Baños and beyond (with bikes)

Having only seen the spectacular landscapes that the Andes had to offer from a car window, we decided on hiring a couple of bikes for the day to take a leisurely ride along the world’s longest mountain range.

Trying half a dozen agencies we finally found a competitive one offering day bike rental with helmet and map for just $5. The map detailed the popular route from Baños to Puyo (42kms) which passed by several waterfalls, zip line stations, bridge jumping points and the astounding Andes. The route was exactly what we were hoping for, a nice pace over five or six hours surrounded by nature and at the end point; taxi buses to ferry people all the way back. Eagerly we set off.

Here are some of the highlights.

© John Brownlie 2012

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Baños and the river

The half hour drive from Baños centre that cut through and wound around the jagged and curvaceous Andes gave us chance to get to know the other would-be rafters; two graduates fresh from university in Belgium, an English teacher based in Northern Spain and a family of four from Germany traveling Latin America. With the exception of Alicia this was everyone’s first time white-water-rafting.

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Baños and bridge jumping

Ever since I saw and read about puenting (bridge or swing jumping) I knew I had to do it.

Different from bungee jumping as the rope doesn’t have the same elasticity and the harness is situated around the body – most of it is painfully focused on the groin – rather than the feet. The rope is shorter and instead of falling or jumping a dive is required to create a swinging motion.

However standing on a tiny ledge, a fierce wind taunting, white waters raging beneath and several pieces of yarn attached to you, doubt enters the mind. Doubt quickly turns into fear followed by anxiety, cowardice, fragility, inadequacy and impotence. With the gut churning, legs wobbling and nausea setting in, the only thought is ´WHY?!´. Then above the loud logical thoughts of sanity, a clear commanding voice is heard “3…. 2….. 1……”.

And before you know it you´re screaming like a demented banshee.

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Baños and the waterfalls

A short drive from Baños’ centre are the Chamana waterfalls. It was there we spent a morning working our way down multiple waterfalls by the art of canyoning (a combination of hiking, jumping, sliding, swimming, climbing and rappelling/abseiling).

The view from atop [Chamana Falls, Baños]

Our group was small so we were given the option of tackling four or seven waterfalls, we eagerly chose the latter. A short twenty minute hike followed by a ten minute lesson and we were scaling down our first wall with some confidence.

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Baños, the playground of South America

Just a few hours hours away from Quito, Baños is a break away from the city life. Known as the adventure capital of Ecuador, it offers a wide variety of activities from the tame and innocent to the wild and extreme.

The city of Baños, Ecuador

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Quito and the middle of the world

Quito, the capital of Ecuador and the start of our adventure in the southern hemisphere.

We arrived by plane from Guatemala to the first city (along with Krakow) to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The oldest capital in South America, founded at the end of the first millennium, is situated at 2,800m (9,350ft) above sea level. Whilst researching Latin America we’d read horror stories of travellers being hit with altitude sickness who had been unable to function for several days, in rare cases the height had been fatal as it caused swelling of the brain and/or fluid in the lungs. Symptoms include; dizziness, confusion, severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, convulsions, swelling of the extremities and shortness of breath. Not wanting to be bed-ridden or end up six feet under we took the precaution of buying some Diamox (altitude sickness pills). Thankfully however our three-day stay in the elevated capital produced no ill-effects.

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Antigua: A tree-house away from home

We took the overnight bus from Flores to Antigua via Guatemala City. We shared the double-decker luxury transport with locals and a troupe of God-fearing Christians. Although the two are normally synonymous in Latin America this particular religious group were fresh out of the United States ‘to make a difference’, one of them had said.
They were instantly recognisable as they all wore the same outfit; bleached pure white shirts, sinfully black ties and shiny laminate name-tags that clasped to their top pockets bearing their name and ‘Jesus Cristo’ in large bold italics.

I mention them because the ten hours south to the capital consisted of a chorus of incessant babbling with Bible anecdotes as a theme.

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Ancient Cities: Tikal

We were woken minutes from Tikal to the screams of ‘Monkey!’. A man, who we later found to be an employable tour guide, was frantically jumping around, wildly gesticulating and shouting excitedly at us from the front of the bus. As we waited for his next animal impression, ahead of us a family of howler monkeys were crossing the road. The five furry mammals were marching in unison with their long black tails tucked in a tight spiral. The driver slowed down so as not to disturb them and we watched in wonder as they disappeared one by one from view into the thick jungle.

We ditched the poor charades player at the first opportunity as he was demanding more than we were willing to pay for his services. Leaving him to entertain the other guests we set off on our own.

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The promise and the sunny road to Tikal

We woke at 4am under the promise of watching a sunrise over the Mayan ruins. Edy, the smooth linguist, who arranged our hotel room also sold us ‘the once in a lifetime trip to Tikal’. The jack-of-all-trades was quick to recommend the first bus of the day to catch the sun rising over the horizon and hitting the ancient city. ‘The jungle wakes up when sunrises’, Edy said, beginning to count the benefits on fingers. ‘Howler monkeys, exotic birds, insects fill air with the noises. There are also less busy, not as hot as afternoon and not too much rain.’

Waiting in the moonlit street surrounded by a dozen other droopy-eyed tourists, the door-to-door speech echoed in our minds. The semi-darkness hid our sleep deprived faces as we waited in silence for our ride. The realisation that we had all potentially been duped in a 3rd world country was worn on our faces. However, the doubt soon vanished as the distant roaring of an engine cut through the quiet.

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Flores, Guatemala & Hotel Mirador del lago

Flores is a small island located in the north of Guatemala. The entire island can be walked in just twenty minutes. Surrounding the island are the waters of Lake Peten which for centuries have provided a source of food and water. Bright colours from the local houses caught our eye when walking the cobbled streets as rickshaws bounced around looking for a fare. The island is a hub for tourists wanting to explore the lake or the Mayan cities nearby.

We arrived there late afternoon and were introduced to Hotel Mirador del Lago by Edy, a charismatic fast-talking tour guide that joined our bus from the border (read more about that journey here).

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