Busing through the Andes is a trip!! Some of the landscape has been beyond spectacular. Great people watching. Sometimes not the most physically comfortable thing, but all part of the adventure.
Day one had us take a 4 hour bus from Quito to Banos. The new bus terminal is very snazzy. We were successfully profiled, carrying our giant backpacks, and the ticket sellers from the 4 bus lines that go to the Tungurahu volcano area all started shouting “Banos” and waving frantically at us. The sweet older woman who sold us our seats gave a decent pantomime reminder to keep our packs on our laps for safety. (if you put them at your feet, there have been instances of folks crawling under seats and slicing open bags). This bus was ALL ABOUT Jesus. There were stickers and decals everywhere, including on our only window, a tiny corner job.
So I got to see the Andes unfold through the eponymous Christ’s visage. (I hope Reagan can upload the photo I sent her). We’d asked for seats upfront hoping a good view would help with any motion sickness. Unfortunately the front seats just face a giant reflective wall behind the driver. Oh well. There is also a TV screen, which showed a dubbed version of “Taken 2.” I can honestly say I don’t think I needed the dialogue to follow the Taken sequel.
Banos is in a lovely valley. We stayed in hostal Chimenea, which is near the sacred hot springs and water falls (and only $20 for a private room and private bath. Bring your own soap and TP, but they did provide towels). Being Sunday it was packed with families. Also, being a backpacker/adventure town, there are folks riding dune buggies, ATVs and mountain bikes through town… Presumably on their way to a nearby trail, but who knows. Dinner at Cafe Swiss which is embracing its theme….cows, fondue, and chocolate. Then off to the hot spring baths. They close at 4pm to drain the 3 pools (hot, cold, and medium) and reopen at 6pm. We realized this was going to be crowded when we saw the giant line at 6:15pm. Had to rent bathing caps ($0.50). Then into an already crowded “hot” pool, filled with the volcanic spring water. Smaller than most swimming pools but bigger than a hot tub (Erin says maybe 12′ x 20′ or 25′). After about ten minutes of a very hot, but pleasant hot, soak, we were now sharing a bath with 200 people. This definitely was a locals spot. Maybe ten obvious turistas and us. Banos is a vacation spot for Ecuadorians, too. The view of the town at night was lovely, as were the waterfalls next to us… We could see the pipes collecting waterfall water for the cold pool. But it was impossible to move about, so I skipped dipping into the cold and then running back to the warm, as I’m not sure I COULD have found a space in the hot pool. The warm pools downstairs were basically hot tub sized and all crowded as well. Erin declared herself done, mentioning that hot tubs with strangers after skiing also involves drinking. This, not so much. But we can say we did it, and it definitely wasn’t just a silly tourist trap, but a legit local enjoyment. There was some great people watching. I especially loved the grandmas in swimsuit with ruffles and frills. Went back to the hostal to shower, and then ended the evening with chocolate fondue. Yay. During our time in Banos, there was always a bit of cloud cover at the top of the mountains so we never saw the volcano steaming. She’s been pretty active for the last few months. Everyone assured me that she hasn’t had a lava eruption in years. Mostly steam, and a bad ash cloud every few years. But they kept saying that, if lava did flow, it always flows down the other side, so the town and the main road are perfectly safe. This is probably geological hogwash, but I chose to believe it for the 20 hours we were in town. *smile*
Our original loose itinerary had us spending two nights in Banos and then the 8 hour bus to Cuenca. But fellow travelers suggested one day in Banos would be plenty, unless we wanted to do adventure sports. And while quizzing folks, some suggested we stop at Riobamba for the night. It was only 2.5 hr bus ride, but on some of the twistiest mountain roads, and I’m pretty sure our driver was exceeding the 90km bus speed limit. Wooo! Met an older pair of American ladies at the terminal who had gotten on the wrong bus that morning from Quito, ending up 4 hours in the wrong direction. Yikes. But I can see how it could happen. They had good spirits about it.
Riobamba is known for having some kind of special train (it’s the steepest track run, I think, but can’t be bothered to look it up). You may correctly surmise from my lack of enthusiasm that we did not take a train ride. But it was nice to have a day with no agenda. Wandered town. Did some window shopping. Had one liter of sangria with lunch. Then found a park with giant animal statues. It was a good day. Our hotel also seemed very nice and a good bargain ($24) until Erin pointed out, right before bed, that the 4″ dirt or paint smudge on the wall near my headboard was mold, and that there was a different type of mold in the corner floor by my bed. Blech. Spent a few minutes trying to sleep without breathing. Still, everything else seemed very clean. AND they provided hand soap and TP. #Fancy
Today was our long bus ride of 6 hours to Cuenca. It had the most gorgeous views. And I am so glad we broke up the 8 hours with the Riobamba stop because, for the final hour, my back hurt, my butt was numb, and I had to pee like a racehorse. No bathroom breaks on these trips, but local vendors do stop on and off, hawking homemade potato chips, baked goods, ice cream, etc. A massive road construction project delayed us further (everyone starts honking pretty frequently at these. Doesn’t seem to encourage the flaggers (hombres con banderas) to let their side go any more quickly, however. Our last bus driver was super aggressive in overtaking slow vehicles, crossing double yellow lines approaching blind corners. I just shut my eyes sometimes. Or would look out the side windows (no Jesus decal in the way this time). Flipping gorgeous landscape. Many folks here seem to tether their cows, rather than fence them. They’re all on leashes around their horns, tied to a stake in the ground.
Now we’re in Cuenca, a major city in the Southern Andes. Looking forward to some gorgeous colonial architecture and museums. There are some supposedly good Salsa clubs nearby. If the weather cooperates, we may tour the nearby national park. Right now the weather app says thunderstorms, in which case we’ll stick to more indoor activities.
We booked our hotel two days ago online. There was a pretty amazing web special running. So we’ve upgraded from clean private rooms in hostals to a 4 star hotel. At check in, there was some mixup and they didn’t have a room with two twin beds, just one double bed. But as we’re staying midweek they’d already upgraded us to the Presidential Suite. Giant bathroom. King size bed. Desk area. Fancy pants. I hope sharing the bed works well, but if not, they will have a two twin bed room available for our next two nights. The adventure continues. We’ve crossed the halfway mark several days ago. Now we’re in the winding down final third of the trip. Although I did see a travel agency sign in Riobamba for $350 flights to Santiago and had a mini dream about staying for another several weeks to see more of South America. But it was only fleeting. #wistful