This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Baños - Not Just Hot Springs

Being not quite sure where we exactly want to go or in which direction we want to head but wanting to leave Quito Mika and I decide to head south to Baños. Baños is a smallish town that is surrounded by green mountains and sits under the watchful eye of the active volcano Tungurahua. It’s this volcanic activity going on underground that creates the hot springs and gives Baños its name. Baños means “baths” in Spanish.
Baños from a distance
Baños town has some very quirky graffiti 
The town is very touristy with both international and Ecuadorian visitors. The sheer number of hotels and tour operators attest to that. During the week it is tranquilo here. Weekends get busy. The shopping and bar streets are lively and the hot springs pools bustling -- though “bustling” might not be what someone wants when visiting hot springs.
La Virgen de Agua Santa -
The patron saint of Baños
During our stay in Baños I end up going twice during the day to the main pools which is Las Piscinas de la Virgen. There are three pools here with nice views of the mountains and waterfalls. One pool is very hot and mostly for adults because swimming and splashing is frowned upon the kiddies do not like it. The second pool is still using springs water, but it is more diluted. There are always many children and families in this pool having a grand time. For the record, I do not see any babies using swim diapers. The third pool is normal cold water with almost nobody in it. We use it to shock the blood system after soaking in the hot pool for too long.
La Virgen has a day ($2) and night ($3) shift. The day shift ends at 5:00 PM, but they pull the plug to the hottest pool at 4:00 PM and the water drains out while people are still sitting in it. Mika returns one Saturday evening from a visit to the pool saying it was packed. The hot spring was a Gringo stew.

Baños is also a place for more active travelers. It is possible to rent horses, bicycles or buggies and go rafting, zip-lining, canyoning, bungee jumping, and other adrenaline-infused activities. It is also can be a launching point for tours to the jungle, but there are other towns much closer to the jungle for that.
A tour agency
A $4 adrenaline rush
Adrenaline junkies we aren't, and cheapo tourists we are, so we pass on all of these adventure activities and I opt for a self-guided hike up towards the direction of Tungurahua. Mika wisely declines to join me. The town of Baños sits at 1800 meters (5905 feet). My first plan is to just hike up to the town of Pondoa at 2500 m ( 8202 feet) which is already a pretty good altitude difference, but after a short rest and a soda in Pondoa I do not feel so tired and decide to continue on to Sangay National Park and El Refugio (The Refuge) a shelter people can stay at before hiking to Tungurahua's summit which is at 5,023 m (16,479 ft.). To reach the very top one would probably need a guide, a lot of water and protein bars and a call to the Vulcan research center to check the current risk of volcanic activity.
The snow-capped and shy Tungurahua is almost always hidden behind clouds
After sitting quietly for around 80 years, Tungurahua erupted in 1999 and then again much more violently in 2006 causing the evacuation of Baños. The most recent activity was in December last year. The following signs should erase anyone's doubts regarding the severity of the situation.
Volcanic Danger Zone
Going up Volcano Tungurahua is prohibited
El Refugio is listed at 3850 m (12,631 feet) meaning from Pondoa I have 1,350 meters of altitude to climb. This is pretty ambitious for me considering that I am in terrible shape and my only ailment is a small bottle of water and large package of animal crackers. If at the time I had realized that 1,350 meters equals 4,429 feet of altitude I probably would not have attempted the feat. I guess that's what I get for growing up in a country that ignores the metric system.
Behind the trees (middle right of photo) you can sort of see
 where the lava ran down the volcano
The trail head leads me up and up and then more up. It is steep and muddy and I just have sneakers. Along the way there are some wooden signs explaining about the area's flora and fauna. The signs, created by the Peace Corps what must be some time ago, are weathered and/or broken and/or covered in foliage. I imagine this was an ideological attempt by some young American to improve tourism (and the locals' income) in the vicinity. But they forgot to leave some cash with locals so they could maintain the signs.
A sign of the times
What I learned is that pretty much everything used to be a cloud forest with animals like the Andean bear and tapir roaming around. But now it is all farmland, the animals are gone and pretty much the only thing remaining of the original cloud forest are a few twisted trees and the clouds. 
There is a very high chance for clouds today
 As I keep going up the clouds roll in and I have lost any chance of having a grand view. I am submersed in clouds and thunder is booming overhead, but no rain yet. Also there has not been a sign for a while indicating that the Refugio is near, though I believe I am close. My guess is that by now I am at least at 11,000 feet (3,400 m). I need to make a decision to keep going or turn around. Did I mention that my leg muscles are screaming in agony? The light drizzle convinces my better judgement that waiting out a rain storm would mean the trail would be a soggy nightmare. So I head back without making it to El Refugio. As I descend it starts hailing which perhaps is a sign from the volcano gods that I have over-stayed my welcome. So I ramble down in a sort of combo light jog and mud surf while taking intermittent breaks under trees. I never made my final destination, but I did get some good altitude logging about 5,000 feet on my scrawny legs and earned myself a well-deserved trip to Baños' hot springs.
My natural refuge from the hailstorm
One last thing which is unavoidable in Baños is melcocha or taffy. It is made from a boiling process of pure sugar cane juice and it hangs from wooden pegs on just about every other shop on the main street. On busy weekend afternoons we can see the young men stretching and pulling the taffy into shape.
Waiting for a $0.25 piece of taffy
And the final avoidable thing in Baños is the traditional Andean dish of cuy or roasted guinea pig. Many tourists try it on trips to Ecuador and Baños is probably a good place to do it. The market restaurants were booming at lunchtime on the weekend. A Peruvian traveler we meet says it tastes like rabbit. A plate with rice, salad and a chunk of cuy will cost $3. If you want the whole rodent to yourself it will set you back $15.

Add a new dimension to your Sunday BBQ

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