The town of Baños in Ecuador is named for its hot springs – much like the spa town of Bath in England (in Spanish baño literally means bath). But there’s more than just a few natural jacuzzis here to entice a budding adventurer. From the main town, a busy tourist hotspot crawling with backpackers and Ecuadorian city-dwellers, you can sign up for a slew of different adventure activities; from parasailing to canyoning, flying along zip wires that span a 150m chasm to renting out a dune buggie for the day.
One of the biggest draws outside the town is the ‘siete cascadas’, a string of seven waterfalls that appear along the 60km (mostly) downhill road to the town of Puyo. Most Ecuadorians take a brightly-painted tour bus down the valley and back up, but for the intrepid looking to bust their lungs a little you can also rent a mountain bike and bomb down by yourself. Halfway down the road in the village of Rio Verde is the Paillon del Diablo waterfall, the most spectacular and most commonly visited of the seven. From here you have two options, either turn your bike around and slug it back up to Baños or hop in the back of an old dirty truck, pay the driver a dollar (the country switched to the USD when the Ecuadorian economy was crippled by inflation) and get ferried back to the top.
On a sunny morning, with a ragtag crew of experienced and not-so-experienced riders, we set off to chase waterfalls. The first stop is at the central mercado for an almuerzo (cheap and delicious set meals found throughout South America). A plate of chorizo and fried mashed potato balls then a thick espresso from across the street and we’re ready to roll.
The route out of town hints at what’s to come. Glimpses of mountain peaks and slivers of sky. We swoop down a steep descent that turns sharply left as the road passes over a hydroelectric dam. In recent years, thanks to a progressive President and a hefty natural endowment of crude oil, Ecuador has been ploughing investment into green energy. It’s admirable and remarkably forward thinking.
BLOWOUTS AND GO KARTS
Once you leave the outskirts of town the views scale up in spectacle. Every kilometre brings another viewpoint and we see the first waterfalls. There are zip wires and cable cars that span the gorge – crossing 150m in a few seconds. A disused amusement park with go karts and miniature rollercoaster provide a temporary distraction as we fly by.
Bikes aren’t allowed in most of the car tunnels along the road, so special paths have been built that skirt around the outside of whichever crag of an Ande happened to be in the way of those building the route. These paths are well-trodden and offer some of the best views of the valley. They’re also the closest you’ll get to real downhill trails on this ride. One of the group enjoys catching air off the ridges of the path a little too much and blows out his back tyre. Despite the best efforts of the team, we can’t fix the flat and he finishes the ride as a passenger.
At the entrance to Paillon del Diablo, we chain up the bikes with a mismatched horde of others and start the 20-minute hike down into the ravine. The paths are full of Colombian families, wisecracks in Spanish and the ever-present laughter of people on their holidays. The view of the waterfall from the valley is deeply impressive. The sound of the ethereal spouts that appear out of the sheer rock face and the awesome power of the thunderous churning waters beneath fills the valley floor.
After standing in awe for what felt like seconds, but what might have been hours, we headed back up to the touristy town that stands at the entrance of the falls – needless to say, going up was a bit more taxing.
Back at the top of the hill there’s just time for a dip in the river and a couple of local beers before it’s time to hop back in the wagon with the bikes. Never one to shirk a challenge, I decide to climb back to Baños, rather than take the truck. It takes a long time and I arrive just as it’s getting dark.
The next day a trip to the hot springs and a very cheap massage iron out all the creases and kinks in the legs.
Ready for the next adventure.
Tom Owen is a freelance cycling writer, he travels the world in search of two-wheeled adventures and has ridden bikes in Vietnam, Argentina, Cambodia, Andorra, Italy and his native UK.
Head over to tomowencc.com for more.