Monday, 16 February 2015

Baños- All the Adventure You Could Want!

Baños is an adventure town, plain and simple and we fell in love with the spectacular scenery of the Andes mountains coupled with the heart stopping activities offered at every turn. We had heard that Baños was a bit of a grungy backpacker town and were wary about it being touristy but it surpassed all of our expectations and became our favourite place on mainland Ecuador.

Getting to Baños was fairly easy with buses leaving every hour from Alausi and stopping in Riobamba to change buses to continue on. We made the error of getting off at the first bus terminal we saw and eventually had a bit of a mishmash of buses routing us through Ambatu instead but with all the excitable bus attendants, we found our way. 

We were in for a treat staying at Magic Stone ($40/night) a super cute BnB with the sweetest hosts named Aase and Ove who were wonderful to us and helped us maximize our short amount of time in their lovely town. Without missing a beat we headed into the center of town and contacted an agency to arrange to go canyoning the next day. 

Everywhere we went in Ecuador we were told about canyoning and what an awesome experience it was for everyone. I have to say that I am glad we didn't know too much about it before we went or I might have chickened out! Canyoning basically involves rappelling down waterfalls which I was fine with but what I didn't realize is that it involves a lot jumping and falling. If there is one thing I have a hard time doing it is jumping off cliffs and this was a feat for me! 

We got a great deal on the tour with Imagine although at first they tried to "upsell" us and we settled on $60 for a half day (2:30pm). It might be worth looking at other organizations for a better price if you aren't happy because every tour group offers canyoning.
                                                    Me taking the highest jump! (8 meters)

Our group was small as it was technically off season in Baños and it was just us and another couple but it made the day more fun not having to wait for too many people to complete each activity. 

We were taken about 40 minutes outside of the town along the Ruta de Las Cascades which we actually ended up biking the next day. Our guides were two spunky brothers who made a great show of having an awesome time with us while also reassuring us about how safe everything was and we felt like we were in good hands. After getting geared up with our "diapers" and trained on how to rappel we set off to explore the beauty of waterfalls. 

Our first challenge was jumping off a cliff that seemed manageable to me and I was able to do it without too much hesitation but the next cliff had me balking and I made Josh go first. Things only got scarier as I was first up to rappel down the waterfall and then without much preamble they told me to let go and jump backwards and a zipline carried me the rest of the way!

                             Josh jumping backwards down the zipline! (Video in slow motion)

It was like playing the game Trust when you are a kid and you fall backwards into everyone's arms. 

The entire tour was amazing and endless fun! It was one of the best days we had in Ecuador falling backwards off waterfalls, floating along with the current, and "sliding" downstream on our diaper butts. Watching everyone succeed each challenge was exciting and I was by far the weakest link but Josh was pretty ballsy and I was impressed. 

Although we were pooped after our canyoning tour the day was young and the sun was shining so we decided to go up to the famous TreeHouse (Casa de Arbor). We missed the last local bus up (leaves at 4pm) so we hired a taxi (~$10) and took the bus down instead. If you haven't heard about it before, google National Geographic's photo: End of The World which made this swing famous. You pay $1 to a sweet local family to enter and you are treated to spectacular views of the mountains and because it was so clear we had a great view of Volcán Tungurahua. 

The swing itself is not adventurous persay but it was still thrilling to swing over a canyon of trees. With the sun shining brightly it was a great experience and we enjoyed taking turns on the swings and admiring the breathtaking views. 

After our adventurous day we decided to start our next one with a trip to some thermal hot springs that Aase recommended called Santa Ana.

 It was very quiet and peaceful with mostly locals around and it was the perfect remedy for our sore muscles. There are several hot springs in Baños (hence the name) and we have heard that most are enjoyable but some can be very crowded. We enjoyed Santa Ana as there was only a handful of friendly people and we were lucky to have some interesting conversations. 

Since our trek out to the waterfall for canyoning we were interested in biking the same path, Ruta de Las Cascades. We rented bikes from Imagine for $7 each and headed on our way with lots of water, sunscreen,a map, and a tire repair kit. Our bikes were really nice and we were excited to use all our gears since our bikes at home are cruisers. I was a little nervous at first since you are biking on a highway but all the drivers are used to giving the bikes a wide berth and a friendly little honk to warn that they are passing you. 

At several points you exit the highway as the cars go through a tunnel and you bike along a beautiful, peaceful cobblestone path with spectacular views of canyons and waterfalls. We couldn't get far very fast because we wanted to stop every two minutes at a look out! 

As you bike along you are directed to a lot of little setups with canopies, zip lines, and even bungee jumping. I have aways been averse to bungee jumping but we both thought the canopy ride looked cute and for $1 each we hopped into the clunky wire cage and went sailing over the canyon. Although the experience was  not super high octane, I was a little nervous as you hear every creak and groan of the cage and I couldn't help but notice that we were so high up that it would take minutes to fall to the bottom of the canyon. Needless to say I was happy to be back on solid ground! 

Thinking I was safe from any more adventure for the day, I set on my merry way continuing my relaxing bike ride. That is until my very persuasive husband begged me to go on this crazy zipline with him where you sail over a canyon strapped up like a bird!

If I thought the canopy was scary I was delusional. This was probably the scariest thing I have ever done and although logic told me people do it all the time I was unclear about the safety regulations and standards and the fact that it was a bunch of teenagers strapping me up didn't help! Perhaps that's why it's only $10 per person! They quite literally grab you and hogtie you up to the wire and I was fairly alarmed about the straps they were using as it just seemed like woven fabric to me. 

Regardless of my fear, the minute they push you out and you are sailing across the canyon it all seems worth it. To fly like a bird for even a minute is such a neat experience and taking in the spectacular view of the canyon and waterfalls felt surreal. My fear crept up again as we neared the other side and had to depend on an unseen person to brake our flight. I was so relieved to be on solid ground again and I was scared again to tempt fate for a second time and sail back to the beginning. Josh of course was beyond excited to do it again and even after we were all done he wanted to go again! 

Feeling tired from the biking and the adrenaline, we decided to bike to the town of Rio Verde and catch a taxi or a bus back to Baños. 

Most people don't bike back as it has a lot of inclines and the path is more set up to bike away from Baños so that you can see all the waterfalls. The bus stopped for us and we were expecting a bike rack on the back but instead we were told to load them on the bus which was awkward and comical at the same time. We were just happy for the ride! 

Arriving back into town we had already decided to go and get massages. There are many places to choose from and it might be worth researching to find a good place. We chose one at random and had a full body massage for $20 each and it was pretty good, especially for the price. Our sore muscles were grateful as we had been pretty active in Baños not to mention Ecuador in general. This is probably one of the first vacations where we returned fitter than when we left! 

Our last day in Ecuador was a bit awkward as we were not flying out until midnight. Knowing that we would be exhausted later we had a lazy morning enjoying a cute cafe called Arte Cafe that had hammocks for seats so you could swing and have your coffee.

 We went to the little market street as well and bought some last trinkets and delicious fruit juice.  

When it came time to leave our taxi driver arranged our bus ticket for us which was a huge help. It's a bit strange but if you want to get to the airport everyone will insist that you need to go through Quito. This is fine if you want to but you would go to Quitumbe station (3.5 hours from Baños) then grab a taxi that might cost about $20 and would take 1.5 hours to get to the airport. Our driver arranged for us to get the Baños Express on its way to Otovalo and it stops in Tababela for only $4 each! 

The bus ride was longer than we expected and it took about 5 hours to get to Tababela. It's a little worrisome but you are dropped off on the side of the highway and have to wait for a taxi or shuttle to come by. Luckily one came right away for us and we were off to the airport at last! 

Leaving Ecuador was difficult as it had truly been one of the best travel experiences of our lives. Ecuador is like a dream with so much to offer and something for everyone. As it is home to several different landscapes : the Amazon, the Galapagos, the highlands, etc. it is such an amazingly diverse country to travel. We have never met such friendly and hospitable people before as we had in Ecuador and we really connected with the culture and the people. We will see how it compares to our next adventure! 

Monday, 9 February 2015

Alausi- The Devil's Nose

Alausi is a cute little town that contains the notorious Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose) train and this was our main reason for visiting there. We took a bus from Cuenca's bus terminal headed to Riobamba and were dropped off on the highway after about 4 hours (estimate about 4-5 hours depending on the road warrior aka bus driver you get). 

It was difficult for us to decide if we were going to stop in Alausi since the train does not run on Mondays and this extended our stay in Cuenca as a result. We were nervous that we had altered our itinerary for this one attraction but the risk definitely paid off! After arriving in Alausi we realized that the town is quite picturesque and charming in itself with it's cobblestone streets and pastel coloured homes that create an old fashioned atmosphere. 

We didn't end up booking a hotel prior to arriving as a few we had emailed were quoting ~ $80! Upon arriving we sought out Hotel Gampala ($49 a night) and were able to secure an okay room that was clean, if not a little dated. Alausi was cold at night though which gave me a great excuse to break out my new Alpaca socks! 

The train ride transported us to another time although it has been restored in recent years and updated. The tracks were originally laid at the turn of the 20th century and were extremely dangerous between Alausi and Sibambe due to a 765 meter cliff of solid rock that had to be blown through with dynamite first. Thousands of lives were lost including Jamaican prisoners who were promised freedom upon the completion of the track. 

What's really unique about the train ride is that is unable to turn around and still utilizes an old fashioned method called a switch back where the train has to basically shimmy back and forth to switch train tracks. 

We woke up early the next day excited for the train ride. In Cuenca we decided to reserve tickets ahead of time although we debated if this was necessary or not. From some travellers we heard they missed the train because they didn't reserve ahead but the day we went the train was no where near full (but it was off season being February). It only leaves at 8am or 11am and occasionally at 3pm but rumour is that the earlier trip is often better as the clouds can roll in later obstructions the amazing view of the Andes mountains.

Reserving in Cuenca was a bit complicated and we started the process through our hostess who called on our behalf to arrange tickets. We had to then take the information she printed and go to a specific bank to deposit money. Not sure exactly what to do we waited in a long line for a teller who then turned us away because we did not fill out the deposit slip. These slips are available at a kiosk and since we paid cash we chose the "efectivo" slip (there are different options). The teller was able to take that information and gave us a voucher stating we had paid and we then provided the voucher to our hostess who printed off the tickets for us. As you can see the process was a bit tedious but because we were going solely for this train ride we didn't want to risk it and we were able to reserve on the right hand side which provides the best views. 

After arriving at the ticket office at 7:30am and showing our passports (don't forget them) we were on our way! The train was adorable and almost seemed like a quaint bus on wheels. We each had a window seat and were treated to outstanding views of daunting cliffs and beautiful rolling lush mountains. The scenery was so beautiful and worth the trip alone and then being on the train was a fun experience too! 

Each window opens and you can literally stick your head out so that the scenic experience is full on. In the past you were allowed to ride on the roof which must have been exceptional but the practice is no longer allowed due to a litany of injuries. Probably a good thing Josh wasn't allowed to do it! 

Arriving at the top offers a bit of a tacky tourist opportunity with traditional dancing and llamas but it also offers a view of the famous "Devil's Nose" which you can see with some imagination and a free snack. We enjoyed it more than we thought we would as we could view the scenery for hours it was so breathtaking. 

After the train ride we had a couple of hours to kill while we waited to catch a bus to Riobamba (leaving every hour and necessary to route through for most trips like ours to Banos) and we sought out the imposing statue of San Pedro. This huge tribute is impossible to miss and it was fun to climb the stairs up to the top and view the entire town after we caught our breath. 

Alausi is the sweetest, most quaint town and we were subject to its charms. The train was a very unique experience and especially because the weather was good, we had spectacular views of the Andes mountains. Thankfully, it was definitely worth the trip. Next stop, Banos!