My daily Instagram piece turned into a lengthy one, so I thought I’d post it here instead. In the wake of yesterday’s horrific shooting in Oregon, I felt obliged to...
THE BEST OF ECUADOR | BAÑOS AND MONTAÑITA
Be careful of going in search of adventure — it’s ridiculously easy to find.
-William Least Heat-Moon
A few days in Ecuador’s highly elevated capital left me yearning for something I hadn’t had in a long, long time: Mountains. The city tends to tease you a bit with its perfectly situated location in the middle of The Guayllabamba River Basin, where the snowcapped Andes serve as a circle of tempting walls. One can even spot the scalable, 5,897 meter-high Cotopaxi from certain points, string the soul of any adventure seeker. While I chose to pass on the incredible Cotopaxi ice-climb [this time], I was ready to see these mountains that had been staring me in the eyes for days now. Luckily, for me, so were Josh and Hannes, the Italian I mentioned in my last post. Josh had a couple of weeks to kill in Ecuador while he was waiting for his friend from home to arrive, but wanted to ensure he saved some of the good sights for their reunion. Hannes was making his way north to Colombia, but wanted to hit a couple more places before crossing the border. They were both keen to go to Ecuador’s adventure capital next, which happened to fit in perfectly to my I-have-no-real-plan, plan. I knew I was here to see as much as Ecuador as I could, but wasn’t concerned with my route. It’s one of the smaller countries in South America, so shorter and cheaper bus rides make zig-zaggin through possible and even logical — a whimsical traveler’s dream! I made the decision to join quite quickly and impulsively, as I do, which left me scrambling to pack my bags and pay my hostel tab that afternoon. In other words, everything was par for the course for Amelia.
Hannes, Josh and I arrived in Baños after a short, fairly easy bus ride from Quito. (And yes, it is like the same “baños” you’re probably familiar with, but it actually means “bath” in this case. The town’s full name is “Banos de Agua Santa,” so basically, it means “Baths of sacred water.” See? Not so gross after all.) About 45 minutes outside of Baños we stopped on the side of a road and were told to switch busses, resulting in looks of confusion from every sleepy backpacker. We hopped on the bus in front of us and were in Baños in no time, along with the dark, cold and rain. Our poorly timed arrival resulted in a not-so-favorable first impression of this town everyone had raved about back in Quito. To boot, we had a hard time finding our hostel, which really sucks when you’re loaded down with kilos of luggage…in the rain. We had all about hit our “screw it” point and booked the next place we passed, when suddenly, Hannes found a local with what seemed like the right directions. Thanks to Hanne’s fluency in Spanish (oh, and English and Italian, of course), we were able to find our way to our hostel, and to so many other places throughout Ecuador. That reminds me — What would Americans do on the road without these people from other countries and their bilingual and trilingual capabilities? While my Spanish made great strides this trip, I certainly didn’t miss a chance to lean on people like Hannes for the first few weeks, cursing the American education system with every botched attempt. Aside from four semesters of Spanish in high school, most Americans aren’t forced, let alone expected to, learn a second language. If you meet anyone from The U.S. who is bilingual, they won’t say it’s from public grade school. They will have taken it upon themselves to learn, something you don’t hear about too often. Anyways, I’ll save this rant for another day, another post — maybe even another blog. This trip just shed some serious light on the complete lack of importance America places on learning a second language from a young age. For such a diverse nation, this baffles me. Okay, okay. I’ll shut up now. Back to Baños. Despite the rain and headache of finding the hostel, smiles quickly resumed once we checked in and got settled. We enjoyed a few beers and a late dinner, then got a nice night’s sleep. After all, we were in Ecuador’s “Adventure Capital,” and we had big plans for it.
Great Hostel Backpackers is located just a couple of blocks from the main square, and is surrounded by million dollar views. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to stay a while.
The next morning we didn’t waste any time. It wasn’t raining anymore, and there were even pockets of sun coming through the low cloud cover. We knew we wanted to tick the first must-do off our list: Swing from Casa del Arbol (literal translation: house of tree, or tree house). This tree house plays host to a swing that allows people to propel themselves over a massive canyon, all while staring out at one of South America’s most active volcanos, Mt. Tungurahua. It’s been deemed “The Swing at the Edge of the World” and it’s one of the most mystical places I’ve yet seen. First, however, we had to get there. The lovely Argentinian girl who ran the hostel pointed out where to go on the map, but noted that there was one particular spot that causes people to get lost. She followed it by saying that it takes most people about two hours to reach the top, adding that “if there’s girls in the group, it’s generally a big longer – around three to four hours.” Obviously, I scoffed at her,
probably definitely rolling my eyes, silently thinking, What?! I will destroy this thing now! You watch. The boys and I were now joined by a few more girls from the hostel who were also keen for the hike. Two Canadians and a Chilean turned our group of 3 into a group of 5 — the more the merrier! We all walked through town together and easily found the start of the pathway. Within seconds we were walking uphill…in the mud. I’d been craving a good sweat and some time in the mountains, so I was in my element. I was getting everything I asked for, and some. Despite the fact that Hannes was keeping a faster pace than me while smoking cigarettes, I was the happiest girl in Ecuador. I mean, really, Europeans? With the cigarettes and physical activity…together? I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: They’re not human. A couple of the girls wanted to go at a bit slower pace, so eventually, we decided to split into groups of two and meet each other at the top. It sounded so simple, so easy. But, no. As it turns out, the trail does, in fact, have a few harry spots and this is exactly why it takes people so long to reach the top. Ahh, learning the hard way rears its head again. But like Jack Johnson sang, “Getting lost is not a waste of time.” Truer words were never written. Since there weren’t any sings posted, we decided to rectify that for the girls who were a bit behind us. I’ll let the photos tell the rest.
Within minutes of hiking, the town of Baños was becoming smaller and smaller.
Hannes and his attempt at a stick-drawn arrow.
The more three-dimensional version of our efforts. What? I totally think we’d come out alive on an episode of survivor. Christopher McCandless would be proud.
Casa del Arbol on a gloomy, yet beautiful day.
It’s impossible to be on a swing and not smile. Try it.
Hannes, myself and Josh. Those kinds of smiles only follow after a little sweat and mud. And maybe lostness.
The next morning greeted me with a feeling I’d almost forgotten. The lower half of my body cursed my name with every movement. Not doing any [real] exercise for several weeks proved to be an awful precedent to an uphill hike. Ouch. Despite the pain and state of lethargy, I forced myself out of bed and into the hostel kitchen. The whole gang was already awake and enjoying a cup of what Ecuador calls “coffee.” It’s generally instant and tastes like charred water, if that’s even a thing. Everyone seemed rather fresh, so I hid my limp as well as I could. Fake it ’til you make it, right? I’m not sure if it was the caffeine or just the fact that we’d gone mad, but we immediately started planning out more adventurous activities for the day. Karina, our Chilean member, had been chatting up with a guy who ran the hostel all morning. His name was Franco and he was a young Argentino who knew Baños like the back of his hand. He offered to sort some bikes out for the day and take us around various waterfalls and canyons. He also suggested that since it was such an unusually clear day, we go back up to the top of Casa del Arbol to get a better view of Mount Tungurahua. Don’t even think about it, said my legs. But before I could even pipe-up, Franco explained that we’d ride in a truck to the top, and bike down. Sweet relief came over me instantly. We all gathered our waterproof coats and cameras and walked to town to pick up the bikes. The top of Casa del Arbol was a completely different scene from the day before. The sky was a vivid blue, while the mountains were lush and green. Both days were beautiful, but in their own way. I generally don’t like to visit the same spots twice when I travel, but this was such a great call on our part. I was becoming increasingly happy with my decision to begin my travels in Ecuador.
Casa del Arbol on a sunnier, far more colorful day.
Swinging on a sunny day was just as wonderful as swinging on a cloudy one, although I really loved the element of mystery the gloom added.
Hannes, myself, Karina, Josh and Franco, before the bikes.
After some lovely sunny air atop Casa del Arbol, we cruised downhill on the bikes for a while. I think we ended up biking about 50 kilometers, but since it was almost entirely downhill, it certainly didn’t feel like it. Franco took us to countless waterfalls, canyons and zip lines, giving us the opportunity to really see Baños and its surroundings. I had to laugh at one point when I looked over to see Josh hopping back on the bike. Here was this guy who’d just cycled from the south of Argentina to Quito, Ecuador, and was trying to enjoy a couple of weeks off the bike before taking on the second half of his 17,000-mile journey. And here we were, putting him on a bike again. He must have wanted to ring our necks when we planned this! Because Josh is such a legend though, he effortlessly donned that smile of his down every hill and around every bend, all day long. He didn’t even take the opportunity to smoke us on the bikes either. See? Total gentleman, this guy. We had an absolute top day riding around the mountains of Baños, as the smiles and laughs indicated. Even Josh loved it — I think. Franco was a star of a guide and if you ever make it to this magical little town, go hunt him down at Great Backpackers Hostel!
It’s also impossible for me, personally, to not smile on a bike. Swings and bikes in one day? Yes, please.
Oh, and there were rainbows. DOUBLE rainbows, at that. It’s amazing what you see on an accidental 10 kilometer walk through the mountains.
Josh, feeling at home again. And by home, I mean resentful. What a trooper.
We passed this incredible zip line during our bike ride, at which point I decided a big, fat hell NO. Franco told us there were far better ones around town, and we should wait. Hold that thought.
How lucky were we?
And waterfalls?! You can easily see how Baños was making a run for “the most awesome place ever.”
Yep. There were canopy style bridges too.
Ariel shot of Paílón del Diablo (or, Cauldron of the Devil). It’s one of the best sights in Baños — a playground for all ages.
We celebrated our two days of solid adventure with some local brews and free dinner. That’s right, this hostel even throws in free dinner a few days a week. What’s better than that? Nada. We all sat around and reminesed about the day, which lead to the conversations of where everyone was off to next. Ting-Ya and Maytel (our Canadian girls) were in a time crunch, so they’d already decided on hitting the beach and party scene that is Montanita. Josh and Hannes liked that idea, and with the weekend approaching, found the timing to be perfect. Many towns in Central and South America have party potential most days of the week. Montanita, however, is not one of them. Come Thursday evening, the locals, DJ’s and backpackers pack in by the hundreds, making it the place to be. By Sunday, it looks like an old desolate beach town and you’d be hard pressed to find much evidence of a fiesta. Most backpackers know this, which is why Josh and the gang were keen to book it straight to Montanita on the overnight bus. I wasn’t in a hurry and had didn’t know what was next. I was torn between a visit to Cotopaxi National Park and an Amazon Tour, so I thought I’d stay put for another day or so while I sorted out a plan. I was already feeling the F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out, for those of you who don’t like to speak teenager) though. Josh and Hannes even made a side bet with each other on whether or not I’d end up meeting them in Montanita by Friday. I swore up and down I wouldn’t, and we all laughed over our “last” beers together. I stayed up with everyone until it was time for their bus, dreading the goodbyes as usual. Josh and Hannes were the first travel buds I’d met, and we made a great crew together. But this is the road and this is how it goes. Another hello, another goodbye — you’re always better for having crossed paths.
I’m not sure what night it was (as I’m writing about something that happened 3 months ago now), but trouble was found in that sleepy little mountain town. Baños is not a party town by any stretch of the imagination, but somehow, things went off that night. The hostel was full and a few Irish guys showed up — one of whom was celebrating a birthday. If you’ve ever been around the Irish, then you know how the rest of this story goes. What started as a quiet night with some beers at the hostel, quickly escalated. I ended up staying out a bit late (surprise!), mingling with some new folks and the insane Irish crew, which I paid for the next morning. This is also when I met Jakov, Sean and Paddy, who you’ll hear more about in the next post. They were a couple of Aussies and an Israeli boys I met at the hostel, who I continually bumped into all the way to Peru. They were also headed to Montanita for the weekend, which seemed to be the case with everyone. The bet between Josh and Hannes was starting to look really good — for them. I also met a couple of English guys that night, Tim & Matt, who were in the same room as me and wanted to get into some zip lining the next morning. We agreed to get out of bed at a decent time and get to it. They, too, were catching the overnight to Montanita, which only swayed me further. That and the abundance of backpacks lying around the pool table (as a sign that the entire hostel had checked out), was the end of me and my “I’m not going to Montanita yet” campaign. I couldn’t be the last backpacker in the Baños while everyone else was having a big weekend in Montantia, could I? No way. Tim, Matt and myself grabbed a cab to the zip line the next morning, which Franco reckoned was the best. Again, he nailed it. Kind of. I am petrified of heights, as we’ve discussed before, and so the zip line was going to take a bit of courage on my end. I knew that and I was as prepared as one can be. What I was not prepared for, however, was what came after the zip line. Apparently, climbing up a cliff on zig-zagged steel rods was also part of this “zip lining excursion.” The boys were stoked and loved every minute, while I absolutely shuddered with fear the entire time. That said, it also made for one of my favorite days on the road. I can’t remember a time when I was as scared as this one, and the feeling the followed was hard to explain. If you’ve ever conquered a fear, you know what I’m talking about. Okay, maybe I didn’t conquer my fear of heights this day, but I sure as shit gave it a long, hard look in the eyes, then snuck right past it. Most rewarding day on the road goes to this one — easily.
Matt, myself and Tim. And yeah, that “oh shit” face stayed with me the entire day.
For whatever reason, I was really quite relaxed here.
I was not, however, relaxed here. At all.
…Or here. I don’t know how I managed to pull off a pose either? Who am I?
And we made it back to (almost) solid ground. Let the breathing resume!
Creepiest trashcan ever spotted on the walk back. You’re welcome. If I had to see it, so did you.
Now that a year’s worth of adrenaline was pumping through my veins , it was time to get back to the hostel and onto the overnight bus. The party was calling and I wan’t missing it, apparently. Tim, Matt, myself, and the rest of the hostel (literally) grabbed snacks and waited for the bus to arrive at the local station. Before we knew it, we were waking up to the brutally bright sunrise on the lefthand side, accompanied by the glistening, tempting salt water on the righthand side. We’d arrived in Montanita on-time, somewhere around 6 in the morning. Hannes and Josh had given me the address of the hostel where they were staying, which I easily found after a short walk. I spotted the hostel owner within seconds, who was friendly, but only spoke Spanish. After all, I was in Ecuador. Groggy from the limited sleep an overnight bus provides, my Spanish was struggling even more so than usual. I was hitting the point of the trip where I was understanding more Spanish than ever before, but was still struggling to communicate responses. That said, here’s what I got from the owner that bright & early morning: The boys had stayed up until about an hour before I arrived (so, about 6 a.m.), and thus, were absolutely shit-housed. He was laughing the entire time, repeatedly pointing at the numerous beer bottles scattered across the porch, saying “Mucha fiesta, mucha fiesta.” Well done, boys, I thought. I threw my stuff in the room, careful not to wake them. Turns out, that wasn’t happening, no matter what I did. I tried yelling “Josh!” at one point, to which he responded to by only snoring louder. Thank God, because otherwise, I would have written ‘em both off as dead! I’ve never seen people sleep so hard in my life. I left them there to rest and went to grab some breakfast with the other group, then made my way to that beach I love so much. Eventually, we all caught up for lunch and more beach time. The boys told me about the chaos of the night before and shared stories of Montanita’s infamous “Cocktail Alley.” I was all ears, listening with anticipation and excitement. It was Friday night and rumor had it, there was a massive party at Lost Beach, one of the biggest clubs in town. And so the weekend went. Cocktail Alley lived up to it’s reputation, serving up the best $3 fresh fruit-juice cocktails I’ve ever had. The party at Lost Beach did the same, with two back-to-back nights of great music and endless dancing. My first go at an Ecuadorian party town was a total success. Sunshine, waves, music, sand and a road named after cocktails? What else is there?
A beautiful day on the beaches of Montanita. It was so sweet to be back at sea level. I always miss it.
Cocktail Alley before the night, and thus, chaos descends. The vendors stock up their booths with identical products, charging identical prices, and somehow all make a ton of money. This place is shoulder to shoulder come nightfall.
Hannes and his Italian standards for coffee. I loved that he traveled with his own pot. I may try it next time. It certainly made for a better cup of joe than whatever the hostels were serving up!
Boxed red wine, something Ecuador calls “rum,” and a local liter of beer. Life’s good at the beach, ain’t it?
On Sunday, the time had finally come to say goodbye to Josh and Hannes. This time, it was for real and all bets were off. The Canadians had already gone, and the goodbyes started coming too quickly. Once again, I hugged the boys goodbye, wishing them both all the luck in the world. I knew I’d be keeping in touch with Josh via his blog and our Facebook chats. In case you’re curious, we do still chat and you’ll be happy to know he’s now in Guatemala. I met him in Quito, and he’s since bicycled to Guatemala. I don’t think his story will ever not blow my mind. When the boys left, I was back to a party of one. Josh and Hannes had introduced me to a lovely Peruvian couple at the hostel, however, and they were also staying an extra night or two in Montanita. We quickly buddied up, and before I knew it, we were making plans to meet back up in Lima, where they resided. The three of us spent the next few nights together, and despite the quiet, almost eerie state of the town after the weekend, had a blast. They spoke mostly Spanish, so we’d have some drinks, sit on the porch and I’d try my hardest to make them understand me. Funny thing about that — a positive correlation seems to exits between amount of booze consumed and quality of Spanish spoken. It’s true. Try it.
Rocio and I, cuddled up in the hammock, which I can only assume is the result of too many rum & Cokes.
The three amigos enjoying their last night in Montanita. So much for a quiet one!
After four nights in Montanita, it was time to leave. This is not a town you lose track of time in. When it’s time to go here, it’s time to go. It quickly goes from “bumpin’ party town,” to a “creepy, why are you still here?” town. I could feel the latter descending upon me, so I booked a bus ticket out the next morning. Logically, my next stop was Mancora, a town in the north of Peru, just a couple of hours away from the Ecuadorian border. It’s where I intended to find hostel work and stay for a while. Unfortunately, it was also a party-happy beach town, from which my body needed a break. Like, immediately. So I came up with a last minute thought. I’d go to Cuenca, Ecuador for a few days and rest up before taking on another party town. Cuenca was meant to be quiet & scenic, just what I needed after one-too-many nights in Montanita. Let’s go ahead and call this one of my best travel decisions ever. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for Mancora, but I’m sure as hell glad I didn’t go straight from Montanita. My two weeks in Mancora were some of the most insane of the entire trip. For that reason, I’m giving it an entire post. I’ll throw some photos in of my downtime in Cuenca as well, for a little added contrast. But brace yourself, it will not be a PG-rated post. Stories from my time as a bartender in Peru are coming up next — and I don’t think you want to miss it!