Although it took us longer to extract ourselves from Banos than we originally predicted, as soon as we had boarded the bus to Latacunga, I was looking forward to our adventure. Within less than three hours, we were dropped off on the side of the Pan American highway, where we quickly hailed a taxi to Hostel Sendero de Volcanes. Our stay would only be for one night, as this city stop was just the staging ground for a three-night trek to the Quilotoa crater. We were given a large room with two single beds and two bunk beds, that once served as the resident garage. It was bitterly cold and drafty, with one metal, roll-down car door, standing-in as a wall. The popcorn ceiling was low and the thick fleece blankets featured wild animal prints and aesthetically challenging patterns, creating a completely uninviting environment. One night – only one night.
Banos is a backpacker’s haven. This translates to meaning that it is a town that has a noticeable foreign presence. You can find a hostel, guesthouse, or small hotel on just about every block. If you want to eat vegan, swiss, italian, mexican, or fill-in-the-blank-ethnicity food, you’ll find it here. If you’re young, and prefer drinking your calories in the form of alcohol, like to dance, and hope to hook-up, there is a bar for you.
Banos is also the adventure capital of Ecuador. This means that if you like bungee jumping and swinging on ropes over canyons and steep mountain sides, this place has you covered. If you prefer water sports that involve rapids, canyoning and rappelling down waterfalls, there are at least two dozen tour companies happy to accept your cash. If biking, off and on road, or trekking for hours through dense jungle is your preferred workout, have a go. You can end it all with soaking your weary bones and sore muscles in any of three local hot-spring facilities.
We got stuck in Riobamba, and didn’t do much of anything. The truth is there is only one tale to tell. The story of a little girl who loves dogs and the dog that bit her.
We originally stopped in Riobamba to break up a very long bus journey from Incapirca to Banos. We were also hoping that we might be able to organize a visit to the base of the tallest volcano in Ecuador – Chimborazo (6310 m). Lonely Planet states that this mountain top “is both the furthest point from the center of the earth and the closest terrestrial point to the stars”. However, besides the atrociously cold and cloudy weather, which concealed views of the peak and made us doubt the practicality of our wardrobe, a mini-tragedy struck and conspired against us.
Of all the Ecuadorian cities that we visited, I found Cuenca to be one of the most beautiful. Perhaps, it is second only to the grandeur of the colonial center of Quito, but the smaller scale made it much easier to explore. Its’ historic district, which goes back as far as the 16th century, has been named a UNESCO heritage site, and the patchwork grid of streets does not let one down. There is great, imaginative architecture lining each calle, with towers, steeples, rotundas, storied balconies, brick and tiles, carved wooden porticos, and cobble-stoned roads entreating you to pause and look longer, while encouraging you to continue. I can say all this, despite the timing of our visit, which coincided with the closure of many main streets in the historic district. They were under major construction for the development of a city-wide and significant light-rail system.
Let me just start by warning you that this entry will be a rant – my own personal tirade against those who judge places, and especially cities, in a black and white manner.
I cannot count the amount of times someone has told me that they are not a “city” person. If these words come from a self-professed homebody, a non traveler, it can roll right off my back. I don’t expect the varied people of this world to see things the same way I do, BUT, this statement does raise my hackles, when it comes from a fellow traveler, a person who wants to experience the world, and might even consider themselves a bit of an expert on foreign destinations. Saying that you hate cities, is like saying you like someone’s arms and legs, but can do without the torso. It shows an unwillingness to appreciate all parts of a country, a culture, a people. It is a an avoidance of grit and painful contrasts, manmade wonders next to architectural atrocities, an unclean beggar seated on a subway next to an artfully made-up woman in designer clothing, a dirty sidewalk bordering a manicured park, and crowded streets, bursting with humanity all jostling for a place.
Our afternoon ferry trip to San Cristobal was not off to a good start. We arrived at the port, thirty minutes before the 2 PM departure, only to find that our names were not on the passenger list. We had bought our tickets the night before for $100, but either the booking company had not called in and confirmed our reservations, or the boat company had forgotten to write our names on the docket. Either way, it seemed that every last ferry headed to San Cristobal was already booked. We stood around, watching full boats depart, and other people get added to passenger lists ahead of us. Harbor police were appraised of our situation and calls were made to the tour company to confirm our purchase (which I had a receipt for). With strict occupancy loads for passenger ferries it looked like we might be stranded, but at the final minute, they fit the four of us into the last three spaces allocated for a boat, agreeing that our kids could count as one person!