After a tetchy day of travel sans caffeine we checked in to our hostel in Baños, a tourist hotspot nestled amongst a series of verdant mountains. From the sheer rock faces surrounding the town poured a series of waterfalls, while nearby Mt Tungurahua (a disconcertingly active volcano) lurked amongst the clouds.
Erin had fond memories of Baños from her previous visit to Ecuador, and that evening we visited the Leprechaun Bar, where 00’s bangers, cheap (but lethal) cocktails and a large fire pit kept us entertained until the wee hours. Groaning under the weight of our hangovers the next morning, we fled to a KFC to fill up on grease and shame.
Sunday was a washout; we took advantage of the heavy rain to carry out a bit of life admin (a challenge when living out of backpacks) and update our journals. The next morning we woke early for a day trip with GeoTours. Along with our guide, Paolo, we met a travelling expat and his US daughter, who was taking a break from her pre-med studies for an adventure in South America.
After pausing for an outstanding view over the Rio Pistaza, we drove to a sanctuary in the rainforest which looks after animals rescued from poachers. There are over 300 species of mammal in Ecuador, and we were lucky enough to see a small but entertaining handful of them. Lola the Spider monkey loved it when we scratched her tummy, straining against the mesh and emitting deeply satisfied grunts. Mantled Howler monkeys scowled from under their furrowed brows, while restless Capuchins screeched as they ran amok. Tiny Squirrel monkeys were everywhere, scampering amongst the trees around us and chittering away.
We saw a number of giant rodents, a mud-loving Peccary and a Red-Coated Quati, which snuffled joyfully in the dirt and followed us throughout our tour. Non-mammalian residents included the deadly (yet innocuous-looking) Piranha fish, as well as a number of dozing snakes – these included several Viper and Boa species.
Following our sanctuary tour we boarded a narrow, hand-carved canoe and set off on the swollen Rio Puyo, our guide alternatively paddling and bailing out water as the white waters washed over our tiny vessel. We dried out with a hearty Ecuadorean lunch of Tilapia boiled in banana leaves.
Refreshed, we drove to a nearby indigenous village for a bowl of Chicha, some tribal face painting and lessons in the art of blow-pipery. The tribe were warm as welcoming, though their trussed-up Howler monkey pulled at our heart strings a tad. We picked up the odd Kichwa word, discovering that this language gifted us the words ‘Puma’, ‘Condor’, ‘Llama’ and ‘Quinoa’ amongst others.
Hiking through the rainforest to the Hola Vida waterfall, we battled mud and the jungle humidity as Paolo gave us a run-down of the local flora, including:
– ‘Walking trees’, which cover up to 20 metres a year by marching with their exposed root ‘legs’. Whilst growing, these roots are said to resemble something a tad unwholesome…
– A blood-red tree sap known as ‘Blood of the Dragon’, known to have healing properties.
– The trees from which Curare and Imodium are derived.
– A plant whose leaves wilt when brushed against, tricking passing herbivores that it has died.
– ‘Sika’, whose bark is mixed with water and snorted to cure sinusitis. Sampled – hellish!
We ate surprisingly tasty Lemon ants, watched a marching army of Leaf-Cutter ants and dodged huge, rock-hugging water spiders before arriving at the magnificent waterfall. On the way back to Baños we stopped at a Cocoa farm where we watched the process of chocolate manufacture before tucking in to the best hot chocolate in the world, slipping cocoa beans to a friendly parrot which perched disconcertingly on our necks. Arriving back in town, we collapsed in to bed after our hectic, but highly enjoyable day.