Saturday, February 28, 2009


I think I said in another of my posts on Ecuador that it is very easy to travel around the country using public buses. That statement needs a bit of qualification, New Year's Day is just not a good time to travel in this country. We stood patiently by the Panamerican highway in Machachi trying to flag down buses to take us to Baños, but the few that came were already full and in the end we gave up and paid a local taxi driver to take us.

I had an image of Baños being some kind of equatorial travellers paradise, the town is named like this because of the thermal springs that emerge there. Instead what we found on New Years Day was quad bike hell. It seemed as if half the country had decided that this was a good day to visit the town, and clearly that visit has to include the whole family balanced precariously on a quad bike doing endless circuits around the streets. About an hour after arriving I was already starting to feel a bit depressed, why did we leave Cotopaxi to come here was the question that nagged at me. Things got worse when we saw the baths

The town itself is nothing very special to look at, although the surroundings are quite spectacular when they are not shrouded in mist. There are green hills on all sides.

Fortunately most of the visitors come for the day and in the evening the place is a bit more relaxed. There are plenty of restaurants, and some of them will prepare that Andean delicacy, the cuy. It’s not cheap, buying one of these for your dinner can cost about three times the price of a good steak.

We tried it, it wasn't too bad but to be honest between two it left us a bit hungry and we needed to go somewhere else and buy a piece of chicken to feel that we had really eaten. There is always plenty of the locally made sweet to buy if you feel like having more food. As the picture suggests, it’s a bit chewy!

Baños has a significant problem, and I'm not talking about the quad bikes. The problem is called Tungurahua, it's the volcano just a short distance away and it is currently in a very active phase. Just before we first entered the town, we could see where the lava flow had cut the main road not so very long ago. Baños itself had to be entirely evacuated at one point because of the threat of eruption, although eventually the residents got fed up and returned to their homes. On our first full day here we took one of the tracks that make their way up the hillside behind the town. It was raining, a lot, and the tops of the hills were completely covered in clouds. Anyway, we persevered and made our way up to the view point known as Bellavista. The problem in my experience with places called Bellavista is that you are either confronted with a thick wall of mist, or a vast treeless plain. In this case it was the former, so we carried on walking up to a nearby village where we took temporary refuge in the covered sports arena. Nobody was on the streets except us.

Our target for the day was the "mirador del volcan", supposedly a fine viewpoint to see the volcano. Given the conditions, we didn't have high expectations, but on we went. The path is signposted but in a misleading way; the distances marked on the signs change but not in the way you expect so at one point we found ourselves theoretically further away than we had been at the previous sign. Eventually arriving at the mirador we couldn't see further than about 70-80 metres in front of us, although at least the rain was not so heavy. However, although we couldn't see the volcano we could certainly hear it. Is there an equivalent of mirador in Spanish for places where you can hear but not see; “el escuchador del volcan” perhaps? Having been close to a few active volcanoes now I've learnt that what really makes a noise is not necessarily the eruption itself, it's the boulders that get thrown into the air as they bounce down the slopes of the mountain. It starts as a low rumbling sound which then becomes a series of individual crashes. We could certainly feel the presence of the mountain, even if we couldn't see it. This was as close as I needed to get to it, and we turned to make our way back to the town, the clouds having cleared enough to give us at least a view from above.

What else is there to do in Baños? Rafting is one option, bicycle and (sadly) quad bike hire is very simple. The guide books tell you of a long ride you can do down to Puyo. This may at one time have been a nice experience, but my partner did part of it on our last day in town and she said that the traffic on this road makes cycling a bit unpleasant and potentially dangerous. Although the scenery further down does look very nice

Tungurahua was to stay invisible throughout our whole stay in the Baños, not until we got to Riobamba a few days later were we able to get any kind of view of it. Some believe that La Virgen de Baños will continue to protect the town against the volcano’s wrath, I'm not convinced and the entertaining series of paintings in the basilica telling of the miracles performed still weren't enough to change my feeling that one day the mountain might win.

The town has dozens of agencies offering all sorts of excursions and is a useful stop off point particularly if you plan to head down from here to the Amazonian forest. However, many of the excursions offered are in other places where you can probably organise them yourself without paying the extra premium of being transported from Baños. To be frank, some of these places are almost certainly nicer to stay in than Baños itself. I left without regrets, although in the end it wasn't quite as bad a place as my first impressions led me to believe.

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