Driving the aptly named Route of the Volcanoes between Quito and the small town of Baños, we passed 5 immense volcanoes, each taller than 15,500 feet. Despite the fact that many were obscured by clouds or fog, it was still a pretty drive that slowly descended into the valley that shelters Baños. Looming over the town is the threatening and active Volcan Tungurahua, which means 'little hell' in the local indigenous language. This volcano fuels the natural hot springs around town as well as a healthy industry of massages, steam baths, and mud facials. The town was hopping on Saturday night, the streets thronged with tourists both foreign and Ecuadorian, all watched by the eerily lit cathedral that adorns the main town square. To keep warm during the cool nights we visited the La Piscina de La Virgen, and alternated between the scorching hot pool filled with sweating adults and the warm pool filled with splashing children.
Taking a recommendation from a friend of a friend who lives in Quito, we biked the Route of the Waterfalls. After checking our bikes' gears and brakes by riding around the block in downtown Baños, we took off for the mostly downhill ride to Rio Verde. This route winds next to the deep gorge cut by the gushing Rio Pastaza, and took us through a pitch black tunnel, along beautiful roads clinging to the side of sheer cliffs, and across several bridges. Along the way we opted not to 'bridge swing,' a different take on bungee jumping and something we'd feel nervous about trying even in the US. We did take a hair-raising teleferico (gondola) ride across the river to see one of the many waterfalls up close. Powered only by a turbo Porsche engine, we were glad that we had the gondola to ourselves, as we weren't sure what the maximum weight load for the cable could be. Our bike trip ended in the tiny town of Rio Verde, home of the Pailón del Diablo. This roaring waterfall careens over a sharp cliff and crashes onto huge boulders into the boiling waters below. Crawling through a series of caves and narrow passageways, we ended underneath the top of the waterfall. Roaring so loudly we could barely hear ourselves speak, the gushing water was lit a spooky green. Soaked to the bone from this experience we trudged back up to Rio Verde where we tried to dry off while waiting for a pickup truck to give us a lift back up to Baños.
Enjoying the view from Olga's house along the Sendero Bellavista
Our last full day in Baños we hiked a loop trail in the surrounding mountains. Heading up to the first lookout, we met Olga who lived along the trail. She invited us into her home for some cold soda and we chatted for a while, happy that our Spanish is now sufficient that we can really talk to people. Raising 7 children as well as tending her farm perched on the hill keeps Olga quite busy, but we hope she can take some time to enjoy the great view she has of the valley below. Continuing up the mountain, after a couple of wrong turns along the unmarked trail that forked 3 times, we found the trail that led to the tiny town of Runtun. While we never actually found the town center (we're not sure there actually is one) we met three young sisters walking home from school. After saying 'hola' and realizing we were walking the same direction as them, they grabbed our hands and tried to lead us to their house. We walked with them for about 10 minutes before heading back on our trail. They claimed they were leading us to the town of Runtun, but we think they really just wanted to take us home with them like a couple of friendly stray dogs. We then meandered back down the mountain, stopping for lunch at the spectacular resort of Luna Runtun. We're definitely adding this place to our list of hotels to visit when we have more money at some undetermined point in the future. We were back in Baños in the late afternoon, as the sun broke through the clouds and lit the valley with a golden glow.