Take four bikes at $6 each, a map of the Ruta de las Cascadas (route of the waterfalls) and four solo travellers, new to each other. Group together and have a bit of a random day.
Cycling away from Baños, the first half hour stretch took us along a busy road, which, although surrounded by mountains and clouds, was in itself a pretty ugly and dangerous start to the ride. Heavy trucks overtook us, we overtook other bikes, the smell and heat of tarmac wafting upwards. The first tunnel was unavoidable and I peddled hard to get to the light on the other side as quickly as possible. Things then started to improve with a series of pretty pathways created for walkers and cyclists, snaking around the side of the mountain to avoid further tunnels. There were plenty of opportinities for stop offs with views across deep canyons and towards tall, gushing waterfalls. Along the way there was the option to do a superman zip lining experience, chances to cable car it across the canyon, and then there was a random guy on a random bridge with a rope. We had arrived at Rio Blanco.
Puenting is considered an ‘extreme sport’ and is Ecuador’s version of bungee jumping. Whilst both bungee and puenting have the free fall experience, at the end in bungee you bounce, in puenting you swing.
I had always vowed never to do anything like it. I hated the idea. I was worried that my retinas would detach from my eyes. But Dave, one of the guys on the cycle ride, decided to give it a go. And then I thought, why not? So we bargained with José of José & Two Dogs (not sure where the dogs were, or who they were) and managed to get three of us doing the high jump for $10 each. I hoped my travel insurance covered me.
Only when I climbed onto the side of the bridge and looked down at the jagged rocks and trickle of a river below did my legs start to go, and I bottled the first countdown. Taking a massive, massive breath, I went for it, and wow, the free fall is like nothing I can describe. For a split moment, you are free. And then the rope kicks in and you whiplash a bit and then swing and swing and smile and smile because you dared do something you never imagined possible.
Adrenaline rush over, we cycled on a little further until we arrived at Rio Verde where we turned off the road to get to Pailón del Diablo, one of the most famous waterfalls of the area. Walking with our bikes down a cobbled pathway, we came across Antonio, a small framed ‘citizen of the world’ (of Italian descent but well-travelled and unhappy to be pinned down). Shaking our hands he gave us an extended overview of the place, with a philosophy lesson thrown in for free. We were invited to view his paintings en route to the waterfall viewing platforms, but what I saw I found disturbing and bizaare, – scary devils and dream scenes that reminded me of why I can’t stomach Dali.
He had, however, done an amazing landscaping job to create a lovely little walk that was full of flowers and organised vegetation and steps and pathways and benches to sit and catch ones breath. The stone circle fire pit towards the end of the walk was too much for a couple of my companions who imagined Antonio doing some spiritual dance at the end of the day. I liked it. Fire pits take me to a happy place.
This little deviation from the main route, we realised, was in fact the wrong one (or alternative one) to the Pailón del Diablo but I felt consoled that the $1 entry fee may go a little way towards the $1 billion (and 25 years) that Antonio predicted he needed to complete his work here. ‘Live and experience new things with an open heart’, he had told us. This had indeed been an experience, and one that I’m sure was more interesting than the official pathway to the waterfall.
So on day one, I got to sample both the spectacle and adrenaline of Baños. This whole region of Ecuador is really geared up for outdoor activities but Baños is predominantly about the hot springs and the sixty or so waterfalls, which, even if you tried, you really can’t miss. In fact, from my room (No. 10) in Hostal Transilvania the view out of the window is of some rooftops, the spires of the Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water (Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa) and a waterfall spewing out of the sudden mountain straight ahead. Glad to have found this place and this hostel.
See Tourist2Townie for some visual highlights of Baños.