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.
Because traveling with children, means that we no longer participate in wild partying, followed by nights of insomnia in packed dorm rooms, and hiking with a walking stick is the usual extent of our athleticism and adrenalin seeking, we debated whether Banos was worth visiting. It sounded like we might feel out-of-place. Other families we had met, had come to the same conclusion, skipped Banos, and couldn’t shed any experiential light. In the end, we decided that time was not an issue, and that the town was an affordable stop, so why not check it out.
We ended up extending our three-night stop to an entire week, completely charmed and refreshed by our stay. Our experience was very positive, and I would encourage travelers to include this city on any itinerary to Ecuador. I think that the best part of our stay, was the guesthouse that we stayed at – Hostal Princesa Maria, and all of the friendly people that we met there. The kitchen was very popular at our home-away from home, and the lounge was a great place to watch Copa America games. We could shop at either the farmer’s market (one block away), a huge grocery store, or a couple of specialty health shops, then cook up big feasts with other travelers, experimenting with local vegetables and fruits, and getting quinoa cooking tips. The conversations had while puttering around the kitchen, or drinking tea in the lounge, were the most pleasurable.
We will never forget the people we met – The dread-locked couple Daniel (Peruvian-Australian) and Mathilda (French), who had been traveling almost their entire adult lives and had fascinating stories about living around the world. They liked to spend long periods of time in one place, and had already been in Banos for about a month. Their disinterest in material wealth and enthusiasm for healthy cooking (vegetarian feasts and homemade teas) were inspiring. Then, there was Gwen (Taiwanese-Australian) and Vish (Indian-Australian), who lived in London, and were taking four months off to travel around South America with their six-month old daughter(!). I was not only amazed at how they managed to travel with a baby and all of the accoutrements that must be carried, but by the fact that they were teaching their little girl the elimination method, which meant that she could cue her parents when she needed to go to the bathroom and was almost fully potty trained! We met many other interesting people from around the world, on quick trips or epic journeys, some who were living in the country (like peace corp volunteers), and people of all ages.
Even though we could have filled our days with endless activities, we were happier to limit ourselves to a single excursion, and then spend the rest of the day making ourselves at home in the guesthouse, amongst new friends. Banos is lushly green, glistening with wet thanks to its climate of rain. This made for some beautiful backdrops of high, forested mountains, deep canyons and gorges, and slinky waterfalls pouring into grey-brown, silty rivers. It rained a lot! This of course made trekking muddy, and often obscured some of the majestic peaks in fog, which was the only bummer.
The one day we set aside to ascend the nearby mountains, swing at Casa Arbol and then hike through forests and farmland was more than a little drizzly. Half way through our trek we had to abandon our slippery walk, and wait out the torrential rain in the dining room of a hillside posada.
Thankfully, the weather was less rainy when we took a four-hour tour south along the dramatic, la Ruta de las Cascadas, which passes multiple waterfalls, as it hugs the Rio Pastaza. This is where most of the zip-lining shops are located, which traverse the canyon at terrifying heights. I begged off such a sport, but Dan and the children had enough courage to fly through the sky, tethered to a steel cable. Walking across a narrow suspension bridge and along a cliff-side trail switchbacking down a canyon, in order to get up close to the thundering Devil’s Cauldron waterfalls, was much more my speed.
The small town of Banos was fascinating on it’s own. We enjoyed walking the streets, arguing over where to eat next, people watching in the mercado and the parks and especially visiting the Basilica dedicated to the Virgin of the Holy Water and the several miracles that she was credited with.
There was a most funky museum off the side of the church, which housed a dusty hodgepodge of shriveling taxidermy, strange paintings of the occasionally erupting Volcan Tungurahua, years of fancy robes and shoes, presumably worn by a life size Virgin in parades(?), and symbolic possessions donated to the church, like quincenera dresses, car and truck toys, silk flowers. It was a trip!
Another rainy day and we walked to the thermal pools at Piscina El Salado, donned some goofy swim caps, and alternated between hot and cooler pools in the outdoors.
The biggest excursion we booked was an all-day trip from Banos to the humid jungle town of Puyo, where we got a quick Baskin-Robbins tour of the Amazonian basin. We first visited a reserve of rescued cats, birds, monkeys and other Ecuadorian jungle animals that were cared for in a local refuge. Then, we boarded a wooden long-boat for a journey down the Puyo River, passing rustic villages along the way. This would have been my favorite activity of the day if the heavens had not opened in a torrent of rain. We were soaked to the skin by the end of our ride, and all ate lunch, sopping wet, followed by hammock lounging as we waited out digestion and the worst of the deluge. Apparently, rain stops no one in this part of the world. We had not been provided with rubber boots for nothing, and went on a jungle trek of plant discovery, Tarzan swings, and swimming for the brave, in a bracing waterfall pool. Our final activity of the day, was perhaps the most touristy. We ended our trip with a stop at a small Amazonian village, which was clearly set up for tourists. Although this “plastic-wrapped cracker assortment” of culture would clearly not be Dan or my choice, the children enjoyed seeing traditional costumes and huts, getting their faces painted, and blowing darts out of a bamboo-like pipe.
A great time was had by all, and to think, “we almost skipped Banos…”