Keeping with the theme of early bus trips we set off once more from the lush surroundings of Mindo (sad face) winding through the mountains, passing back through Quito. Heading south to the central highlands where we would find our next destination huddled on the side of the active volcano Turungaua, the land of natural thermal baths. The town of Baňos, also the Spanish word for bathroom. We were both looking forward to a soaking as our leg muscles still ached from the hikes through the cloud forests. Emmily’s legs were also a constant itch with the many red poka dot markings bearing witness to the bug feast she had provided in Mindo.
Outside the autobus window, mountains and valleys changed from being covered in forest to being crowded in concrete buildings, then turning into a quilted pattern of rectangular farmland. The highway swept along cliffs surrounded by volcanoes, curving alongside the torrent of a river and carving its way through tunnels in the rock. Finally we pulled into town and began the walk to our chosen hostal, an art gallery and hostal in one. Beautiful and colourful paintings covered the walls, sculptures made of ceramic and wood carved or twisted into fantastical human figures, weavings and antiques. It costed a little more than we thought but the art was fantastic so we decided to stay one night.
The day was already in its tardes state so we went for an exploration around the town. Baňos is a built up little town, a popular tourist destination for both gringos and South Americans. It is believed by the locals that the virgin saint came to wash her feet in the hot springs of Baňos and now they are blessed. Every street has taffy being made by men throwing the sticky goo over a hook made of wood, kneading it till it’s just right and often giving out free samples to passers by. Sugar cane poles are stacked and chopped in large quantities on every street, producing freshly squeezed juice and the substance for the mounds of sweets (and rum) sold around the area. Of course a market was set up for all your trinket needs and for something a little larger you can visit one or more of the many souvenir shops. Tour operators are also ubiquitous, selling you your ultimate adventure, from volcano and waterfall tours, bungy jumping, rafting, spiritual sites, the renting of bikes and motor cart buggies as well as much much more.
After walking back to the hostal from dinner we spotted a blaze of coloured lights upon the hill. Making our way through the maze of cane stalls we stumbled upon a fairground, set beside and in contrast to the hillside with a waterfall and the thermal baths of the Virgin. After a quick peruse we settled on a Viking ship and joined in with the belly jumping, swinging, screaming (the women behind us hilariously vocal) fun. Perhaps it was just the altitude, but the simplistic ride was unusually intense. Followed by a few games of Foos ball, one of which was played with a little boy who was watching us intently, his eyes yearning to play.
That night was a nightmare, well actually we wish it was because that would mean we were asleep. Dotahn was in terrible and increasing pain, constantly getting up, pacing and generally keeping Emmily awake. We had gotten pain killers, but they were far from sufficient. We decided that the next day we would go to see a doctor to try and procure stronger painkillers. Dotahn was still convinced that the pain was due to the movement of a wisdom tooth.
The next morning we packed up and in a sleepy irritable haze we made our way to Hostal Transylvania, run by a Israeli man, an Ecuadorian woman and their family. We had emailed them the night before and upon seeing Dotahn’s name they wrote back to us in Hebrew asking if we wanted to join them for Seder the night of our arrival. Dot wrote back explaining that he was Australian with Israeli heritage and that he could not speak Hebrew but that we would love to participate in the festivities.
When we arrived a warm welcome was awaiting us as well as many furry, fluffy and feathery animals. They have a dog, cat, bunny, two rats and three buggies. After settling in our room we asked where we could find an English speaking doctor. They proceeded to organise the whole thing for us and within minutes we where in a cab to the local hospital. The hospital was a sparse, white building with a simple, albeit large, waiting room and what looked to be two consulting rooms. Clean, but seemingly small for the size of the town considering the influx of tourists on a weekly basis. The doctor spoke very good English and was most helpful. He declined our request for painkillers, saying that Dotahn had a well established infection in one of his rear teeth. He prescribed a small course of antibiotics and some anti-inflammatory medication for the swelling. He proceeded to call around town to find a dentist which had at least a minor grasp of English and organised an appointment for Dotahn that afternoon.
(The bunny liked to hop up the stairs and hide on the roof above the garden)
After a painful and grumpy almuerzos we headed to the dentist, a building crowned with a large smiling tooth. The dentist was very accommodating although we soon realised that he couldn’t speak English. He was, however, very good at speaking clearly and with easy to understand accompanying gestures. With one look in Dotahns mouth he shook his head and said “out” He even pulled out a model of the human jaw to explain that he was going to pull out the offending tooth and that it was an unnecessary addition to Dotahn’s mouth. Within five minutes he had ripped the shell of a tooth from Dotahn’s jaw, if you can call what was left a tooth. It didn’t take medical training to see that the infection was bad and the tooth beyond salvation. It looked disgusting. Fifteen minutes and $30 later the long standing pain had receded and Dotahn was once again a travelling companion, rather than a grouchy and irritating appendage.
With the rest of the afternoon we walked around so that Emmily could take photos of the graffiti she had seen around the area, once again thrilled by the diverse and awesome talent of Ecuador. We returned to our room and Dotahn collapse on the bed with Don Quixote for a well earned rest whilst Emm went onto the roof to better hear a group of kids practising in their band in a building across the way and take photos. Climbing the stairs I hear a quite “hello” and turn around to see a man sitting listening to what I would latter find out to be an audio book. We began talking, asking all the usual traveller questions. “Were are you from, how long have you been travelling etc” I stumbled over the pronunciation of his name. The Australian accent doesn’t use the letter R that much which makes the name Nir sound like Neil. He is Israeli as was most of the travellers at the hostal, and was travelling alone before the birth of his first child. The conversation moved and flowed easily, crossing over with similar life observations and sharing our views on our home countries. He strongly suggested that Tahn and I ride mountain bikes to the waterfalls just outside of Baňos.
It was Emmily’s first Passover and we were very lucky to have Nir sitting beside us translating as the ceremony moved forth. A young man from Denmark sat with us as well and was also interested in the proceedings. For those of you who don’t know the background to the celebration of Passover it is the biggest night of the Jewish calender. It is the commemoration of the Jews liberation from slavery in Egypt and each year the story is read in full with a traditional feast to follow. Although difficult because of the lack of ingredients available in Ecuador the dinner was delicious. Songs were sung, the matzot was passed around and the wine flowed freely. Although we only spent an evening with Nir we got along very well and agreed to try and meet in Israel. The night grew long as we sat chatting with a few of the travellers, the owner of Transylvania also joined us and the conversation moved to world politics as so often happens. We love hearing new perspective and gaining a wider world view.
The next morning was sunny and inviting and we headed to a small shop around the corner from the hostal to rent bikes for the day. With sandwiches packed and the wind on our backs we hit the road, pedalling lazily on the road to Puyo. Sweeping cliffs high above the river slipped rapidly by as we coasted downhill towards the first of many waterfalls. The first tunnel was a little frightening as it was dark and open to traffic, but with that behind us the path ran away from the road and hugged the cliffs. The cobbled pathway led us across bridges and through small villages lining the tourist trail. We pedaled past the first waterfall and stopped at the second to ride the tarabita down to the riverbed. Unfortunately the waterfall was small and led to a ruin of sand and the refuse of a building long gone. We paused only briefly before gladly coasting down further along the Rio Pastaza Canyon. After a brief pause for a picnic lunch we biked the rest of the 26km to the fourth and final falls, the Pailon del Diablo.
The walk down to the falls was lush with vegetation and filled with the roar of the impending view. We climbed our way back up a small incline to a suspension bridge affording us a wide view of the river and the falls. From their a staircase led to a restaurant where we paused for a coffee which never came. Hawks circled the canyon and a large group of German tourists marvelled at the views. From the platform of the restaurant we paid a small fee to ascend closer to the falls. A series of viewing points had been built into the cliff allowing you to get up close to the roaring water. The Pailon del Diablo were powerful falls, the pressure of the falling water could be felt like a presence in the air. By climbing through a small gap and crawling through a tunnel we emerged a hair’s breadth from the torrent. A small climb further and we were standing behind the waterfall, a dense spray pelting our faces. It was exhilarating and beautiful.
Making our way back to our bikes the clouds began to gather, forming an army in the sky. It was not long before their shells began to fall, the rain trying to imitate the falls. We flagged down a camioneta (a ute, luckily covered with a canopy) and sat huddled with our bikes strapped in. The driver waited until the back was full to bursting with bodies and bikes and we drove back into town. After a quick sojourn home to gather towels we decided to ride in the rain to the thermal springs outside of town. Unfortunately we failed to check the opening times or the distance and we arrived wet through, shivering and tired from the climb. With only half an hour remaining we turned our tails and coasted through the thickening rain to return our bikes and thaw in the warm water of the hostal shower.
Dried and warmed we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner in the local Swiss restaurant. Dressed up with the rain subsiding we perused the menu with excitement and ordered wine and meat fondue for two. A bubbling cauldron of oil was placed between us with tongs for the frying of a large plate of tender, fresh beef which promptly arrived. A large and delicious salad, the most delicious potato rosti we had ever encountered and four saliva inducing sauces made the meal an evening to remember.
On our last day in Baňos we decided that we had finally earned a long soak in the thermal baths. We headed into town accompanied by a light drizzle and quickly settled into the hottest of the baths. Kept at a constant temperature with a flow directly from the volcano, the baths were perfect in the rain. When our blood began to boil we would jump out and dash under the freezing cold falls then race back into the hot springs for another thorough soaking. The warmth and minerals washing away our aches and sorrows. After sufficient pruning of the skin we headed out for a simple Italian dinner. Pizza and surprisingly excellent lasagna. On our way home we spied a bar which seemed severely out of place amongst the small concrete shops and dark drinking holes. Impeccably detailed, with silver trimmings, a DJ and beautiful Nargeela’s, (hookahs/sheeshas) the bar was excellent. A couple of well mixed drinks later and a delicious choc-mint smoke billowing us into a happy and relaxed state, ready for the next adventure ahead.