We arrived in Baños in the early evening, and were immediately hounded by a man selling us tours, as per. This town is overrun with tour companies, so as ever, I would suggest you don’t just go with the first deal put under your nose. Feeling really rather peckish, we looked around town for somewhere to grab dinner, and recognised The Stray Dog pub/bar which is mentioned in the Lonely Planet book. I normally try to avoid these places as they’re full of typical traveller plebs, and I’m literally all about tasting the local cuisine. But sometimes when you’ve been on the road for countless weeks you just want a little taste of home, guaranteed good food and something with a certified recommendation behind it. Luckily, it deserved it’s high acclaim and we were not disappointed. Although they messed the order up, we were served scrumptious burgers and skin-on chips to die for. It’s also worth trying their coleslaw side; it’s ginormous, but fresh, light and super tasty. Everything for $9 dollars isn’t too bad either.
With very full and content bellies, we had a lovely lie-in the next day, which was desperately needed as my intense cough was keeping me (and probably every one else) awake for most of the night. In the early afternoon we met up with Emma – Amy’s friend from home – and her travelling companion Natalie. We planned to take a chilled trip to the thermal baths, but upon arriving found it was closed between 4pm and 6pm. We killed an hour by exploring the town and briefly watching bungy jumps from the central bridge (absolutely no way in hell you’d catch me doing that), also sampling some of the sugar cane taffy along the way. Entrance to the baths is $1.50 plus a 50 cent charge to rent a fetching compulsory swimming hat – a requirement that I’m pretty sure is in place just to make an extra bit of cash and make us look like fools. Still, we donned them with pride, standing out even more than usual and looking like real British idiots. It was pretty busy, and nowhere near as picturesque as the one we went to in Machu Picchu, but I really do love a good bath so I was more than happy to relax there for a bit.
Whilst in Baños, we stayed at Plantas y Blanco hostel, which cost us $10 per night and was perfectly pleasant. As well as a nice roof terrace, it has a quirky ‘no shoes’, sitting on the floor and lots of burning incense style restaurant, where we were invited to have a free drink with our stay. We decided to eat there on our second night with Emma and Natalie, and the food was as godly and divine as the restaurant seemed to be itself.
The next day we got up a bit earlier and headed to another restaurant (see where this is going?) just a stones throw from the hostel, run by a rather proud and pushy Dutch lady. The breakfast cost $9 – about triple what we had paid for breakfast the day before. It was nice, and they didn’t scrimp on portion size, but I’m not sure I’d return in a hurry, nor recommend it. We waddled to MTS Adventure and rented mountain bikes for $5 each, and totally ignoring TLC’s advice, went chasing waterfalls. We cycled the Ruta de Cascadas which is 18km long, spotting waterfalls and canopy companies along the way. The main attraction is Pailon del Diablo or Devils Cauldron. Most bike companies should give you a map of the route, which is almost entirely along a main road, except for a few off-road cycle paths to avoid the traffic within tunnels. All the information available online states that the route is mostly downhill, but I’d argue that’s not entirely true. I sort of feel like once you’ve seen one waterfall you’ve seen them all, but something about Pailon del Diablo’s grandeur and unbelievable power really impressed me. The walk up to the waterfall is rather strenuous, especially with tired legs, but the delicate rainbow over the bellowing falls, and the spray on your face certainly makes it all worth it.
Afterwards, we got a truck from the entrance of Pailon Del Diablo back to town, costing $2 if I remember correctly. We returned the bikes, got changed quickly and took the 1$ bus to Casa del Arbol, or otherwise known as ‘the swing at the end of the world’. We got the 4pm bus, which I believe may be the last of the day. It’s then another dollar to access the site, and another dollar for the last bus back at 6pm; so not exactly a break-the-bank kind of activity.
Of course, we’re English and everywhere we go, the crappy weather comes with us. If you’ve read any other of my blog posts you’ll know that we’ve mostly experienced rain or heavy cloud, especially when visiting particularly special places like Machu Picchu. So just our luck, the stunning view was encompassed by thick white cloud. It cleared a tad while we were there and we got a couple of the cliché photos, but it’s worth googling it so you can see the real magic of the place! I’m a big-kid at heart with a particular passion for swings, so I was pretty stoked just for a bit of playtime, view or no view. The one benefit was it wasn’t too busy, and we only had very short queues to get on the swings.
Absolutely ravenous once again, we found ourselves back at The Stray Dog, introducing Emma and Natalie to its culinary delights. I definitely need to ditch the overeating, unhealthy eating and eating out habit that I acquired in Ecuador or I’ll be landing in South East Asia with empty pockets and a spare tyre!
The next morning Emma, Amy and I headed back to MTS Adventures at 9am to go canyoning. After kitting us out in super sexy wet suits and cheap Shoe-Zone style plimsoles (don’t lie, we all had them), we drove about 15 minutes out of town, and then climbed another 15 minutes to the top of a large hill. Canyoning is abseiling (and jumping) down waterfalls and it was insanely good fun. Easily one of my favourite activities yet, and at only $20 for a half day, it was worth every single penny. We descended through five waterfalls, completely astounded by the stunning rainforest on the way. The sand at the bottom of the rock pools was also sparkling gold – literally like it had gold leaf in it – which just added to its majestic beauty. Our guide was fantastic and basically Ecuador’s answer to Spider-Man. One of the waterfalls was a towering and completely vertical drop, and like it was no big deal he chucked the ropes over his shoulders and essentially sprinted down in less than two seconds. I mean seriously, I can barely run down a flight of stairs without tumbling face first, let alone a slippery vertical rock face. The whole experience was like no other, and without meaning to sound super cringe, I had a real sense of achievement at the bottom!
Just days before, the local Volcano had started erupting, and we had been shown some incredible photos that locals and travellers had taken. We desperately hoped we might get to view it, but guess what ruined our fun? Clouds. Located in central Ecuador, between the Andes mountains and the Ecuadorian Amazon, Baños is another sitting amongst sheer and lust green mountains. It is a strange little town that I couldn’t figure out if I liked or not; the multitude of adventure activities on offer in the surrounding regions is definitely it’s selling point, and probably the main reason to make this a stopping point on your travels.
We headed to Cafe Hood for lunch, as it had a mention in the Lonely Planet and at the time of writing was #4 on trip advisor. The menu is a relatively bizarre mish-mash of dishes including vegetarian, Mexican and pasta. The food was more than edible, but definitely not something I would write home about or urge anyone to visit. For pudding and coffee we popped into the cutest little coffee shop called Honey Coffee & Tea on the main square (v. close to The Stray Dog) where I had a Oreo and passion fruit cheesecake that was as glorious as it sounds/looks. We headed to the bus station in the early evening and managed to immediately jump onto a bus to Quito for $4 and 25 cent.
There are 2 bus stations in Quito – in the North and South – and we arrived in the modern and new Terminal Quitumbe located at the Southern end of Quito. This bus station services most of the common tourist destinations, including into Colombia. We stayed in the main tourist district of La Mariscal (taxis seemed to cost a standard $10 from the aforementioned bus station), in a hostel called Vibez. It is an independent hostel in a historic, heritage listed building. That in itself was cool and characteristic, but I’m not entirely sure what ‘vibe’ the hostel was going for. The place was really relaxed, but felt unfinished and a bit shabby, and the bathroom situation was frustrating. Still, the beds were comfy, and that’s definitely one of the most important factors in picking somewhere to stay. It is also conveniently situated right next to a bus stop that will take you into central Quito. The buses cost 25 cent, which is the equivalent of about 15p. That’s 1/10th of the price of a bus journey on the London Oyster… adjusting when back home is going to be difficult!
Emma and Natalie had kindly given us a map of Quito with a walking tour on it, so we set off towards the Old Town around lunch time. My favourite of our stops was the gothic Basílica del Voto Nacional in the North Eastern part of the old town. Built in the early 20th century, it has somewhat bizarre shapes in the design, such as a heart, and turtles and iguanas instead of gargoyles. It costs $2 to enter, but it’s definitely one of the most enthralling churches I’ve ever explored. You can over a wobbly wooden plank over the roof of the church, and climb one of the clock towers; be warned this really isn’t for the faint hearted. I actually acquired a brand new fear of heights when I was up there and I got the impression I wasn’t the only one. Along the route we stopped off in a little restaurant and tried out Locro de papa which is a traditional Ecuadorian soup consisting of potato, cheese and avocado. It’s not bad, and unsurprisingly incredibly filling. There are countless beautiful and brightly coloured buildings in Quito’s old town, especially when they are lit up at night, but I wasn’t exactly enamoured by the rest of the city. Although there at a phenomenal amount of tourist police dotted around, I also didn’t always feel entirely safe, and found myself safeguarding my bag more than normal.
That evening Andrea found out that she had got into UCL for a Masters (woo, go Andrea!), so we decided to have a couple of celebration drinks. This happened to coincide with ‘Ladies Night’ at our hostel which basically meant free drinks for girls. I’m not sure how I feel about the blatant sexism or ploy to get us drunk, but I’m rarely one to turn down a free drink, so we had a couple there and then went to bed ready for fun-filled adventures at Quilotoa the following day.
We voluntarily left the hostel at 7.30am, and headed to Avis car rental to hire a car for the day. Prices start at about $35 dollars all-in for a little car, but after reading about the questionable roads on trip advisor (and deciding it was just way cooler), we opted to pay extra and get a 4×4. With the complete insurance package and unlimited mileage, the total cost came to $99 for a 24 hour lease. Anyone who read my Atacama Desert blog post will know that any 4×4 (or really anything with 4 wheels) tends to be called a Jeep, and any Jeep is sometimes mistakingly pronounced as Jeff. Thus, it felt only right that we christen our shiny silver Suzuki Grand Vitara, ‘Jeff’.
Our first stop was a shopping mall so we could go to the supermarket and buy picnic bits. Panicking that there might not be enough food, or places to stop on the way (genuinely a daily fear for me), I made sure I’d survive by having a KFC for breakfast. Please don’t judge me, I´ve done it enough for the both of us. We then drove to the bus terminal to book tickets for our bus to Colombia the following morning, which turned out to be a time-wasting ball ache. As seems to be the norm in South America, the lady in the booth was beyond unhelpful, but we finally arranged a bus reservation…but more on the eventual horrors of this later!
The drive to Quilotoa took about 3 hours from Quito, and all the roads including the winding mountain roads were in much better condition than what we had gathered from the Internet. A small car probably would have sufficed, but we absolutely loved our Jeff, so no regrets! It costs $2 per person to enter Quilotoa town, which includes parking in the car park about 100 metres or so away.
Quilotoa Volcano is a 2 mile wide and 240 metre deep caldera with steep inner walls that rise 400m above the surface of the water. It is absolutely stunning, with teal green waters that apparently go a bright turquoise green when the sun shines directly on it. Of course we just experienced lots of cloud… (again, give it a Google). The drive itself is really rather beautiful, with farmed patchwork hillsides and snow capped mountains that felt a lot like the Scottish Highlands. FYI, if you do decide to make the drive, there is a tollbooth on the route which costs $1 either way. By the time we were heading back into Quito it was dark, which gave us the chance to see the city sparkle. Like a never ending glittery blanket draped over the valley, it was a great way to end our stay in Ecuador.
Or so we thought…
After hearing horror stories from the Aussie boys about their journey into Colombia and remembering our great experience on a Cruz Del Sur bus in Peru, we decided we were willing to fork out the extortionate $120 to get a bus with this company all the way to Bogota. The lady in booth 22 at Terminal Quitumbe had advised us that previous day to arrive at 6.15am to get on this 7.30am Cruz Del Sur bus. Dubious, we paid extra to speak to a representative on the phone who confirmed that the seats were reserved and we needed to arrive in the morning. Assuming people stick to their word (grr), we got up at 5am and arrived in good time. We were told the representative wouldn’t be in until 6.45am, so we had to hang about until then. Finally at 7am – 45 mins after arriving and 30 mins before the bus was meant to depart – we were told the representative wasn’t going to come in as the bus had actually arrived at 3am that morning. And left. Amy asked the lady what we were meant to do as an alternative, to which the lady replied ‘I don’t know’, although I’m pretty certain she meant to say ‘I don’t care’.
We had to scrap our plans to head to Bogota, and chose to make Salento our first stop instead. Beyond irritated, we had no choice but to pay $18 to get another taxi to the North terminal where we then paid $7 to get a bus to Tulcán, the border town in Ecuador. From that bus station we got a cab to the actual border ($3.5) and went through Ecuadorian and Colombian Immigration. Luckily we had no issues at all, but this border has a reputation for danger and it is generally recommend that you avoid crossing the border at night. From the Colombian Immigration we took a cab to Ipiales bus station (8k pesos, about $3) where we had a 6 hour wait before our 9pm night bus to Cali (35k pesos, about $12) and then finally, the last 1.5 hour bus to Salento in the morning (4200 pesos, about $1.5) We killed time in Ipiales by visiting the Las Lajas Sanctuary (2000 pesos on way in collectivo taxi) which actually looked a lot nicer and grander in photos, and also trying out Guinea pig for our pre-bus dinner! The small amount of meat was incredibly lean and tasted mostly like pork but with a slightly fishy after taste. I wasn’t completely sold which is most unlike the carnivore in me. I didn’t eat the little guy in this photo I took, but probably one of his friends instead.
It doesn’t take a genius, but an important South American travel tip is to watch your hand luggage on buses. There isn’t much you can do with your big rucksack once it’s out of sight, but as all your valuables should be on your person, you need to watch that bag like a hawk. We met a guy in Baños who had his bag between his legs whilst listening to music on a bus, and had it swiped most probably by one of the food sellers that get on and off the buses along the journey. On our last bus, the bus attendant was very adamant that we should put our bags on the floor and not our laps for safety purposes (but there are no seat belts…go figure). After explaining our reasoning, he was less pushy and we were allowed to keep them on our laps. Stand your ground in these cases, and follow your instincts if you feel uncomfortable. I always keep my hand luggage padlocked so that even when it’s in sight or on my back, wandering hands can’t play a game of lucky dip.
Although it turned out to be a hell of a lot cheaper than $120, our less than luxurious and rather hellish journey took the best part of 2 days. See, not every day is waterfalls and rainbows when travelling! Maybe we should have taken TLC’s advice after all…
Love, Lottie xx