“It’s all downhill,” at least that is what the tour companies that line the main street in Baños, Ecuador will tell you.
Baños is located in the middle of Ecuador, between the Andes mountains and Ecuadorian Amazon. As you walk down the street, Cafés are on every corner and I suggest you don’t leave without trying some of their famous sugar cane taffy or submerging yourself in one of the many thermal pools. At first glace, Baños might seem overly touristy with the souvenir shops and endless choices of group tours, but spend a week in this town and it is hard not to fall in love with it.
Everywhere you look you are surrounded by lush green mountains and waterfalls. This is a town that is built around adventure travel. You can canyon down the mountain in the morning, white water raft in the afternoon and bungee jump the next morning. Almost every activity is available, whatever your adrenaline desires.
We decided to rent bikes and ride the well known Ruta de las Cascadas. Not the most daring extreme sport, but it was a good way to start the week.
Ruta de Las Cascadas
The main route is 18 km long ending at El Pailón del Diablo and you are told “it is all downhill”. In an attempt to set your expectations correctly – while the majority is downhill, there is still quite a bit of actual biking to do. We rented bikes for $5 from one of the many tour operators along the street, ours came with helmets, a map and a bike lock, but sometimes you have to request these luxuries specifically.
If you want to go further you can continue on after El Diablo to Puyo (the launching town for the Ecuadorian Amazon) which is another 42 km. This is a full day ride if you want to make it back the same day so start early in the morning.
Biking Along With Cars, Trucks and Buses
What I didn’t expect was to be biking on the road with the oncoming traffic, which is another reason I suggest you remember to get a helmet. Once you’ve been to Ecuador you’ll understand, but the drivers are insane. No one pays attention to the lines on the road and speed limits don’t seem to matter. Stay to the right side of the road, most cars will do a courtesy honk to let you know they are passing, but not everyone will.
Most of the tunnels have paths to the right for bikes allowing them to go around the tunnel and not risk oncoming traffic. There is one tunnel that you have to go through on your bike so be careful – the tunnel will limit the visibility of oncoming traffic and if you take the tunnel with a big bus it will be a tight squeeze. For the remaining tunnels, watch for a path to turn off just before the tunnel on the right.
Finding the Waterfalls
Most likely you will receive a map from the tour company that will list out the more popular waterfalls. Some of them aren’t easily found from the road so be prepared to hike a few 100+ meters to get you to the falls.
You don’t just ride past the waterfalls, you ride through them, you climb under them and if it’s a hot day you jump in them! Some of the waterfalls will offer cable car rides across the valley to get you closer, and others will have zip lines and jump points for the adrenaline junkie. In true Baños fashion, these waterfalls are a full contact adventure!
In Awe of the Dense Green Vegetation
Biking along the Ruta de las Cascadas is breathtaking and totally worth the 2 hours of pedaling. The closer you get to Puyo, the greener your surroundings get. The waterfalls are all shapes and sizes and the clouds hug the edges of the mountains to create a extremely picturesque day of biking.
If you skip all of the waterfalls on the trail, make sure you see El Pailón del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron). This is the waterfall with the most fury and draws the biggest crowds. Its dramatic display of strength is best viewed up close. For $1.50 you can walk down 10 – 15 minutes of stairs and crawl through a small rock passageway allowing you to get up close with the falls.
Getting Back to Baños
The competitor in me wanted to conquer the hills on the way back, but the logical side of me knew the stupidity in that decision.
There are white trucks waiting outside the entrance to Pailón del Diablo. They charge $2 pp to load your bike in their truck and drive you back to Baños. They will wait until the group is at least 5 – 6 people, so start rounding up the troops if you want to leave sooner than later.
You can do this from any point along the route. You’ll probably see trucks lined up at the main stops along the way, but if you are in between, you can always flag down a truck too.
Getting to and Around Baños
There are direct buses to Baños from Quito or Guayaquil. Bus schedules in Ecuador are hard to come by, but if you show up at the bus station in the morning, there is most likely a bus going to your destination with one of the many companies to choose from.
We came from Cuenca and took a bus to Ambato and easily transferred to a bus going to Baños. And by easily, I mean the bus driver got out and ran across traffic with us to stop the bus that was going the other way. Ambato is a bit out of the way coming from Cuenca but the buses leave more often to Baños, if you want to guarantee a short transfer. Another city that you can transfer is Riobamba, which is about 1 hour south of Ambato. Both cities will get you to Baños and are easy transfers.
Once you get to the bus station I suggest walking to your hostel. Nothing is more than a mile away. The taxi drivers will offer you a ride, but trust me Baños is a town made for walking!
Couples Travel Tips
- Meet up with other bikers along the way. Since you are driving on the road, a bigger group will help make you more visible to the oncoming cars.
- Bring snacks and water with you. You expend a lot of energy throughout the day and one of our most relaxing moments was slowing down at the base of the waterfall and enjoying some fruit and bread we brought with us.
- Wear sunscreen. While you are coasting downhill on your bike you won’t feel the sun beating down on you. The Ecuador sun can be unforgiving, so come prepared to prevent a burn.