In Baños we stayed at the eco-friendly hostel, La Casa Verde (The Green House) owned by a lovely Australian/New Zealand couple Doug & Rebecca ho live there along with their adorable 4 year old son Jonathon. It’s hard to say enough about La Casa Verde and the good work they are doing. A few years ago I might have ignorantly referred to Doug and Rebecca as tree huggers or hippies, but now, the more enlightened version of myself is thankful for what they are doing.
At a time when being “green” is more marketing term than an actual way of conducting business, La Casa Verde more than lives up to its name. Despite the higher cost, La Casa Verde was constructed with wood from a nearby tree forest (trees that are planted and harvested in controlled conditions and grow very quickly) as well as recycled materials. They grow and maintain their own organic and sustainable garden which provides much of the food for guests. By foregoing pesticides they happily allocate 10% or so for the birds and insects (call it nature’s tax) and share their bounty with their Ecuadorian neighbors.
When they do find it necessary to purchase food in town, they insist on bringing their own reusable containers (no paper or plastic thank you) and buy in bulk. So that guests don’t have to buy plastic bottles (which are not recycled in Baños ) of water, they provide free purified water in the kitchen. They built their own septic tank (very unusual in Latin America) and separate the black (sewage) from the grey water (shower, sink) which is reused in the organic garden. Not to mention the shower water is hot, the breakfast delicious and healthy and Rebecca makes some incredible, all natural brownies and granola bars that still has my taste buds going through withdrawals.
Indeed there is something about Baños that brings out the inner hippie in everyone. I suddenly wanted to go for a bike ride (something I probably haven’t done in over 10 years). We took the 28 KM (17 miles) or so tour of the lovely Rio Verde (Green River) via the Ruta Cascada (Cascade Route), an amazing bike route where you can view incredible waterfall after incredible waterfall throughout an ideal scenic landscape of green mountains and deep valleys.
Now we were assured (accurately as it turned out) that most of the bike route was downhill. This was important because we were each carrying some type of expensive and not so easy to balance camera equipment on our backs. You can imagine how surprised we were when we were struggling almost right off the bat to get up a never ending, ridiculously steep hill. Turns out this was no little hill but the local (and very active) Tungurahua Volcano, which is just a mere 16,000 feet in height!
We had misread the map and taken a very wrong turn. Finally after about 20 minutes of breathlessly walking our bikes uphill on the side of the road and erroneously thinking the plateau must be near, a kind soul in a pickup truck took pity and told us our mistake. We were able to correct course and the rest of the bike trip seemed like a breeze afterwards.
Once back on course, the bike ride was absolutely amazing, incredible or whatever cliched adjective you care to insert. But dare I say (can’t believe I’m saying this) that for me it was the highlight of the entire trip. We stopped along the way to take a basket ride over an incredible (that word again!) ravine to view one of the (I won’t say incredible) waterfalls up close and personal. The baskets are like uncovered cable cars and are more than a simple tourist draw. They are a very practical means of transport for people who live across a steep valley or on top of a mountainous terrain.
To further prove that Baños does something strange to you, I stopped to bungee jump off a bridge, something I’ve never attempted or cared to attempt before. Do you even attempt bungee jumping? You either succeed or fail right? I meant there are not many “do overs” in this “sport”. This hit home when the guy started outfitting me with gear.
I realized no releases were being signed, no legal disclaimers were being spouted and how unofficial everything was looking and I started to get really nervous. Who is this guy and how do I know this isn’t his first day on the job? Will it be hard to get my corpse back to the U.S.? Do I want to be buried in New York, Tennessee or California? Maybe in Ecuador? Or at sea? or just throw me in the volcano? Did I remember to donate my organs? Will Social Distortion play at my funeral?
By the time I was standing on the side of the bridge ready to dive headfirst into the rocky terrain below I was in full panic mode. But I felt it impossible to back out because a small crowd had gathered to watch the scared Gringo; no doubt baited by the TV cameras recording my first ever jump (failed jumps are great for ratings I hear).
I vowed not to make a sound but am afraid I ended up screaming, if not quite like a little girl, like a scared man who was about to lose his life in a very stupid way. It was instinctual, primitive and over in a split second. And when it was over, I was swinging to and fro, slowly being lowered to the ground below and it was really no big deal. I’d easily do it again, but I might check the credentials of the personnel first.
The bike tour was capped off by a stop at the Pailon del Diablo falls, the most miraculous and powerful falls I’ve ever seen so close up. We all got a little wet from the powerful spray and we were exhausted at this point so we bussed it back (hey, don’t judge! most people do) to La Casa Verde.
Later that night we tried our luck at spotting the Tungurahua Volcano’s lava flow. We hired a taxi who took us to the top of the mountain (the very same one we had ignorantly attempted to climb on our bikes earlier in the day) to one of the volcano observations stations high, high up.
It was dark and cold and it felt eerie being this close to an active volcano that could blow at any moment. But alas it was too cloudy for observation. We gave up after about 20 minutes and went home. If we’d have hung in there all night we would have probably eventually seen something like the photo below.
The next day our outdoor adventure continued. My producer talked me into trying a thing called Canyoning, which is really rappelling down a slick water fall. It was pretty cool. I’m not sure my instructor was old enough to drive, much less guide a clumsy beginner in a dangerous sport, but I’m alive so he guess he did ok.
To be honest the scariest part of canyoning seemed to be climbing to the top where one wrong move and your could fall on a pile of rocks and the flimsy little helmet would probably be of no use.
Finally we took a break from all this adrenaline and took advantage of what Baños is so aptly named for; it’s naturally occurring, volcano heated thermal spring pools. There are dozens all over Baños but I soaked in the one right smack in the middle of town, the popular Banos de la Virgen. I wasn’t alone. It was a weekend and the place was packed with Ecuadorian families enjoying the cheap entertainment of the pools.
With my pale, decidedly un-suntanned body I stood out in the brown crowd as the only Gringo in the pools. Where were all the Gringo tourist I had seen in town the night before? Probably out biking, bungee jumping, rafting or cascading.
Baños is a town I thoroughly enjoyed. It was economical (taxi rides from our hotel to the center of town, $1.50 U.S.) , full of great outdoor activities and had a little nightlife as well. It was cultural with the indigenous residents mixing in with the tourist quiet naturally. There are vegetarian restaurants and spa and massage services for those who prefer a more laid back experience.
But if you go, remember to wear your mosquito repellent. I had been lulled into a false sense of “we don’t need no stinking repellent” in Quito and as a result got eaten alive for the two days I was in Baños . You could almost hear the little critters singing over and over “Gringo Blood… ummmmmm.. delicioso” as they went to town on my arms, legs and neck.
Despite the incredible natural beauty of Baños and really all of Ecuador, it ain’t easy being green there just yet. Thanks to the efforts of many eco-conscious travelers, transplants like Doug and Rebecca at La Casa Verde and the numerous locals who obviously care about the future of Ecuador, hopefully this will begin to change over the next decade before it’s too late.
Baños, you get a big, if a bit mosquito ravaged, two thumbs up from me! Keep keeping it fun and please for God’s sake, keep it green.