-destroyed resort. 

After 2 hours on an uncomfortable saddle I was beat and was afraid that a soak in the hot baths would just put me right to sleep.  But the water is so hot in these CLICK ME! to see larger imagebaths (48degC!) that it totally reinvigorates you and I felt fantastic afterwards. Best $2 spent all day!  Unfortunately the massage found all of the knots that have been accumulating over the past few months and it was super painful. Probably should’ve stayed put with the $2 soak, or spent another $25 the next day for a follow-up massage to further massage my sore muscles.

Back at the hostel, we decided to make use of the fireplace in our room. The hotelier brought us some wood but while Julie was in the lobby waiting for some matches she ran into another couple staying at the hostel. As luck would have it, they were about to head out on a volcano tour.  Pablo was a photo-journalist based in Quito and had covered many of the eruptions of Tungurahua volcano. His enthusiasm for the volcano was fanatical: he dialled up the seismographs on the Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute ( using his cellular modem to see what sort of activity was going on up on the mountain at the moment, and then showed us his old pictures of past eruptions. The live (6min delay) data stream from the institute was pretty neat to see. After a couple of hours of driving around the hillsides to see if the cloud cover was dissipating we made one last stop.  Staring off into the blackness, we suddenly saw two glowing chunks come popping out of the volcano, softly glowing through the clouds.  “Did you see that!!??” Pablo excitedly shouted as all of us felt a shiver of excitement at seeing the molten lava shoot through the air.  Admittedly it probably wasn’t all that much of an explosion. A distant rumble could be heard shortly after but then the beast went back to sleep.  A few minutes later we checked the computer to see the jolt on the graph that we just witnessed.  Having seen something, we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel.

In the morning Andrew went out to the bus station to check the schedules to see when we could get to Puyo or Tena, and was assured by a New Yorker fellow that travelling on the buses was safe, given that you don’t leave yourself open. (Nuala and Ryan have done a marvellous job at telling us all of the horror stories that they hear at the embassy, so both of us are not too wary to ride the buses.)  Even though the buses seemed fine, Julie called up a another driver who’s ad we saw at the hotel and arranged for another ride.  Mr. Freddie was another pleasant fellow who showed us all of the waterfalls along the Pastaza River that flows down from the Andes to the jungles in the east.  It’s a great drive; very scenic, offering up dramatic views of the mountain escarpment dropping off into lush green jungle made all the more better with a large rainbow arching across the sky.

Oh, almost forgot. At the largest waterfall of the them all you can climbing up behind the waterfall crawl through a narrow tunnel to get to a platform that’s behind the roaring water. You get wet but it’s pretty neat!  The little cafe offers lovely views of the valley and here Andrew discovered another new fruit – babaco, which makes a tasty fruitshake.

The pictures of this edition are here:

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