Hiking through the hills around Banos, Ecuador we heard a noise above us. Two kids hanging out in the trees giggled and hid from us as we looked up. They were minding a herd of sheep along the path. Waving and chatting with them, the kids turned shy and refused to engage us in conversation. Turning to continue our hike, we heard the landing of a berries on the path. As we looked back the kids waved at us, smiling micheviously from their perch. On our return back down the mountain they chatted with us a little more and thankfully we were spared from their berry artillery.
Over 5 months on the road and this is the first review we have written for a hostal. Princess Maria was simply a breath of fresh air. The cheapest of all of our accommodations in Ecuador (about $6 each) we had only intended to stay in Banos one night but quickly extended our stay. The owners were always present ready to supply any and all visitors with whatever kind of information that might be needed or just to hang out and practice some Spanish.
Aside from being a cheap hostalling option, Princess Maria provided us with everything we needed for our stay in Banos. We had a private room with a private bathroom and all the hot water we wanted, which wasn’t much thanks to the nearby hot spring. There was a kitchen where we cooked ourselves a nice meal as well as free Wifi internet. The hostal is well decorated with a TV common room as well.
Usually we skip the hostal and go to the small hotel around the corner. If more hostals were like Princess Maria we wouldn’t go anywhere else….ever.
Alive and happy after Danny’s second attempt on the river, and after overcoming the worst of my stomach bug, we took a very bumpy ride through the jungle back into the mountains to get to Banos. A lovely mountain town, famous really for its hot springs, but also a number of adventure activities from mountain biking to whitewater. Advised against kayaking in the nearby rivers due to pollution, and after seeing the “mountain bike” path (the curvy, heavily traveled mountain road), we decided to just spend some time relaxing.
Heading to the hot springs our first night, we were shocked to find them crowded, no, really they were overflowing with people. Packed in like sardines into two small pools cut into the mountain the setting was relaxing but the atmosphere was anything but. Turns out the hot springs are extremely popular at night and after about 10 minutes we couldn’t take the crush of people any more and headed back to the hostel for dinner.
Taking it easy, we spent the next day hiking through the mountains (really easy at 2000m in altitude!) from view point to view point. After about 3km, we came across a beautiful cafe high above the city. Accessible only by foot or mule, cafe de cielo was part of a luxury spa and resort complex. Very affordable, just not on a backpackers budget, we sprung for two hot chocolates instead. Continuing on our path, we climbed through cow pastures and farm land before reaching the highest viewpoint. Thwarted by clouds, we could only see the bottom third of the volcano.
Heading down to a viewpoint overlooking the city, we came across a shaking tree. Giggles from the tree tipped us off to the children inside before they offered us some fruit. Asking their names and sharing ours, Danny inquired as to what they were playing. We are monkeys they replied in laughter and you are a cow. Not processing what they said, Danny smiled. They called you a cow, I said to him. What? Danny said as he turned to the children. They erupted in laughter and we continued up the path.
Banos was relaxing and delicious. Apart from finding real pizza, we also found the first Ecuadorian chocolate bar that we liked. Unsatisfied with just one bar, we bought four to last us until Lima where hopefully we can restock. Although our packs might be small, somethings are just that important.
With Banos, our time in Ecuador had come to a close. Instead of 9 days we could have spent 90. This is a country just filled with outdoor activities and culture to go with it. Although we got some river time in and the all important equator, there is a lot we didn’t get to do in Ecuador like biking to indigenous villages or visiting the pacific coast at all.
The big thing we really missed out on was the the Galapagos. We had hoped to find a last minute deal while in Quito but the last minute deals were virtually non-existent because it is the middle of high season…which corresponds to the U.S. school year. Given the timing and the cost we figure that we can book a Galapagos trip sometime during their low season and fly from the USA for cheaper than we could do the trip for now. Since it is so close to the US we’d rather save our “big-ticket” money for things that are farther away and more difficult to return to….like Antarctica!
After our fun run down the river I was compeletly demoralized, not sure if I´d ever get in a kayak again since my skills had so completely failed me. Our raft-kayak guide Harry had been clear in telling me (thankfully, after the fact) that the boat I was in was simply horrible and that I should give it a try in different boat.
The next day Jill and I rented a boat, took a taxi (that´s how things work around here) to the river and jumped in to practice. I rolled upside down and came right back up. Easy as pie. Of course doing it in still water is easier than doing it in a rapid but I couldn´t even do that the day before. Clearly an improvement. We made plans to hit the river again the next morning…with other kayakers and no rafts.
The next day came around (so this is two days after the inital run down the river) and since Jill was up all night with a stomach bug she wasn´t able to join me. This left myself, Harry the guide, and another kayaker. The morning was a bit chilly made worse by the falling rain. The taxi took us to the river and once there, standing on the overlook, in the cold rain, I said that I thought the river looked much higher than it had before. Harry responded by telling me he´d never seen it this high in all the times he´d been on it.
I nearly shit my pants.
Somehow I mustered the intestinal fortitude to not turn back, to not get back in the taxi and just go back to the hotel and continue onto our next destination. Down to the river I went. Into the boat I went. Into the rapid I went. Recall that last time down the river I rolled twice in this first rapid – the first time I rolled back up (the only all day I did that the last time) and the second time was my first of 7 swims. This time I went in the rapid, and came out the other side without rolling and without swimming.
Made it though the second rapid just as easily as the first doing way better than I had two days prior. Almost having fun now I thought, almost. The third rapid was where things started to get hairy. A big big rock at the bottom of the rapid and I needed to get to the left of it. I tried but I didn´t get far enough left. I got caught in the wild water around the rock and went over. Tried a roll. Failed. Swam. Back on shore looking at the rock that had ruined my perfect beginning I felt stupid. The rock was at the end of the rapid. One more second and I would have been in smooth water. I could have rolled up but I panicked. Hopefully the day wouldn´t get any worse.
We floated past where we took our lunch break and where Jill nearly was killed by a poison dart frog. I thought of the kids playing by the river but was thankful we didn´t have to stop. The next rapid was my worst swim of the day the last time through and I didn´t want to dwell on it at all.
I entered the rapid. Darting around rocks and holes and going over big waves. Starting to have fun again. Made it through and floated over that long shallow space where I was dragged the last time. Haha, look whose floating today! Next up was the rock garden, the rapid that I swam through top to bottom last time. We started in and and I made it over the first few waves before getting clipped by something and going over. I knew I could do it and with all my strenght I forced a roll and came up…nice and easy. Woah, that felt good….and then it happened again, just as quickly…and just as quickly I was up again and through the rapid. Two combat rolls in the rock garden and I was 2 for 3 on the day. Things were looking up.
As it would go I would roll and come back up several more times throughout the day. Having fun and even starting to take a few chances. The rain continued to fall. The water stayed cold. Through it all though I warmed up and had fun. I realize now that my biggest mistake that first day was not checking out the boat first and there is no way I´ll do that again. I feel ready for the next river we find and am looking forward to stepping to the next level.
We came from Quito to Tena for the sole purpose of getting in some kayaking. Coming off the Andes into the Amazonian watershed we had been told by several people, including one person on Couchsurfing, that Tena was the place to go…it had rivers and actual locals who kayaked.
Before arriving in Tena I had only ever ejected from my kayak 3 times. The time first, another boat was on top of my paddle (we have photographic evidence) stopping my roll and the second second time was when we we stupidly went out to little falls on the Potomac while it was at flood stage and to this day we are still thankful we made it out alive. So really those two swims were more dumb luck than actual swims…
Imagine our surprise when on our first morning in Tena, as I was about to go out to one of the local outfitters to see about renting equipment, the owner of the hostel we were at come knocking at our door asking if we could be “safety boaters” for the day and follow a raft down the river. I point out that we’ve never done this river nor have any equipment with us (save for some very valuable noseplugs, thank you Ponch!) to which he offers to provide the equipment and says its OK that we’ve never done the river before. This marks our first day of “employment” since February…albeit a little bit sketchy.
After today my total number of “wet exits” from my boat stands at 10. Recall it was at 3 before the day began and that Jill and I were the “safety” boaters of the day.
With a few moments to ourselves before the raft is ready to depart, we practiced our rolling in the river. Jill came up no problem; I didn’t. Nothing. Not sure if the problem was with me, the paddle (which I initially blamed), or the boat (which I ultimately blamed), I was less than pleased with my chances for the day. I should also note that despite the fact we were kayaking in the headwaters of the Amazon River, these waters were glacier fed from the Andes and were quite cold…especially given that my cold water gear is safely stowed away in Pennsylvania.
We begin down the river. The water is pushy. The water is very pushy in every direction. The water is bigger, pushier and more chaotic and powerful than anything I’ve done yet. The river is a Class III river, and I’ve paddled Class IV but that was with my own gear, with the sun out, in far less pushy (more technical) water. Basically, I’ve done much more technical stuff, but this was something very different and something I just wasn’t prepared for.
We enter the first rapid. I see a large wave and somehow end up right in it. I flip over and manage to roll right back up. Fantastic I think, I came up and I wasn’t expecting it. I flew right into another large wave and, screaming obscenities, I survive…but as I’d just been under water I didn’t see the really big one coming up next. I went over. One roll attempt, two roll attempts, three roll attempts. My paddle is slicing right thorough the water as I’m trying to roll which means it’s not “catching” the water to roll me up to all that nice beautiful air just mere inches from my face. I panic. I eject, blaming the paddle. The water is cold but luckily this is big water so there aren’t many rocks to hit. I pull myself to shore where Jill and the raft are waiting for me.
I’m cold now, a bit shaky, but surprisingly OK for the length of the swim. I get back in and make it through the next rapid. Nothing major happens there but after the rapid Jill discovered a frog in her boat. I only mention this because seeing her scramble out of her boat at shore was rather hilarious. After that we had a couple more good runs of rapids and then a lunch break, where Jill fell out of her boat because the very poisonous Amazonian poison dart frog that was still in her boat was attacking her. We had just learned about the poisonous frogs in Quito and so this just had to be one of them. The local kids on shore got the frog out of the boat and made a new pet of him…not so poisonous after all.
The problem with lunch breaks when playing in cold water is that the water is always colder after eating. This means you’re a little bit less “responsive” to the challenges ahead. Almost immediately following lunch I flipped over again. Tried a roll, maybe two, who knows, and went for a swim again. This was a big rapid…not so much fun to be gasping for air while going through huge huge huge waves.. What made it worse was that between this rapid and the next one the river was very wide, very shallow, and very fast. This made it impossible for me to get to shore while being dragged along the bottom. Ow. Swam the next rapid from start to finish, as I’d not had an opportunity to get back into my boat. This rapid was called the Rock Garden. Ow. Made it through with Jill paddling beside me giving me support. Have I mentioned lately that I have an awesome wife? This swim, two rapids long, was at least a kilometer, maybe more. By this point the cold water and the rocks had both taken a pretty serious physical and mental toll.
I really don’t remember what caused the next swim…but swim I did. It was right after the previous swim through the rock garden. Generally once you start a day like this, it finishes like this. Somehow Jill ended up swimming too. I think because I was already in the water she panicked and missed her roll. Now we were both floating with not much time before the next rapid. The raft pulled us both in and got both of our boats onto the raft. While hanging onto the raft, about to be pulled in, we went over a rock, with me serving as the cushion between the the raft and the rock. Although this likely hurt, I was mostly too numb to notice. As I got pulled on board Jill was getting into her kayak and was launching off. As I was getting into my kayak the raft guide, Harry, said you have 30 seconds to get out before we enter the next rapid. He lied. I had more like 10. I was out in probably 12 but it was too late. I was going over again. This time though the raft had a bit of trouble (likely from being so close to the rapid with me and my boat still on board) so most everyone got to swim this time. Jill, the remaining safety boater (remember, we were working today) managed to tow one of the rafters back to the boat. We all take five after that.
My fifth swim occurred when I bumped into an upside down Jill. As she came up from being upside down I went over. I swam. While recovering from this one I started to shiver a lot. Too much time in very cold water. The next swim was when I bumped into right side up Jill. She goes over and I see her come up again as I go over. Since the water was smooth, and I still couldn’t roll, I decided to try to wait for her to come to get me since I saw her roll back up. I began counting slowly underwater. One, two, three, slow down, four, five; I made it to seven before ejecting. When I did finally eject I found that she was out of her boat as well (her second swim, my 6th) so I’m glad I didn’t push it to ten. That was all I was glad about. When recovering from this one I discovered that all the rafters thought my hands along the side of the boat (me calling for Jill to come and get me) was me drowning. They were quite freaked out. More fun.
After this we take a break to visit a small little Amazonian canyon. A nice break where Jill gives herself a mud facial. No picture of this because Jill had the camera and would not allow me to take a photo. Please post angry comments telling her that you want to see what she looks like with a mud facial. After this I swam once more. I didn’t even bother trying this time. My boat went over a rock and into a decent sized hole. I ejected and thankfully the raft came right over the top of the same rock to knock my boat out of the hole.
Not a banner day for me, that’s for sure. Hence, Ibuprofen was in the cards…mostly because of that really, really long swim with the really, really shallow water. The raft guide (who was actually the person from Couchsurfing who told us about Tena) told me that the problem was not my paddle, as I’d suspected, but probably the boat. He encouraged me to try it again in a different boat, not knowing if I’d be ready or willing, I pondered the idea…