It is about a 4 hour journey by car, close to 180 kilometres south of Quito, to the sleepy little resort town of Banos in Ecuador. Banos de Agua Santa, usually referred to simply as Banos, is in the Andes Mountains at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano. It lies on the Pastaza River in the Amazon Basin and is often referred to as the Gateway to the Amazon. Spanish for baths, Banos is named after the hydrothermal springs of mineral water located around the town. The full name of the town of Banos actually comes from the church in the village square. The Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water, Nuestra Senora del Agua Santa is a place of pilgrimage for those who come to thank the Virgin and ask her blessing. It is very Gothic in appearance and is built from volcanic rock. With a population of approximately 18,000 the town rests at an altitude of nearly 6000 feet.
Awesome Ecuador in the pouring rain – that describes the absolutely incredible ATV adventure we had today. The shop we rented from is in downtown Banos, a short walk from our hotel. As we strolled along in the morning drizzle I looked skyward and decided this was probably not going to clear up so we had best enjoy what we have. Jordi sarcastically commented that it would probably clear up this afternoon when we were finished. Her prophecy came true to the letter. The ATV shop had quite a selection of machines, helmets, etc. so we selected suitable headgear then took a look at what they had to offer for vehicles. Along with the ATV’s they offered dune buggies. We toyed with the idea of that and also with the idea of going two people per ATV but then we all decided it would be more fun to each drive our own machine. The ladies selected automatics and Marcelo, Gavin and I took standards – 5 gears up, no clutch – this is going to be a ball!
These ATV’s that we were so excited about would soon prove to be the most temperamental bloody things going. They were all a little difficult to start after each stop and at least one of them would not start at all without a great deal of persuasion. As the day went on we learned the intricacies and nuances of these little beasties but it was very frustrating to have to undergo this ritual in the pouring rain.
It did not take long for this bad situation to get worse. At our first stop we returned from a fabulous hike to one of the many waterfalls on this route and no amount of jumping, kicking and cursing could start Marcelo’s machine. We tried everything we could collectively think of and finally resorted to calling the ATV shop and asking for assistance. They said they would be right there. As we waited we tried to guess what they would do to solve the problem. They’d probably bring another ATV on a truck. Maybe we should call back and ask them to bring one of the two man machines – or maybe one of those cool dune buggies – maybe two! As we discussed it they arrived with not another ATV, not a dune buggy but with a set of well used booster cables! They got us going and left us with the cables should we need them again.
There are 6 waterfalls along the route we selected to the town of Rio Verde. They have exotic names like El Manto de la Novia, Bride’s Veil, but not all of them were identified to me so I am still not certain which one was which. At first I kicked myself for not asking Marcelo the name of each and every one of them but then I decided it didn’t matter because they were all beautiful and not even the endless downpour of the day could dampen our spirits or enjoyment of these wonders of nature.
For most of them it was necessary to cross the torrential Rio Pastaza in a makeshift cable car that we could only hope was going to do its job safely. The car was basically an iron platform with side rails and a metal roof, guided along a huge cable several hundred feet above the raging river below. It was operated by a motor controlled manually by a keen and eager and I’m sure fully trained local gentleman. I am absolutely certain that these contraptions would never pass any type of inspection for anything at all in North America, but it was a lot of fun once I realized you really do have to hang on. They stop and start without warning but the view is absolutely breath taking and this whole area is one magical part of Ecuador.
Each waterfall stop entailed a hike through the lush jungle to a perfect viewing point for the falls. As I walked along the muddy trails I was reminded of our Inca Trail trek in 2005. The view was very similar and the feeling of wonder and spirituality was the same. In this case the rain added to the atmosphere as we passed under broad banana leaves and tall jungle grasses. It was wet but I would not have traded a thing if it meant having to miss this amazing adventure.
As captivating and wondrous as the scenery itself was, the thing that I will never forget is the joy in Karen’s eyes (and my own) to be able to spend this time with our son Gavin in the land that he had selected to live a part of his life. He truly loves it here and I am so happy he got the opportunity to enjoy his life in this manner.
It was not just waterfalls that we saw on our journey. The roadside provided a glimpse into the everyday life of some in Ecuador as we passed homes along the way. When we were in Quito Karen and I noticed that the people here make full use of parks and activities that are offered. This was very refreshing and satisfying to us because where we come from these things are so often overlooked and go unused. They have bungee jumping here – I think they call it bridge jumping. That’s a better description because it appears to be done with a regular rope so there is no bungee as it were. You just jump off the bridge tied to a rope. Once again, safety, not an issue – just go for it!
We reached the town of Rio Verde around 1PM. It was still raining but we had long since stopped caring about that. It was not spoiling our day at all. The final falls, El Pielon del Diablo, required we take an absolutely wicked hike about a kilometre down a steep gorge. Straight down and straight up in rain that made seeing difficult and walking over wet rocks nothing short of treacherous. Once we neared the falls if the rain was not making the pathway murderously dangerous the spray from the massive falls made certain it was not going to be easy. The bridge that spans the river at the bottom of the falls is the supreme view point but it was under repair so we were unable to use it. I shudder to think what condition it must have been in to require a formal repair in this country. I was disappointed but quickly found out that Marcelo was ever resourceful and he quickly led us through a tunnel-like rock path to the base of the falls.
The fact that I had chosen to buy an underwater camera for our trip to the Galapagos has turned into a blessing because I would not have dared use a camera in this weather. When we reached the falls the weather was a non-issue because the water from the thundering falls drenched us from a hundred feet away. The hike back up to the village was laborious and somewhat difficult. By the time we reached the top I was so hot from sweating that I yearned to be back at the bottom in the falls.
We had lunch at the restaurant in Rio Verde and it was fantastic. The meal itself was not anything unusual, chicken with vegetables and rice, but the location and the ambiance made a totally average meal noteworthy. A sugar filled Coca Cola restored my energy and perked me up for the drive back to Banos. We tried to dry our jackets a bit at lunch, or at least shake the water from them. Jordi was somewhat more creative than the rest of us as she commandeered the restaurant grill and used it in a manner not exactly intended.
Well, we are ready to head back but, of course, the ATV’s are not. The jumper cables came in handy as one machine was a little more stubborn than the rest. There was a great deal of pushing and pulling but we finally had everyone ready to roll.
The ride back was a riot. The drive along the path to the main road provided a roadside show as every dog in the neighbourhood gathered on the bridge in a true sixties style love in. I think it’s only about 15 or 20 kilometres to Banos but there were a lot of tunnels, busy roads and big trucks. I was actually surprised at how courteous everyone was. I fully expected a ride frought with blaring horns, cut offs and extended middle fingers. I guess that is evidence of the state of the world and a sad sign of the times where I come from in North America. Here people were very patient and accommodating given that we were surely slowing them down and generally in their way.
The tunnels were a test of lung capacity. There are no pollution control devices required on cars and trucks here so a 500 metre tunnel was a constant gasp for air and seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” suddenly had true significance. I suppose I should not have been video taping as I drove along with sometimes one and sometimes no hands. I have quickly fit into the safety practises in Ecuador. It all added to the adventure of the day. As Jordi had predicted this morning, we road into Banos as the sun broke through the clouds and the weather cleared to reveal a beautiful blue sky.
Back at the hotel we changed out of our very wet clothing and adourned the balcony and most of our room with drying laundry. The pool looked so inviting that we decided we might want to go for a swim. It was, however, too cold even for us hardy Canadians. After all it is winter here and the pool is not heated. We decided instead to give the hot tub a try. The woman who owns the hotel was gracious enough to turn it on and told us to give it about half an hour to heat up. After about 20 minutes Gavin and I went down and uncovered it and eased our tired bodies into the water. It was not exactly hot, as a matter of fact, you’d be pushing it to call it warm. It was 83 degrees but even that felt nice after being subjected to the rain all day long on this truly amazing Ecuadorian adventure.
More by Eric Whitehead in his book ‘Then there Was One‘.
Copyright © 2011 Eric Whitehead