Adrenaline rush in Banos

18 Jan

Picking a destination to pass a birthday whilst travelling is always a game of chance when your knowledge of that place is only informed by guide books or internet reviews, and the pressure you put upon yourself to make it a special and unforgettable birthday can start to mount. The town we’d chosen to spend my 34th birthday was called Banos – the Spanish word for bathroom – and I began to fret that we’d find ourselves celebrating in the urinals of Ecuador!

My fears disintegrated within about 5 seconds of arriving in this friendly small town surrounded by gorgeous tropical scenery. I was convinced this was going to be a very fitting place to celebrate another happy year on the planet.

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The main town was a compact grid of streets containing pretty gardens, sun-filled plazas, great value accommodation and a scrumptious selection of cuisine.

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The surrounding countryside was blessed by luscious green hills, thundering waterfalls and steaming hot baths fed by one of South America’s most active volcanos. We set about the simple task of enjoying two full days of outdoor fun.

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One of Banos’ most spectacular day trips is Ruta de las Cascades – translated as road of waterfalls – and it’s best appreciated on a mountain bike hired from one of the many agencies in town. We picked up a map from tourist information and with the highlights clearly marked we set off from an elevation of 1,800 metres and descended on a mixture of paved roads and cycle tracks towards Ecuador’s steamy slice of Amazon jungle.

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The road was undeniably touristy with agencies offering white water rafting, huge zip lines set up across deep canyons and restaurants with bird’s-eye views of tumbling cascades, but we couldn’t help but be impressed with the scenery and struggled to keep our eyes on the road. Every 5 minutes or so there was a designated space to pull over and enjoy the views which was just as well as the amount of traffic on the main road was palm sweatingly unsettling, particularly when one of Banos’ party buses (a 20 seater converted chicken bus playing absurdly loud music from its open sides) passed at close quarters carrying those who chose not to use pedal power that day.

To settle our nerves there was only one thing for it – no, not copious amounts of beer – we pulled in at a rest stop and arranged to fly through the air strapped to a double zip line. After that the road would seem like a piece of cake right?

We watched other suckers being strapped to the line which stretched several hundred metres and then laughed as grown men screamed as they hurtled to the other side.

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Before we could stop ourselves, money was changing hands and a scruffy haired youth was pulling the buckles on our harness so tight our legs were starting to lose feeling and Dan was worried that a vital piece of his own equipment may start turning blue!

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Suspended from our backs, we lay side by side facing forward and staring at the drop over the edge of our platform. When Dan and I simultaneously shouted “NO!” to the question of “Are you ready?” our protests were blatantly ignored and we were given a huge push forward.

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We held our breath…and flew like eagles – well, perhaps rather large, ungraceful albatrosses. Once we’d got over the initial shock, the sensation was incredible. Rather than out of control falling, which it had looked like as a spectator, the ride was smooth, calm and very peaceful. We held hands as we looked all around us, even at the huge drop below us, and after what seemed like a long 30 seconds, we glided to a halt on the other side. Woo-hoo, we made it! All we had to do now was exactly the same back the other way.

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As we’d suspected, back on the bikes our confidence was high and we cruised further down the road spotting waterfalls that seemed to grow bigger and more spectacular around each corner. The Pailon del Diablo was 18 kilometres from Banos and our end point on the trail.

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The biggest and best waterfall had been saved for last and we felt excited anticipation as we locked up the bikes and walked along a network of trails leading to different viewing points.

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It was possible to stand on a concrete platform constructed beside the falls and feel the full force of nature – our ears ringing with pummeling water and our bodies soaked in spray.

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We also crawled through a series of rock caves with low ceilings (not for claustrophobics) and found ourselves standing behind the falls.

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The western tourists, many with expensive looking cameras, did their best to avoid flows of water running off sections of rock, whereas, the local tourists actively aimed for those spots, taking family photographs on mobile phones with everyone soaking wet and screaming with laughter.

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Pickup trucks waited outside the entrance to the falls and departed every 20 minutes with half a dozen tired looking cyclists and their bikes piled in the back.

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We relaxed admiring the scenery for a second time and we were even treated to a very clear view of Volcan Tungurhahua as we approached Banos. Unfortunately, there was no activity when we were there but locals reported that just months before they were able to see a natural fireworks display in the night sky as molten lava shot into the air from the crater. One local who travelled back in the truck with us said that in the 2006 eruption, where the whole town and surrounding area was evacuated at night, he left his house with a frying pan on his head and showers of small rocks clinked off its top as he ran for it.

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The following morning I awoke with the knowledge I was another year older and pulled the duvet back over my head. Dan shook me awake, wished me happy birthday and reminded me we’d booked to go canyoning that morning. We grabbed a take away coffee and some cakes from the bakery and make our way to MTS Adventure who we’d booked through. We put on our wetsuits and safety harnesses and practiced abseiling techniques on the 5 metre climbing wall next to the agency. We must have looked a little ridiculous to passers-by – like large, adventurous sealions dangling from ropes.

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The series of cascades were about 20 minutes drive away with a further 20 minute walk leading through dense green vegetation. We reached a clearing where a cold, deep plunge pool of water spilled over a precipice and down a sheer vertical drop. We involuntarily let out a few swear words as the reality of lowering ourselves backwards down the waterfall started to sink in but our guide was very positive and had enough confidence for all of us.

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The scenery was beautiful – tree branches hung in arches across the falls, huge vein patterned leaves and giant ferns dwarfed us. The sunlight broke through in patches casting a warm glow on damp, moss-covered rocks.

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Dan stepped forward to descend first and whilst strapped into a safety line he edged backwards towards the drop. Anyone who’s tried abseiling will know that it’s the most unnatural feeling to stand with your heels over the edge of a drop and lean backwards so your legs and back are at a 90 degree angle. We put total trust in our guide’s ability to tie knots and fasten caribinas and went for it.

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After initial uncontrolled swaying, followed by stiff awkward shuffling, we started to relax and move more naturally, instinctively, and eventually to enjoy our activity.

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We had a total of six big waterfalls to abseil down and several smaller to slide down. Each full waterfall was followed by high fives and silly conquest photographs in the falls. The adrenaline made our energy levels skyrocket and we grinned like chimps at a tea party. Our guide, who was only in his early 20’s, followed us down after each stage was complete and gracefully made three or four large jumps to land like a regular James Bond at the bottom. On one descent, he showed off unashamedly and ran down the cascade face first. We wanted to hate him for his style and athleticism but he was a nice chap too!

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The highest fall we tackled was simply enormous and a real heart stopper. Despite our nerves we were coaxed into being daredevils by our guide so ‘look no hands’ photographs were followed by us attempting jumps albeit small crickets could have made bigger movements than us!

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Having proved turning 34 need not be dull, we returned to Banos for a late lunch and a well deserved birthday beer in one of the funky eateries.

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There are only two sure-fire ways to work off a big meal – the first, a power nap, was out of the question in such a beautiful place – so we opted for the second option, a walk. What we hadn’t bargained for was hiking two hours uphill on a rocky trail in flip-flops, but our efforts took us to a wonderful viewpoint over Banos and the countryside.

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Luna Runtun is a luxury hotel and spa nestled in the mountains and although we couldn’t afford to check in for the night, we could afford to indulge in lemon pie and pancakes with sautéed bananas and ice-cream in their Cafe del Cielo. Well, if there is ever an excuse to pile on the calories, it’s your birthday.

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Before heading out for drinks and dinner, we decided to try out one of Banos’ famous thermal baths so we donned swimwear and headed to Piscina El Salado, 2 kilometres west of town. The air was fresh as we hurried through the changing rooms rubbing at goose bumps appearing on our legs and arms. It was a bizarre feeling walking out in the dark to find six pools of different sizes and temperatures glowing with underwater light. Steam rose from some of the baths into the cool air and into one pool, overheated swimmers plunged themselves into one pool with a shriek – the ice bath! We joined only a handful of locals lulling in the pools and indulgently floated like star fish on our backs admiring the stars.

As I bobbed around in the hot water, slowly turning a unattractive shade of lobster pink, I digested what an enjoyable few days we’d passed in Banos and how pleased I was to have had a memorable birthday here. When birthdays approach, it’s common to hear people say that they don’t have much planned or they’re not so important as you get older, but I disagree. As the years pass by our realisation of how quickly time goes increases. We can’t do anything to halt the passage of time but what we can do is live life to the full and fill the memory banks with great times which mark and distinguish each additional year we pass on this planet. I was lucky enough to be in a beautiful place and try out some new activities for my 34th but there in the pool I made a pact with myself that each subsequent birthday, wherever I may find myself, would also be one to remember and look back on with fond memories.

One Response to “Adrenaline rush in Banos”

  1. Anna January 18, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    Looks like you had a top birthday!!

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