Banos – adventure capital of Ecuador

IMG_1988Banos (de Auga Santo) is a small city in the Andean highlands, just west of the Amazon Jungle, located at the base of the still active volcano Tungurahua. We all wondered why you would name a city “bathrooms” and learned that it’s name actually means “baths of sacred water”, in reference to the thermal hot springs located here. Banos has become a mecca for those seeking fun and adventure – whitewater kayking/rafting, waterfalls, rock climbing, zip lining etc. It has a very youthful culture with people from all around the world making a stop here as part of their wandering travels.

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Banos is a 5 hour drive from the Ponderosa Lodge in San Francisco de Borja. The plan was to drive to Tena (2 hours), paddle the Jatunyacu and then head on to Banos in time for dinner. The normal itinerary has the group paddling the Upper Misahualli, which is right along the main highway, but due to low water levels we made the change, which excited Hunter as he wanted to show off “his” river to the rest of the group…

IMG_1988The put in for the Upper Jatunyacu is at a local eco-tourism resort with swimming holes created in the side tributaries, and they come complete with Tarzan ropes. We had a picnic lunch here before the boys launched into the river and the rest of us headed a little downstream to another put in that would avoid a few tricky class IV features. The Jatunyacu river is also known as the Upper Napo river and the Napo River is one of the two headwaters of the Amazon river, which means that we paddled on a headwater of the Amazon – pretty cool.

DSCF8493Abby joined us again and it was interesting to see how much Hunter’s confidence had grown from when we paddled this river less than a week earlier. Hunter had yet another great paddle and showed Tim all the cool stuff that he liked about big water. We made it a bit of a shorter day than our first run on this river due to the remaining drive to Banos. Needless to say, we were still quite late getting into Banos due to all the fun that was being had!

DSCF8555We were up bright and early the next morning to meet up with Andres Reyes (black boat), a Banos based member of the Endless Adventures International team, who was guiding us down the Pastaza River. Andres is a fabulous guide and if you get a chance to paddle with him, grab it! Hunter and I were paddling the upper section (class III+) and then the boys were carrying on to paddle the lower section (class IV). It had been raining a fair bit and water levels were somewhat higher than anticipated and this gave me such huge butterflies the entire run.

The whole experience of paddling the Pastaza that day was yet another great learning moment for me as a parent. I had butterflies because I was worried that we were putting Hunter in over his head and that if he swam he would be scared and upset, which would undo all of the progression (both in skill and confidence) that he had made over the past 10 days. I had no doubts that Andres, Chris and Tim would keep him safe – it was all the emotional side of things that I fretted about. Needless to say, I had a crappy paddle, spending too much time watching Hunter and paying attention to the butterflies. At the end of the upper run, which went really well, Hunter says to me “Mom, when we’re paddling can you please stay back a bit. I had Andres, Chris and Dad there to pick me up if I swam, so I was fine”, with absolutely no fear or negative emotion attached to the idea of swimming. ACK – it’s a constant juggle to figure out where that right line is these days!

IMG_0573Hunter and I got out of the river, undressed and then hopped in the shuttle van to follow everyone else down the river. At one of our stops we saw this really cool fish farm, which was on a plateau that was midway between the road and the river. It supplies the local restaurant (just above it on the road) with fresh fish and then sells the rest to other restaurants in the area.

IMG_0612A very special side benefit of paddling with Andres was that we were served a private dinner by his mom at her restaurant (Mercedes Restaurant). While it did not feel like fine dining, it sure tasted that way – the food was OUTSTANDING…. Five stars from all three of us. If you are in Banos it is well worth checking to see if she is open – very reasonably priced, especially for the quality of the food & service.

Every night after we finished dinner we went for a walk around town to explore. The city was very clean and not once did we feel unsafe. Many stores were still open late into the evening and one night we joined an impromptu kids soccer game in the main square. The christmas lights were still up in the streets which made everything look so festive.

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The rest of our time in Banos was spent exploring and playing.The group rented a mix of motorcycles, ATV’s and off road jeeps for an afternoon and it sure was fun! We headed out through town and then up the big mountain that sits right behind the city of Banos.

At the top of the mountain is The Casa del Arbol (tree house), which was written up as the wildest swing in your life by the Places You Must See In Your Lifetime website. It is actually a seismic monitoring station for the volcano but the views are spectacular and the swing puts you out over the edge of the valley looking into nothing but sky – it comes with a good dose of adrenaline if you actually pump to go high!

IMG_5283We fit all three of us on the ATV (standard vs automatic) and Tim did a great job of coaxing the engine to get us all the way to the top of the mountain. He also did a great job supporting Hunter, who drove us all the way down the mountain until we got to town. Driving in town requires a mix of big city and rural farm driving skills, which luckily Tim has!

IMG_0596One of the other things that Banos seems to be known for is “Los Dulces” – their locally made taffy. There were a number of stores on the main street that all had taffy makers busy making taffy. It was interesting watching them pull and stretch and knead the candy, almost like a pizza maker. What I wasn’t so sure about was the food sanitation as it went straight from the pole and then bare hands of the maker into the bare hands of another worker that rolled it into shapes and packaged it. Not quite North American standards I guess…

Just up the block from our hostel (Hostal Santa Cruz, a classic backpackers hostel) was a fun little park with lots of things to play on. It is also a great meeting ground for people with kids. Andrea was there with Radd the day we paddled the Pastaza and came back with news that she had just met a mom and boy that Hunter and I just had to meet! This is one of the many wonderful things about travelling – people from all over the place coming together in various circumstances and finding commonalities. Jeremie and his mom are from Germany and are travelling and homeschooling for a year. He and Hunter had a fun 2 days together and it was nice for both of them to have some “boy time” where they could play, wrestle and joke around. Travel has made Hunter more open to making these quick connections and enjoying them while they last.

The park mural is painted on the back of the facilities building and is worth noting not just for it’s beauty but also for the detail of it’s message. If you “read it” from left to right you can see that it tells the story of rebirth and revitalization, moving from drained & polluted rivers to the bounty of mother nature.

For our last twenty-four hours in Banos we treated ourselves to a night at the Luna RunTun resort, located up on the hill above town, just below the tree house and volcano. When ever we splurge on expensive hotels we do our best to arrive prior to check-in and seek a late check-out to maximize our spend…We had hoped to spend a good portion of our visit in the hot pools and were fairly disappointed with their temperatures. There are five pools, with three of them being “hot”, a large fourth being a cold pool and then a hot-tub. The four “hot” pools (including the hot-tub) were more like a warm bath and there was no variation in temperature amongst them. Definitely a bummer. While the rooms are beautiful, the food was “OK”, and we had fun playing billiards, I wouldn’t recommend a stay here – the price does not match the value.

The views from both Luna RunTun and the Tree House were amazing – the valley is so lush and we were all constantly amazed at the angles of the plots of land that were being farmed.

IMG_0659It was a five hour drive from Banos to the Quito airport. We spent the money on a private car ($100 US) and arrived at the airport around 6pm. The drive was quite scenic and we enjoyed seeing the regional diversity as you travelled north up the Andes. The highways here are well taken care of and it was very smooth driving.

International flights all leave late in the evening and the down side of that is that check-in does not open until 3 hours prior to the flight. This meant that we had 4 hours to amuse ourselves…with all our bags. The good news is that there is a decent sized restaurant/food court area in a complex just across from the airport. We found some comfy chairs and settled in with some food and some movies.

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