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Biking, Battered, and Bruised in Banos

Banos is a small tourist town in the mountains of central Ecuador. It is also the adventure capital of the country. This is where most of Ecuador comes to play. Banos has zip lining, rafting, canyoning, mountain biking, and hiking, but most importantly it is known for its thermal springs and spas. Religious pilgrims came to the area because of the healing powers of the waters. In fact, the full name of the town is Banos de Agua Santa (Holy Water Baths).

Banos has the feel of a beach town or an island community. There are lots of tourists mixing with locals, lots of bars and restaurants, backpackers and hippies. There seemed to be as many hotels and hostels as there are houses and apartments. The weekend was loud and lively.

We checked into the Hostal Casa Real which also advertises itself as a spa. Christian greeted us and checked us into a room with the city's waterfall right off our balcony (our balcony in the above picture) he also provided us with a map and an overview of all of the activities in the area. There was hiking all around the area and the hostal even had bicycles for the use of its guests. We decided to explore the town and get something to eat, although we skipped the grilled guinea pig. We reserved the bicycles for the next morning.

Christian assured us that the town was completely safe to walk at an hour of the day or night. He also provided us with a list of good restaurants. After a nice meal we decided to skip the nightlife, which seemed to be mostly young backpackers drinking beers and shots, and instead get some rest and save our energy for biking.

We woke up, had a good breakfast, and were ready for biking. Christian told us the route that we should take and pointed us in the right direction.

“The route is about twenty-five kilometers. You will go through a tunnel and pass several waterfalls and lots of activities like zip lining and bungee jumping. It ends at the Pailon del Diablo, The Devil’s Cauldron, a massive waterfall with trails and hiking up to and behind the waterfall” he said.

Twenty-five kilometers downhill on a bike sounded like a great bike ride. But, did that mean twenty-five kilometers uphill for the ride back?

“Don’t worry” said Christian. “There are trucks that will load your bike and drive you back to town if you don’t want to bike uphill. The cost is two dollars.”

Sign me up! I would pay twenty dollars not to have to bike twenty-five kilometers uphill!

We took off and Christian was right, it was downhill. We quickly built up speed and were soon zooming through the town towards the waterfalls.

As soon as we were out of the town we reached the intersection of a busy highway. Cars and large trucks were speeding by. The only downhill route was on the highway. Christian had not mentioned that the biking would be on a busy highway with no bike path. We would be riding on the highway with the traffic.

We waited and soon saw others bikers riding with the traffic. Because of the downhill course, the bikes were traveling at about the same speed as the cars and trucks. We merged in and were soon on our way.

Soon we reached the first waterfall. Sure enough there were zip lines across the canyon and hiking trails down to the river below. Other bikers had stopped to watch the activities and some even decided to participate. We decided to skip the zip lines since we had done this in Colombia through the coffee plantations. To our pleasant surprise we met some friends that we had met while hiking the Quilatoa loop. The world can be a small place.

We continued biking downhill for the next few hours, stopping at various waterfalls and various attractions. We watched bungee jumpers, zip liners, cable cars, and even a ball like contraption that flipped and rolled while suspended above the canyon.

After a while, we finally arrived at the Pailon del Diablo. The trail to the waterfall is actually located in a small roadside town. There were restaurants, shops, and local villagers selling goods and treats along the street.

We locked our bikes and walked to the trail which was immaculately maintained. It was paved and landscaped with amazing plants and flowers lining the way. After walking for about a kilometer downhill we could hear the waterfall. The trail became a staircase and we descended even further. The roar of the falls became deafening. Mist filled the air around us. Soon we could see the massive column of water plunging from high above onto the rocks below. It was easy to understand why the locals named this The Devil’s Cauldron.

I hiked to the bottom of the stairs in order to get as close to the falls as possible. Jennifer remained at the top of the stairs in order to take photos. I noticed the tunnel that led directly behind the falling water. It was small and low. I would have to crawl to get there. I noticed a few others making their way back behind the falls. I decided to try it.

After a few minutes I emerged from the tunnel and was rewarded with an upclose experience directly behind the falls. By that time I was soaked but excited. The crawl was worth it.

I made my way back through the tunnel and I found Jennifer, clean and dry, sitting at a table at a restaurant overlooking the massive waterfall. We ordered a late lunch and rested from the day’s activities. We stayed long enough for me to dry off before heading back up the trail.

At the top, we quickly found a truck willing to load our bikes and drive us back to town. We joined some young Ecuadorian doctors who were enjoying a weekend off for the ride back to town. All in all, it was a great way to spend a day in Banos.

This is Jen. I had a completely different Banos experience than Ol. I have never been so battered and bruised. When I woke up and looked in the mirror, I was literally battered and bruised. I had black bruises down my legs, and arms, but the ones on my back were the size of soft balls. I could hardly move. I felt like I got my a@$ kicked.

No, it wasn’t from the wonderful 25K bike ride, or the lovely hikes we took, it was from a little 4 feet 8 massage therapist! At first I thought that she was just rubbing me this way to warm up my muscles, surely the massage will start soon. She will start kneading into the knots that now comprise my shoulders and I will soon be in heaven. Nope, it never got any better. The fast rubbing that literally took my skin off was the best part!

Pretty soon I felt like this massage was out of one of the Asian Amazing Race Challenges when they have to get a massage. They scream, they sweat and they swear. Then I thought no, this is like out of one of the Pink Panther movies. It was karate chops and slaps and then occasionally she would press on me and jump up and down. If this was the only massage I had ever received it would be my last. I ended it thirty minutes early. I knew these Ecuadorian women were tough. You can see them carrying twice the load as the men and at least one child on their back at the same time. I felt this massage was more dangerous than a few of the hikes we have been on!

Later in the day, Ol and I stopped at charming La Casa Hotel Amarilla for some water and the view of the city as we were hiking up to the Virgin del Agua Santa. We visited with the lovely owner who is from Switzerland. She has been living in Ecuador for several years with her husband and small child. She told me that yes, the guides are licensed, the hostels are licensed, but anyone can call themselves a massage therapist! So, no wonder there were bruises on my body and “spas” on every corner.

I had a case of garden envy after she graciously showed us her beautiful garden. We then hiked up and over to the Virgin, where we discovered that it may be the place where young people go after school to no longer be virgins. We accidentally surprised a few young couples by coming from the opposite direction. Embarrassing!

We enjoyed Banos. It felt like a holiday within a holiday, if I blacked out my massage “assault”. We decided we could only afford to spend 3 days in Banos after we were standing on a street corner where they had signs pointing in all different directions to different places in the world. Chicago, Switzerland, Australia, etc. We discovered that Chicago was 4,900 km and Santiago, Chile was 4,968 km away! Our jaws dropped! We only had three weeks to meet Liv and Ollie there. We still had another week in Ecuador planned and we haven’t been to Peru or Bolivia yet. Where has the time gone!

We took a cab to the end of the world swing just as it was closing for weather. That night we booked our train tickets for the Nadiz del Diablo and a few nights in Cuenca. We also booked our Machu Picchu hike. All of a sudden we find ourselves in tourist mode. We have obviously mastered slow travel!

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