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Trip Report A Week in Banos

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The opportunity to visit Ecuador came up quickly… I had purchased a time share week and was surfing around the website for available locations. One stipulation was that the accommodation could not be booked further out than two months.

I had been watching the time share website, and repeatedly noticed the usual sun destinations popping up. Then late on a Sunday night, when Ecuador was added to the list, I clicked on the selection which then holds that property for 18 minutes.

Eighteen minutes is hardly long enough to consider the logistics of air travel, research the resort, possible day trips or even if the offered week was a practical one for us both to be away from work but when I Googled the resort – Luna Runtun - an Adventure Spa in Banos three hours from Quito, it seemed like an interesting enough location. At 400 meters above the town, the views looked stunning. People likened it to Sleeping in the Moon.

In an EBAY moment, with seconds to spare, I hit CONFIRM.

I am usually a careful planner, never impulsive. It felt a refreshingly cavalier to be so spontaneous and I went to bed anticipating an adventure in Ecuador.

The very next day I read about the volcano.

Tungurahua. An Orange Alert had been issued. Suddenly it made perfect sense of why the week had become available with such short notice. Tungurahua was blowing off steam only 5 km from Banos. I sent a few emails back and forth with Luna Runtun and also with the time share office. I found out that the volcano has been active since 1999 and while no one was making light of it, there was no ash or apparent danger in the vicinity of Luna Runtun. At least , not yet.

We decided not to alter our travel plans. I looked into transfers to the resort, which is 120km from Quito, discovered that a public bus leaves Quito almost every hour and takes between 3 and 4 hours, depending on how often the bus stopped for passengers in towns along the way. We were well aware of driving challenges in Ecuador, recent car jackings etc, but In the end we decided to rent a car based on our short stay in the country and the convenience having a car would offer.

My brother had traveled to Quito a few times on business and he shared the phone number of a friend in case we ran into trouble. While it was thoughtful , that gesture perhaps increased my sense of unease.

We were able to purchase economy return fares for US $ 840, and all tickets now include the airport departure tax. Our routing was Calgary – Houston - Quito.

Three weeks later we arrived into Quito very late at night and in the immigration line it seemed evident that most people were destined for the Galapagos. There were a lot of zipoff trousers and Tilley hats. An express Immigration line available for elderly people, expectant mothers, families with small children and people with disabilities.

Considering the late hour, we had arranged a transfer to the hotel…. any taxi in the lineup would have been cleaner that the shared ride we took in a dilapidated van, but we arrived to the inn safely.

Hostal de la Rabida.

Came upon this inn when I tried to book into Hostal Santa Barbara ( Thank you Glover) Santa Barbara has been sold but their web site recommends Hostal de la Rabida . We were checked in quickly by the sleepy night desk employee. Our room was tiny but had a few chairs in a private open air setting so we had a breeze into the room. Nice linens and we fell asleep easily. It was a Fri night but not overly noisey at 1 am. The inn seemed just far enough away from Plaza Foch .

Breakfast at the inn – on checkout there was a misunderstanding about whether breakfast was included. Another traveler had mentioned a similar misunderstanding on Tripadvisor so I had made sure I had the email handy. With the email in hand, it was of course no problem. We left our bags and walked around the corner to the Budget office to rent the car.

My husband routinely rents a car for business. In nearly every city he visits, the representative in the rental office waves a magic wand in his direction and then the keys are handed over and he drives away. In Quito the rental agreement was filled out by hand, a $6000 guarantee given on the credit car, explanations of liabilities etc, a process that took 45 minutes. Our Amex Gold card covers car rental insurance world wide, but we confirmed this benefit with Amex prior to our trip. Eventually we were provided with maps and instructions and drove off the property in the brand new white Chevy Spark, with 58 km. We figured out the Una Via, the one ways, picked up our bags from Hostal del la Rabida, headed north toward Mitad del Mundo, and after quite a few kilometers we found ourselves in a town east of Quito.

Normally we are attentive navigators but to make things easy we brought along a GSP system, with the most recent updates available. Naturally, we could not get any satellite coverage anywhere in Ecuador. Early on we discovered that there are few street signs in Quito and the same street changes names every few miles or so. We stopped often to ask directions, then eventually resorted to turning on cellular data and used location services to get us to the Mitad del Mundo. Thank goodness for the IPhone.

I was hoping to be on our way to Banos by 3 pm, but we did not arrive to Latitude Zero until 1:00pm. Parking was $US 1.50. It was amusing to take the corny pictures, get our passports stamped

Equator Sept 22, 2012.

We were one day ahead of the Equinox, the sun was directly over our heads in one of the communities closest to the sun. This is true on account of the bulge of the earth at the equator. We enjoyed the sun dials and ate a leisurely lunch at the Yaravi Restaurant where we sat outside and watched the folk dancing in the central square.

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    Going back through Quito was more difficult as the traffic had increased during the day. Quito is a long narrow city and in order to reduce traffic congestion there are rules in place. On certain days cars bearing licence plates ending in certain numbers are not allowed into the city during rush hour. Luckily our car did not HAVE a licence plate ( it was so new that it was not yet registered) and anyway it was the weekend, so the rules did not apply

    We have had the usual undeserved “tourist” speeding tickets in other countries but speeding tickets in Ecuador are accompanied by an automatic three day in jail visit. Best not to get into an accident either, more jail time until guilt can be determined.

    We followed the signs on the highway to Banos , 3 hours exactly, arriving 45 minutes after sunset . The roads in Ecuador are really great pavement, normally two lanes in each direction.

    We drove up the Luna Runtun, checked in and headed over to the Café del Cielo for a light meal. The view that night was incredible! It would continue to intrigue us for the next 7 days and nights.

    The next morning we wandered around the resort, met Darwin ( one of the managers). I thought it was amusing to meet Darwin in Ecuador….. We decided that Luna Runtun reminded us of a place in Malaysia where we had stayed a long time ago. Ye Olde Smokehouse in the Cameron Highlands.

    It was a bit misty, with lots of terrazzo tiles, tubular flowers for attracting the hummingbirds , and though it was near the equator, it was not tropical. The steep verdant hills of the Andes bordered the town of Banos. It was stunning.

    Sunday was market day and the thermal pools must have been packed judging by the throngs of people heading in that direction. I was struck by the numbers of indigenous people wearing versions of the traditional clothing. We wandered around town, looked at some art galleries, I got a half hour massage. Later and booked some activities at Geo Tours where we met Oscar who I had contacted by email before our trip. There were 2 options for canyoning, but the one we wanted to do, the full day trip, required 4 people. Another fellow in the office at the time signed up, and Oscar agreed to do the trip with 3 of us.

    Spent a quiet evening in the resort hot tubs, with the magical nighttime view of Banos.

    Early the next morning we drove down the hill into Banos, stopping to watch workers lift stripped logs onto the inclines of the mountain just outside Luna Runtun. The workers were bulding a new greenhouse on one of the steepest inclines, to attract the sun for longer periods of the day. Down the hill when we peaked under the plastic walls of the greenhouses we saw mainly tomatoes and papayas.

    After breakfast we rented bikes at Geo Tours ($US 7). Not the prettiest bikes but they were light enough. We had some good options for stopovers on the Waterfall Route Rutas de Las Cascadas, courtesy of our friend Oscar. This is a really cool route as it is mainly downhill. There are several tunnels along the route, but only one that you have to ride through - the others all have a bike path that skirts around the tunnels. The entire route passes several impressive waterfalls and there are a few tarabitas, cable cars that get you up close and personal with the falls for good photo opportunities.

    One unfortunate event happened when we stopped at Brides Veil. This waterfall was formerly a wider as implied by its name. There was a mudslide years back and now the falls are two independent gushers. We decided to take the cable car ($US 1.50) to the other side. My husband hung his backpack on a railing as we were going to lock up our bikes. The cable car operator signaled us to bring our bikes down closer and my husband left the pack FOR MOMENTS. I was looking at the items offered by the artist. When it looked as though we were going to leave and not buy anything or take the cable car, the operator brought out the hidden pack. My husband tipped him a few bucks, and I am tipping the rest of you about this behaviour.

    We bought some things from Camillo the artist. He was using a magnifier to cut out the backgrounds of Ecuadorian coins. My husband said it was a coping saw, used, obviously, to cut out unusual shapes. We bought one coin, an Ecuadorian penny, with cut out shapes of the Americas, incuding the Galapagos and the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. He also gave us a little gift, our initials which he twisted from wire as we stood there chatting. “Cuidado la mochilla”, he said to us as we hopped on our bikes. Take care of your backpack.

    The next major stop was to the Devil Cauldron. It was a big hike down - a lot of stairs. The falls were fierce and there was a lot of spray. We had lunch in the restaurant at the bottom. There is also a view of some crazy rock formations from the suspension bridge near the restaurant. We had a look at the menu but were envious of the corn chowder that one of the staff was eating. We ordered one of their typical white cheese sandwiches and pale fries that we saw a lot in Banos. We were expecting more rice and beans and more yummy dishes with the hominy corn that we saw everywhere in town.


    The hike up from the falls was even more intense. Near the top there is a stand that sells fresh carrot juice. We unlocked our bikes , and went out to the road , keeping in mind that there should be a bus stop where we could catch a ride back to Banos. It was really easy. We hopped in a truck belonging to Carlos and he drove us and our bikes back to Banos. ( $4 each).

    It is possible to continue on the road from Banos to Puyo but most people return to Banos after the Devils Cauldron. The extra ride is 15 km further but there are a few uphills. The rides from Puyo back to Banos are scarcer and cost about $15.

    It was early afternoon when we returned our bikes so we decided to drive to Puyo, just to see what it was all about. In the 61 km drive the vertical drops is 1000 feet, 300 meters. You may need your passport, but we were not stopped at the Immigration check in either direction.


    In Puyo we began searching for the mouth of the Amazon. Maybe it was optimistic , but I had read that you can get a ride in dugout canoes We stopped at three gas stations but no luck.

    Another spot on the possible Puyo itinerary was Las Orchideas, a private garden and as we drove around Puyo we saw a sign.

    I always admired orchids but have a greater appreciation after reading Orchid Fever, in advance of our Borneo trip a few years ago. That was a fascinating book.

    For tours of Las Orchideas, they prefer that you call ahead , but since we were nearby, and it was nearly 4 pm, I dashed up as narrow lane and asked about their closing time. There must have been a lunch function as caters seemed to be clearing some equipment and linens. There was a calm lady seated to the side. She said the garden was still open. This was Lupe, one of the owners.


    Lupe explained that they had been working on the garden for 32 years had moved soil from the Amazon onto parts of their 7 hectares of land and grafted plants and planted trees, sort of an Amazon Rescue Mission.


    First stop was the museum. We could have spent a long time in there. It was like having all your favorite National Geographic photographs displayed on the wall of a community center. Amazon flora and fauna. There were glass cases displaying insects, butterflies. It might have been patterned after the food chain.

    Lupe’s husband Omar, is in the process of assembling a book.

    Pictures inside the museums are not allowed but you can get the idea here:

    \http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ecological_restoration/v028/28.1.bare_img07.html

    There is also a gift shop, articles made from Amazonian vegetation - a few belts, purses, postcards, jewelry.

    I was surprised when we were given a personal tour through a part of the garden. Certainly language communication hampered parts of our understanding but in no way compromised our enjoyment of the garden. Our enthusiastic guide would say the name of the plant, I would repeat it and she would give a little history. If the plant was “comestible”, edible, she would let us taste it or if it was medicinal and she would describe the ailments it would treat. She showed us berries and seeds with bright dyes and she took the time to paint a bracelet using a twig on my wrist - an indigenous design - in a rusty red. Our favorite sightings were the orchids that were barely visible to the naked eye. Lupe brought out a tiny eyeglass, the size of a quarter . She would find tiny dot on a leaf then place the glass up close for us to view. Sometimes it was an awkward position but the colors and detail of the dainty orchids was intriguing.

    We stayed right until it got dark. Of course there were some standing pools of water near the end of the tour and I worried about the malaria mosquitos… when I had looked at the malaria zone before our trip, it included Puyo but not Banos, and though it was not in the plans, here we were in Puyo at dusk. When I asked Lupe about mosquitos , she said sometimes they get them in January. We did not notice any bites.

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    The next day we went Canyoning. Again, that now familiar road winding 6 km down from Luna Runtun. We were scheduled to meet at 9 am at Geo Tours. We had time to park our car at the Central Square ( free) and wander about in hopes of an expresso. We discovered Arome café on a street running parallel to Geo Tours, the one closer to the bus terminal. Wonderful crepes, fluffy pancake, special coffees. We noticed two others Arome’s in Banos but they were more dedicated spice and chocolate shops.

    Our group had blossomed to 7 people for the canyoning trip. Of course my husband and I were much older than the others. We were outfitted with wet suits, canvas runners, helmets, and a diaper-like apparatus for sliding on your bottom. And eventually life jackets.

    There were two canyoning excursions available with Geo Tours and we were all headed for the more scenic outing, the full day trip, which sounded more relaxed with some swimming in natural pools, and a zip line over the falls. The other canyoning trip was more technical, with longer jumps into narrow canyon. It was raining and we hiked in to the first rappel. We had some safety guidance and some instruction on technique and the guides were helpful in clicking the harnesses and hooks. By the time all members of the group were down the short slope, the river was swelling and it was no longer safe. In the interest of our “safety” the guides decided to take us to the more technical canyon. Bless them, there were no sideways glances or hushed conversations about the senior tourists.

    So back in the van, soaked of course from our first rappel. Our guide Jose, gave an introduction as our vehicle bumped up a dirt road. He described a 20 minute hike to the falls that ended up being quite a climb. That scramble nearly did me in. The others galloped up the slope but my asthma and the extra weight of a soaked wetsuit did not do much to improve my confidence about keeping up.

    One of the guides stayed right with my husband and I and we were a few minutes behind the others. We got to the top just as the first ones were rappelling down the waterfall. Good …. no time to reconsider. Besides looking after the technical elements for all of us, the guides carried our cameras in a waterproof pouch.

    There were three jumps. 15, 18 and 25 meters. It was a pretty good thrill and a gorgeous canyon . At the end there were also some smaller falls to slide down, lots of fun and the sun came out so we were able to warm up. Lunch was back in Banos in a little place called the Coffee Lounge - sandwich and hot chocolate - a nice way to end our day chatting with the other travellers in our group, 2 guys motorbiking and camping across South America nearing the end of their six month journey, the male half of an English couple traveling for 6 months, and a German brother and sister exploring Ecuador for a month.


    http://www.geotoursbanios.com/adventure_tours/canyoning-banos-ecuador.html

    Geo Tours reimbursed us the difference between the half day and full day tour, just because of the change in venue… even though out tour ended at nearly three pm, as a full day tour would. We all felt the canyoning was incredible value for $US 30. A similar outing in New Zealand would run upwards of $US 180 according to the lads from New Zealand.


    My recommendation for anyone taking a half day canyoning is to do it in the morning. There was a group going out at 3 pm, just as we were arriving back – they would be pretty chilly by the time they slid down their last falls and would not have the benefit of the warm sun to coax them out of their wetsuits.

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    crellston, Because our accomodation was arranged and we didn't want to spend the entire vacation driving, I planned activities easily accessed from the town. I researched online mainly, looking up things to do near Banos, then found the names of a few tour companies and emailed them. Another resource was the list of activities offered by Luna Runtun - our Adventure Spa - which we altered to fit our own schedule and preferences and of course our own pocketbook. Tours through the hotel were double to quadruple what the same activity would be if you booked on your own.

    The English couple were pleased with the Rough Guide. The Quito hostal where they stayed is Community Hostal, in the Old Town. Not impressive from the exterior but very welcoming and really comfortable inside.

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    Finally we had a day to sleep in. We spent some time shopping for alpaca ponchos and sweaters, soccer shirts, and finger puppets. I tried a plastic baggy of hominy corn from one of the street vendors. We watched long lengths of taffy being pulled and yanked and rolled into various shapes. Who eats all that candy? There are stalls and stalls, one after another selling identical goods, a lot of it edible, if you like sweets. There were all models of dogs, all loved.

    We visited the Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water, lit some candles in the spirit of friends remembered and followed up with a tour of the cemetery. This reminds me of when Oscar gave directions on our day with the bikes…. he told us to walk our bikes past the Church. Its nice to be given the opportunity to behave respectfully.

    Later we had some spa treatments back at the hotel and dined at Casa Hood where there are free movies at the restaurant every day for people looking for a diversion.

    The next day we drove to a village called Pillaro for the market. It’s a big market and seems to be a permanent structure and stalls. Getting there was another feat of elevation changes on great roads. On the way home we stopped at an Indian market in the town just before Banos. There were masses of color, folded shawls, hats, sweaters, knitted toys. The industrious ladies were spinning yarn even as they spoke to us in the long line of stalls. In one of the stores and we found some tablecloths and blankets but there was no one tending the shop. The owners of adjacent stores tried to help us but were hestitant to give prices so in the end we were unable to spend our money.

    All this time in Banos, we had forgotten about Tungurhua! Then as we were driving into town from the markets, the cloud lifted and we got some nice shots of the top of the volcano. There was lot of snow!

    Our impression of Banos was that it is completely safe. Only on that first Sunday market in Banos day did we pay for parking ($US1). The other times we angle parked near the square or on a side street. There are a few Spanish schools in Banos and some comfortable places to hang out in the evening.

    In order to “beat the traffic” we left our hilltop room at 4:30 am, and were on the road to Quito. Just in time for the markets, which must open at 5 am. It’s chilly at that hour, at that elevation and the indigenous people were bundled up carrying children in slings and leading animals on leashes. The highway was busier than expected and of course we got lost once we arrived in Quito. Eventually we found our way to the Harley Davidson store to pick up souveniers. The price of t-shirts was more than double what you would pay in other Harley stores. ($US 68) Ecuador has a 110% tax on clothing.

    We were able to check in early to Hotel Sebastian.(10 am) It’s in a handy location in the Mariscal district, an old hotel with old customs. There was a bouquet of 100 roses in the lobby, roses on the grand piano, tiny old fashioned elevators and the wood was dark and rich. The car return was close by and took about 15 minutes. We were free to cab to the Historical District, where we wandered around for a few hours. It was bustling and hilly with dogs dressed up in costumes and families eating pink meringue cones with candy sprinkles. Afterwards we got an early dinner and settled down in the room for an early night. It was less noisy than expected and we got some rest before our 3:30 wakeup call. Only 15 minutes to the airport. ($US 8).

    As we lifted off, I was thinking about the English translations of the places we visited in Ecuador.

    Quito - how in Spanish, the verb “quitar”, requires Something else to remove it from Somewhere. Quito. Maybe reputations, maybe expectations.

    And Banos. Where are they? the banos? Now for us, Banos, new memories, cascading like the falls.

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    What a great spontaneous adventure you had Rivet! Sorry Hostal Santa Barbara was booked in Quito. Hope we'll make it to Banos some day - sounds very interesting. Thanks for the recommended book on orchids, might check that out.

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    Good to hear from you glover! Where are you off to this winter? Sadly Hostal Santa Barbara has been sold. On their website, they gave the recommendation for Hostal de la Rabida, where we stayed for our first night in Quito. They were unable to accomodate us for our next overnight, but were a great help in booking Hotel San Sebastian for us.

    Kathie from the Asia forum had suggested Orchid Fever in one of her posts. My daughter read it also and enjoyed it.

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