Banos the centre of adventure

IT sounded like thunder at first.

It had been raining most of the night and into the morning so it could have been.

But the "cap-i-tarn" of my raft told me it was the river stones moving below us.

With the pace of the rapids we had launched ourselves onto, I wasn't surprised.

A two-hour white water rafting experience was cut to about one thanks to the fast-running Pastaza River.

The river runs south-east of Baños which is in the centre of Ecuador.

Nestled among enormous mountains, the cute town is dwarfed but has a huge number of travel agencies acting as a central point for adventures.

My rafting adventure was proceeded by an in-depth safety exercise with many options should we fall from the raft.

I didn't realise that safety talk would come in so handy so quickly.

I think it was our third heavy rapid which saw us flip and four of us fall out.

But getting us all back in the raft was executed so well, it became my favourite part of the ride.

For about $25, I was given all the equipment - including wetsuit, shoes, helmet and safety gear - hotel transfers and lunch afterwards.

On the flip side, I don't recommend the horseriding.

I thought I would go into the mountains and have a lovely experience eyeing the amazing vistas.

Instead, I was entirely uncomfortable for two hours on a horse smaller than me.

I may be exaggerating but that poor horse laboured up every hill and had no interest in the direction I wanted it to head.

And I was not in the mountains, I was walking the back streets of Baños among traffic at times.

I was using a piece of rope for reins and had rope with triangle stirrups rubbing painfully as I rode.

I saw a lovely waterfall but all I wished was I could get off my horse.

A visit to Baños does mean plenty of waterfalls though.

And a trip on a Chiva bus, also known as a party bus, is a must.

Blaring a mix of Latin music and old western hits from a truck with open seats in the back is a lot of fun.

There is even standing room at the back to dance.

You stop all the way along the valley taking photos of the gorgeous falls and then take a 40-minute hike (round-trip) to one of the most impressive at the end.

I had wanted to do the same thing on bike but there were no tours leaving and I didn't want to hire a bike to do it alone.

Great alternative which was capped off with a nostalgic final song - Kylie Minogue's The Locomotion.

From Baños you can also jump from a bridge, similar to bungy-jumping but you swing, for about $20, go canyoning and hike the numerous mountains.

You can no longer hike the Tungurahua Volcano after recent eruptions in 1999, 2006 and in November last year.

The town was a no-go zone for several months but the volcano, which is now snow-capped, is sleeping again for the moment.

It's a little daunting to see all the lava escape route signs around town though.

After a hard day's fun around Baños, there is nothing better than a trip to the hot springs.

Baños in Spanish means baths and is the reason for the town's name.

Piscina de La Virgen is open from 5am to 10pm with a one-hour closure from 5pm to refill the pools from the thermal springs below.

The best idea is start in the middle pool, about 38C.

Then - as the old Spanish men were only to happy to goad us - you jump in the cold pool, back in the warm pool, splash under cold showers and try the 42C pool.

We had tried the hot pool but could only get to our knees before jumping out squealing.

The old men, known as viejo verde (literally green old men for trying to retain their youth), assured us the cold water was the trick and they were right.

We were suddenly able to bear the temperature of the hot pool.

One of them offered me a place at his house and he would take me the rest of the way to Peru.

Apparently they love young girls, especially foreigners, so we played along - but no thanks.

After softening up our muscles, it was time for a massage at one of the dozens of salons around town.

For $25 you can get a one-hour full-body massage.

For $45 you can add a facial and manicure to make it two hours of pampering.

When you hear what sounds like a Mr Whippy van nearby, don´t rush out. It´s only the garbage truck.

You´ll still people running after it though, but with their garbage bags because they were running late.

And keep an eye out for their rubbish bins, always a clown or Disney character which is a clever way to disguise waste I think.

There are also plenty of great restaurants around town and a whole street dedicated to night entertainment.

The Leprechaun bar is a worthy choice with a mix of salsa, merengue and reggaeton music playing, and a selection of boys only to happy to show you how to dance them.

Out the back is a blazing bonfire to keep you warm and great bartenders who will mix a flaming "Bob Marley".

The signature shot is grenadine, mint liquer, banana liquer and white rum which is set alight.

You stick in a straw, straight to the bottom, and suck fast before the straw melts.

Another top base for hiking is Cuenca, about eight hours south.

The Cajas National Park is known for its cloud forests, rocky, lunar landscapes and more than 200 lakes.

A local bus takes about 45 minutes to one of the many lakes you can hike around but bring your warm gear because it is bone-chillingly cold at 4000m above sea level.

We warmed up back in town with a wander around the old town and its markets.

Ecuador's third largest city has charming cobblestone streets, domes churches and white-washed buildings with red tiled rooves.

Don't forget to take your camera out at night for some great shots of the churches.

And head to the discotheque street for cheap cocktails and a good dance but take ID to get into the best clubs.

For now, Adios Ecuador. Hola Peru.

A Latin Affair is a travel column written by Rae Wilson.



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