Monday, April 29, 2013

Baños

After reluctantly leaving Vilcabamba I made my way to Banos for another week of Spanish school, which I’d pre-booked from Montanita. I’d also pre-booked a shuttle bus back to Cuenca, which was a car this time. In fairness I took a different time to the one I’d booked, so they did not know I was leaving then. However, it meant sitting next to a really fat dude who took up half the back seat, when there were three of us in the back. Why the driver didn’t put him in the front and move the regular size guy into the back, I’ll never know. Anyway, it was a shit 3.5 hour journey back to Cuenca for the three of us in the back.


I did another overnight stay in Cuenca to break the journey, but left early for Banos in the morning. It takes about 7 hours. We stopped at some road house for lunch. The food was as you’d expect. Well, as you’d expect for a road house in South America. Meat. Rice. Unidentified fried stuff. Thankfully I had a bag full of raw vegan goodies from Vilcabamba. My lunch was excellent.

This photo is from our lunch break. Sticking wooden blocks under the tyres doesn't inspire much confidence in our mode of transport through the mountains:



At Ambato, they basically yell out to all the Gringos to get off the bus and cross the road, where we waited about 5 seconds for a bus going to Banos. Then it takes about an hour to get there, through some more picturesque scenery. There are lots of volcanoes around here--some of which are active--but you need good weather to see anything. Unfortunately, it is the rainy season so I didn't see any. Plus it generally means walking up mountains, which I think everyone who reads this blog knows I’m not overly keen on.

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So, no volcano spotting for me on the way to Banos. However, we did pass a town called Pelileo where every shop sells jeans. It was so strange. I kept wondering if there were factories full of Asian kids with sewing machines out the back somewhere.

Here's a picture I stole from the internet:




After arriving in Banos I went to this hostel recommended to me by Martijn in Vilcabamba. It was pretty nice, although their WiFi password seemed unreasonably complicated. On the first night I met two American families in the kitchen, who were vegan or vegetarian. I keep meeting loads of vegetarian/ vegan people on this trip, it's excellent. And the gave me their leftover veggies when they left. I made a curry, hostel style. But it was not the best one I've ever made since you cannot buy veggie stock in Ecuador. Seriously, what is the deal with that? All the stock cubes are all full of meat by-products and chemicals. So I’ve added “making a good vegan curry in a communal kitchen” to my list of South American pursuits. Stay tuned.




Banos is pretty cool. There are two highly recommended restaurants here that are not veggie, but have good veggie menus and they know what vegan means. One is Casa Hood, and the other is Café Hood. They used to be owned by a married couple, but now they are divorced. Oh well.


Across the road from Café Hood is this veggie place called Sativa Studio Cafe. It is run by a Rastafarian dude from the Dominican Republic. The food is excellent, as is the 7 spices coffee. Most people at home know I don’t drink coffee often anymore. However, my coffee consumption appears to have a direct, positive correlation with my bread consumption. This means whenever I’m travelling, I tend to drink more coffee since I also eat a lot of bread.

I went to Rasta guy’s restaurant a few times and tried everything except the tamales, since his wife makes them and she’d gone somewhere for the Easter weekend. Speaking of Easter, what is the deal with South America and not eating chocolate? You might want to sit down to read this.

There are no Easter Eggs here. It’s weird and very, very wrong.

But I didn't let this stop me from eating chocolate over Easter, especially when I found this raw vegan stuff, which I promptly became addicted to:






I love that this brand (which of course is organic and fair trade) does raw chocolate. So good. My average daily spend went up in Banos because of chocolate. In other non-related food news, you can’t buy any cans of chickpeas in this town. I don’t understand why but it’s really annoying.


I did a week of school here. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Gaby’s school in Montanita, but my teacher was good and she did a good job at confusing me with even more past tenses. I also practiced my Spanish with the guy who works at the hostel, even though his English is really good.


One of the nights I stayed here, a Finnish chick arrived in the room. I liked her. She learnt English by moving to Dublin so half of what she said was with an Irish accent. She also found two guys from Peru wandering around and they ended up staying at this hostel as well. They only spoke Spanish and Quechan so it was good to practice with them since they spoke clearly and slowly. Although that could be because they were stoned. Hmm... They also cooked us dinner cos they had the munchies.

I also met a bunch of Canadians in Banos. The first one was some dude from the Yukon who kept telling me about all these places to go hiking and camping and eat bugs when I get to the jungle. I don’t think he listened to a word I said to him during our conversations cos he would know that I hate all these things. Also, the Yukon sounds really boring except for seeing the Northern lights, which he made sound amazing. The other Canadians were from some farming region in Alberta and they were really into organic, natural foods. Obviously I liked them a lot and we had numerous conversations about all the things wrong with Western diets. They also gave me this book about avoiding cancer, which is excellent and everyone should read.

During the week I did not do anything touristy since I'm such a diligent student, so I had to fit it into one weekend, which actually wasn’t that hard. However, the town was packed with people, since there is an annual Easter pilgrimage on Thursday night from Ambato to Banos. Half (exagerated) of them walk and get drunk. I don’t know why, cos there’s lots of mountains and it takes about 6 hours or so when you’re fit and sober. Someone else wrote that up here. However, when I was walking to school, I did see a fair few drunk youths being held up by their mates. Good times.

Here's some shots of Banos:









I like that you can rent buggies here and they are legal to drive around in. Unfortunately, I think they are designed a bit like go-carts meaning I would not be able to reach the peddles. The downside (apparently) is that if you take one up the volcano and it's raining (which it was most of the time), your hands freeze.




"Banos" means "baths" in Spanish and because of the volcanoes around there are public baths/ hot springs to go in. There are about three here, but only one in town. 



I don't really understand what this does:



Anyway, a busy town meant packed baths, so I didn't go cos it seemed kinda gross with all those people sitting in the same water. Plus the best ones I went to were in Pucon, so I wasn't that upset.


They love sugar cane here. This stuff is everywhere. I think they make it into some kind of drink that rots your teeth. Actually, that would explain all the dentists around.




You can jump off bridges here. Not like bungy jumping either. They tie a rope around your middle and you jump off the bridge. Everyone I spoke to who did it said it hurt a lot.


This is the main one you can jump off in Banos:




Here's one in a nearby town, where a guy has just jumped off (he is in line with the sign):



On Easter Saturday I went rafting for the first time. It was awesome. Seriously, it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done and I want to do it again. Interestingly (or not) I was the only Gringo/a so all the safety instructions were given in Spanish. Thankfully my Spanish was good enough and when combined with hand gestures I understood the main points so I wouldn't drown.


The start:





However, I ended up joining another group in a different tour since they were ready to go and I was on my own. Afterwards, I went to the restaurant with that group, which was included in the price. I don’t know why. It was very average and I would have preferred to get back to the hostel sooner and have a warm shower since it was pissing down rain and I was a bit cold.

Then the guides invited me to go back to Banos in their van. I don’t know why. Actually I do. One was hitting on me big time but I wasn’t really interested and I went out the above mentioned health conscious Canadians instead when I got back. That said, the van ride back was good for practicing my Spanish.

The next day I did a waterfalls tour on a chiva bus that belted out pop tunes at high volumes and had flashing lights, which made the bus look like a club when we went through tunnels. Of course there was a pole in the back section, which naturally all the Ecuadorians danced around.

Here's another picture I've stolen from the internet:




The waterfalls were ok, but after Iguassu, they’re all a bit meh now. But here’s some pictures anyway.









This is apparently Jesus' head:





And that is Banos. Done.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Vilcabamba


While I was in Montanita, I met an English girl who was living here and asked her where her favourite place in Ecuador is. She said Vilcabamba. So I went there after Cuenca. This was a bit out of my way since I hadn’t planned to go south. The 3.5 hour ride to Loja was quite picturesque. You go through the mountains and are literally driving through clouds in some parts. And no travel sickness for me this time thanks to my $1 drugs.

I arrived in Loja, which looks kinda dodgy and boring and had to get to the bus station. The guys in the shuttle tried to pressure me into paying them $20 to take me to Vilcabamba. No. Cuenca to Loja only cost $12 and that journey was heaps longer. So I jumped in a taxi to the bus station then got a bus, which cost $1.

Main square in Vilcabamba:



I stayed at the Izhcayluma hostel, which is awesome. Then again, it’s run by Germans, so you’d expect it to be good. No surprise really, where there are mountains, there are Germans! 

Here's one now:


Obviously I knew no one and my dorm room was fully of German speakers. So naturally I wandered up to the bar to make friends with the boozers, who were mostly American and English, or Dutch staff. It appears the Germans are not that into drinking since they have to get up early each day to walk up mountains. 

So, on the first day, I joined some women to do one of the walks for a couple of hours. It was pretty amazing scenery, but walking up mountains is really hard, especially when you have to walk through creeks and mud and shit (not literally shit).







Therefore, this was the one and the only walk I did. The (German speaking) Swiss women on the other hand, did all the walks in the time I was there. Instead of doing difficult walks, I chose the easier option of going into town, having massages, lying by the pool, and watching some English guys play Marco Polo while trying to avoid the dog which kept jumping in and fucking up their game. Good times.



Interestingly (not really), there was a German dude in my dorm who never did anything. He didn’t even go to the pool or bar. He just lay in the hammock outside out room, until his laptop or kindle needed recharging, in which case, he’d lie on his bed so he could plug them in. But then some Aussie chicks from Perth and a German girl I met in Montanita turned up, and he started coming to the restaurant for dinner with them. Hmm…

I love the plants in the Andes, even though I’m pretty sure this first one is a weed!



On my one and only mountain walk, we walked past some organic garden place so we went inside for look. I ate some of their greens (like basil). I couldn’t help it, they looked yum. And I was right.


The food at Izhcayluma was really good. And check out this view from the restaurant at breakfast!


I think you can also watch the sunset here in the afternoon. Sunsets, whatever. Maybe I can hold hands with someone too. Ha!

So, back to the restaurant food. There is a good veggie menu but I also like that there are a bunch of meat dishes where the meat can be substituted for tempeh that is made by some dude in the town. Good thinking Germans.

In other food news, the Vilcabamba Juice Factory is awesome and does a lot more than just juice. They have loads of raw vegan foods and did a magic green smoothie. I ended up spending a lot of money on food here.


So, Vilcabamba was very cool. I liked it a lot and would have stayed longer if I hadn’t booked more Spanish lessons in Banos next week. I highly, highly recommend going here.

Julian Assange's new home?

Pros: beautiful scenery, awesome Juice Factory, very touristy so you can get by speaking English or German.

Cons: pain in the arse to get to unless you are heading to/from Peru, full of tourists and expats, expats buying up all the land are inflating prices which is pissing off the locals (unless they got the money).