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Friday, February 10, 2012

Trip - Banos Ecuador - Part I

Last week, I was supposed to go to Loja to visit a friend for several days.  I rented a car for a week (2010 Grand Vitara, 4x4, manual trans, 150 kms allowance per day, taxes and insurance included...$45 per day), so when my trip was cancelled at the last minute I needed to decide what to do so I didn't waste the valuable rental (no, I could not return it).  I hadn't been to Banos, Ecuador before so I opted for that.

Now, you may THINK I've been there, but the Banos I've written about in the past is Banos Cuenca...essentially, a suburb of Cuenca that has thermal spas, too.   However, THIS Banos is over 300 kms (180 miles) north of Cuenca, 200 kms south of Quito.  Typically, we would translate that to roughly 3 hours drive, but it's actually 6 hours due to the winding, 2-lane roads, chuck full of slow trucks and big busses to pass.  Much of my travel included rain and fog, too.

Anyhoo, my friends George (from Guatemala) and Raul (from Columbia) were spending a month in Banos after staying here in Cuenca for a month.  They were the ones who were going to housesit while I was away on my USA trip-that-never- happened.  George owns a travel/tour business in Antigua, Guatemala (see his site at http://www.georges-travelclub.com/).   There, George....you got your plug...HAPPY??   I gave them a quick call to see if I could come up and after their 'YEAH!' I threw my bags in the car and headed North, instead of South to Loja.  Oh, and I left 4+ days of food for Gracie, Bozo, and Chip and explicitly told them not to eat it all at once, it needs to last them 3.5 days, and don't yell at me that you're hungry when I come home if you ate it all too early.   They nodded in agreement. 

The drive was uneventful until.....dum-d-dum-DUM!!!  Drama.   It's common knowledge you can't rely on Ecuadorian maps all that much.  What LOOKS like 5 inches of travel, therefore 100 miles based on the scale of miles, really is 200 miles because of all the winding roads.  You might drive an hour and cover 40 miles but you've only gone 1/2 inch on the map!!  Also, even though two roads may be marked with the same thick line, one can be a nice primary highway, the other a skinny, rough, rural road.  Looking at the map, when one arrives in the large city of Riobamba, you can take a direct route to Banos off to the right.  Or, you can travel further north to another large city, Ambato, then backtrack by driving South into Banos.  Why would I want to do that?  Both routes looked the same on the map, one was direct, one was longer and indirect.   dum-d-dum-DUM!!!  (I remember hearing TV Soap Opera music...but didn't know what it meant).

The primary highway dumped me onto the surface streets of Riobamba.  Ecuador is not known for it's well-signed roads (I'm NOT bashing Ecuador!!!).  It took me more than half an hour to navigate through the maze of streets to finally find my way onto the road to Banos.  Twice, I didn't believe the directions strangers gave me because I kept ending up on a pothole-riddled street (I felt like I was driving in a whack-a-mole game!) that quickly ended in a blocked detour.   I finally routed myself around it and onto the 'highway'...all the while questioning if this was for real.  After a bit, the road became pretty decent and wound through pretty valleys and farms, following alongside a river.   Signs confirmed Banos lay ahead.

After awhile, I hit a patch of rough, non-paved road...then paved...then back to the rough stuff...and it kept getting worse.  Soon, I was only travelling over dirt...and the road got narrower.  THIS is the way to Banos?  At points, it was only 1 lane wide.  Then it got ridiculous.   I found myself driving over what I can only describe as a logging road.  THIS is the way to Banos?   It reminded me of the bizarre experience Kathleen and I had, driving back from Loja back in July, which I wrote about in the blog that month.  There were mudslides everywhere.  The only signs that existed were emergency volcano eruption routes...yeah, RIGHT!!!   Then I came upon the first (of many) washouts where streams poured across the road.  I was now in 4x4 mode, crossing rivers!!!  One looked so deep, I got out and threw a rock in where I intended to cross, to see how deep it was.  I took a big gulp and made it across.    At this point, I wasn't ABOUT to turn around as I would be backtracking a lot of miles and time.  PRESS ON!!!

Finally, I encountered other humans in vehicles coming from the other direction.  I flagged them down.  Is THIS the way to Banos?  Yes!  'How much further?'  '10 minutes (actually 20)'.    Well, if they made it, I can make it.   So, 10 miles through mud, potholes, crossing riverbeds, rickety 1-lane bridges, skimming areas where the road collapsed and washed away, I finally made it to Banos.  LAWDY LAWDY!!! 

Later, I found out the area I travelled through had been semi-devastated in a volcano eruption which caused all the slides, washouts, and collapsation (is that a word?).

George and Raul rented a newly remodelled apartment for $275 that also included a separate bunkbed with a queen on the bottom and a single on the top.  First time I've seen that!  Their place was smack dab in the middle of the small, walkable town of Banos. 

Banos is known for many things and draws people from all over the world.  It is situated at the base of Tungurahua (toon-goo-ruh-hoo-uh), also known as "The Black Giant," which is the largest volcano in Ecuador and it is ACTIVE!!  Standing at nearly 16,500 feet, it's last eruption was 2011.

Here's what you can do in Banos and the surrounding area:

  • Thermal baths/pools
  • Hiking
  • Zip (Canopy) lines
  • Waterfalls galore
  • Nearby Jungle tours
  • Bike
  • Quad/ATV rentals
  • Horseback riding
  • Rock climbing and Rappelling
  • Whitewater Rafting
  • Kayaking
  • Parasail
  • Spa treatments, massage, facials
  • Clubs/Restaurants

You should be banished if you went to Banos and didn't visit the Hotel Luna Runtun http://www.lunaruntun.com/english/banos_hotel.htm.  3 letters.  OMG.   The day I arrived, George/Raul met lovely 66 year old (which she proudly announces) Elaina, from the Bay area (of USA).  She invited us to come up for dinner at the Luna Runtun.   LR is located 6 kms up a steep winding road and was built on what seems to be nothing more than a side of a cliff.  Check out the swim pools in the photos on their website.  AMAZING.   Sitting at my table next to the floor to ceiling windows of the Cafe Cielo (Sky Cafe), I could look straight down the hillside to Banos, approximately 2,000 feet below.

The next day, Elaina, Raul, George and I headed for one of the many tour agencies in the village.  We hopped on an open-air 'bus' with no doors, no seat belts, the driver promptly turned on loud disco music and colorful dancing lights whirled, signaling we were on a party bus!!  6 of us were underway to an amazing adventure.

I'm always amazed at the incredible amount of manual, intricate work Ecuadorians employ in their construction.   Miles and miles of roads around Banos were built by laying ribbons of brick and rock, not to mention the rock walls that lined the road as barriers between you and the steep ravines.  We travelled through lonnnng tunnels along a windy road following a deep gorge.  There were several stops along our trek...to visit stunning waterfalls, ride in steel baskets across a river gorge with roaring rapids, fly on a zip line, hike, and even have the opportunity to bungee jump (we all opted out).  The 3.5 hour tour cost only $5.  We paid more if we chose to participate in activities at each of the stops.  For example, a 3,000 ft long zip-line ride was $15, the steel basket ride across the river gorge (and back) was $1.50.  I took 90 photos on just this one day!!

I could write about all of this, but the pictures below tell the story so much better than words.  Anyone visiting Ecuador should make Banos a 'must' on their list of things to see and do.  It is a relatively small area packed with so much beauty and adventure!!

Because there are so many photos, I've broken this post into 3 segments.  It's gonna be hard to choose which ones to display and which ones to forego!!!

Oh....by the way...I took the Ambato route home!!!

Enjoy!!

Dano

THIS is the road to Banos?

The road to Banos

The road to Banos....one of the less rickety bridges.

Looking down upon Banos from my table at Luna Runtun's Cafe Cielo restaurant.

The river gorge alongside Banos


Looking down from the bridge that crosses the gorge from the town of Banos.  You can walk across that pedestrian bridge.  I opted not to.  ;-)

Elaina the fearless.

We travelled 4 miles up a huge hill adorned with antennas to see what we could see.  We could see Canada!!!   Ok, not really.  Banos down below.

Farms flank the volcano


George, Elaina, and Raul gaze down at life below.


The Travelocity gnome?

Greenhouses were everywhere and many of them are built on steep slopes like this.  STRANGE!!
Absolutely amazing!

Did I say this was amazing, or what?

6 comments:

  1. Dano,

    What company did you use for your car rental? I will be coming to EC in May or June and all the car rental companies I've found online are much more expensive. Any information will be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you,
    Valerie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Valerie...hope you see this since you didn't give me an email address.

      I used Austral Rent a Car directly across the street from the airport termina. Their email is australrentacar@hotmail.com and phone is 091864864. Maro does not speak any English.

      Delete
    2. Thanks, Dano! :)

      And the pictures from Banos are amazing! Thanks for sharing.

      Valerie

      Delete
    3. Hi Dan,

      I've been waiting to finish all of your posts before commenting (very enlightening!), but I had to ask a question. Do you know if this same car rental company operates near the Guayaquil airport (or a similar operation)? I sent Maro and email but have not heard back yet.

      I have many other questions for you if you're able to take the time to answer them. I had friends that retired to Curia last year and we visited them in December; our next trip is planned for this summer.

      Looking forward to hearing from you!

      scott.bloomquist@gmail.com

      Delete
  2. What was the name of the tour company you used in Banos? Do they have a website? Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It wasn't a traditional tour company that you'd typically envision. There are MANY outlets all around the town of Banos that offer various tours from waterfalls, to riverrafting, horseback, zip-lining, etc. Most of them work together (ie; Place A sells 5 tickets, Place B sells 7 tickets, and all 12 go on the same vehicle that leads the tour. all you have to do is book whatever tour you want, usually the day before....not before making the trip to Banos.

      Delete

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About Me

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Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador
This is all about my transition from an American lifestyle and culture to my newest adventure, life in Cuenca and greater Ecuador. I'll be recapping some of my day-to-day experiences (and mishaps) to highlight what it's like to live here.

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