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Baños – Some fresh air and sunshine in the Central Highlands

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Banos bus funSlowly moving our way back North up the Andes towards Quito we decided to spend a couple of days in the popular town of Baños (de Agua Santa) to see what all the fuss is about.  Leaving from Alausí we took a bus to Riobamba, then another to Ambato, where we then tracked down another bus taking us on to Baños itself. A note on Ecuadorean buses if I may.  They are pretty comfortable and cheap, and when out of the city centre have a relatively good seat-to-person ratio going on.  But my god, every bus, and I mean EVERY bus, the ONE person who doesn’t have a seat, perches themselves next to me.  There is a whole aisle-worth of people’s personal space to encroach upon, but oh no, “let’s go and wake up that güero who has just tried to get to sleep for three hours by sitting on his arm rest and trying to share the head rest.”  I swear I went through an entire bus journey the other day where the elderly female passenger behind me felt the need to claim ownership of my headrest by putting her hand where my head wasn’t.  Obviously when I decided to move my head on the odd occasion, this became an irritation and the need for some angry stares from both of us. She had those scary eye’s, so I put up with some hair stroking for a couple of hours in the end.

Baños Cathedral

Baños Cathedral

Baños is the place to go if you like the idea of lying around in naturally heated thermal pools, mountain biking, rafting and various other outdoor activities.  It is set at 1800m and in the presence of the ominously near, yet hard to spot Volcan Tungurahua.  It last erupted in February this year!  The town itself is not a colonial gem by any means, but it is pleasant enough and has a couple of green squares (maybe one’s a park, I’m not sure) with a varying selection of restaurants catering to both locals and tourists.  Anywhere you find a micro-brewery; you know you’re going to find plenty of gringos.  Hostal Timara, owned and run by an Ecuadorean family that includes a Brit by marriage, was a great place to stay, for $7 a night each with hot showers, comfy beds and good kitchen.  We look for nothing much more these days…but the addition of a nice British chat about things such as the weather was just the tonic.

Taxo fruit - Pretty weird looking, but quite tasty in a passion fruit kinda' way

Taxo fruit – Pretty weird looking, but quite tasty in a passion fruit kinda’ way

What we really wanted to do there was to get out and hike the hills around the town as we were feeling a bit twitchy after being cooped up for a week.  Luckily, the weather was fine and the walking was free so up into the hills we went for the day.  One block south of the hostal entrance the path lead out of town and into a steep 45 minute climb towards the easterly look-out point of the ‘Bellavista Cross’, which gives you some stunning views of the town and the surrounding hills.  Only a short walk out and it suddenly feels like you are miles away!  Heading uphill but in a westerly direction we headed for the small town of Runtún, which took us along a variety of paths from empty roads to overgrown canopy covered muddy paths.  Arriving at Runtún, we found little there apart from a pack of aggressively vociferous dogs that succeeded in chasing us out.  We realised quickly that we didn’t know where we were or where we were going, but soon came across a local farmer who gave us directions and a strange juicy fruit called a babaco for the road (tastes a bit like tropical squash drink really).  Back on track, we wound round the hills of Baños in a westerly direction until we came to the holy (and pretty knackered looking) statue of ‘The Virgin’, which has some more choice views of the town.  A spot of lunch up top saw us right and we made the descent down the flight of 600-odd concrete steps to town below.

At the western edge of the town, we find the cemetery and decide to have a respectful mooch around before hitting the beers.  As you walk in, you are surrounded by rows of mausoleums, some full, some not, some grand, some humble, but all side by side and decorated in personal styles.  There are larger apartment like blocks for various working unions as well as family units. It’s clearly a close-knit place as the majority of (former?) inhabitants seem to be named Guevara. Individuality and freedom of design (to a certain extent) is clearly allowed here, with some interesting structures on show.

What is one thing that all travelers should do on a visit to Baños?  Visit the thermal pools of course!  We did not though.  Mainly because we were there at the weekend, and on attempting to visit on a Saturday afternoon found them heaving with Ecuadoran families.  The places were literally bursting at the seams with half-cut adults and excited children.  Not the relaxing spa experience I envisioned.  The next day, it rained, so we skipped it.  There will be other pools along the way I’m sure!

Sugar cane toffee called Melcocha is for sale at every turn in town in Banos

Sugar cane toffee called Melcocha is for sale at every turn in town in Banos

It would have been nice to stay longer and mountain bike down to Puyo but we had to head back to Quito for a medical appointment.  Nothing serious, just some physicals for visa purposes for one the countries on our hit list.  We stayed in the Old town area around San Blas again, but this time in ‘Colonial House’ which I would recommend over our previous choice.  It’s cheaper, comfier and quieter at night, with a kitchen!

Back in Quito!

Back in Quito!

What we did take advantage of while we were back in the big city, was to visit the IGM offices (Instituto Geográfico Militar) where you can get printed maps of any area of the country for about $3.50 each. Of course, if you want access to any sensitive areas, you may be asked some questions by the nice teenagers with automatic weapons and camouflage, but for our purposes, we got a couple for the Quilotoa Loop no probs.  (Les, couldn’t help think that this is somewhere you would have loved!)  After being given a clean bill of health by Dr Sosa and his radiologist sidekick we celebrated the only way we know how these days, with pizza and wine. 

Next stop, further south again…to tackle the Quilotoa Loop for a week.

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