Red mud, blue mud and steam baths

Pools at Piedra de Agua
Pools at Piedra de Agua

The last couple of days have presented more of the unexpected. On Friday, I went to Banos, (the suburb of Cuenca and not Banos de Ambato where I stayed a couple of weeks ago) with Paul, the American, who is also staying in the apartment. This Banos is renowned for its thermal pools and mud baths. There are a number of different ones but I had been recommended Piedra de Agua, which turned out to be a rather up market spa. It took some time to find it as there were few signposts and those that existed didn’t seem to point in the right direction. After asking a number of people, (giving us ample opportunity to practise our Spanish), we eventually found it and paid the quite large entry fee.

Red mud pool on the right and 'blue' mud pool on the left
Red mud pool on the right and ‘blue’ mud pool on the left

Whilst Paul went to have lunch, I was escorted to the Turkish steam bath to start the treatment. This involved two 10 minute sessions in the steam with a quick shower (supposedly cold) in between. Following this I had a red mud bath for 15 minutes, in which I had to coat myself in red mud, let it dry and then sit in the pool, which, not surprisingly given the amount of mud that was in it, looked fairly unappealing. (No photos of me with a mud caked face, thank goodness!) After cleaning off and showering, it was into the blue mud, which, disappointingly, was more of a pale green than the vivid blue I was anticipating. Each of these muds contained different minerals that are supposedly beneficial to the skin.

Next stop was a soak in an underground, candle lit hot pool for 10 minutes, 1 minute in a freezing pool (I declined this part) and then back into the hot pool, which actually became too hot for me once the other people in the pool had asked for more hot water. The last item on the agenda was the steam cabinet, also underground, in which my body was enveloped in a box filled with steam, whilst my head poked out of the top. It is possible to adjust the steam level to whatever you can stand. Ten minutes was quite sufficient in the box for me, although I could have stayed longer if I had wanted to. I would have to say that my skin definitely felt much softer after all this pampering!

On the way back to the bus stop, I stopped at a small cafe, as I was now starving, for a juice and something to eat. There was limited choice, so I ended up with 2 bananas (or rather plantains) that had been grilled (or maybe deep fried) that were cut in half and filled with a fairly bland type of cheese. I had seen these on street stalls many times and had been meaning to try them. They were surprisingly tasty and very filling.

Once back in Cuenca, the day was so beautiful (yes, sun!) that I went straight out again for a walk along the river front, where I admired the street art and the old houses. On the way back to the apartment, I zig zagged my way through the streets, discovering yet more plazas and beautiful buildings.

Markets and guinea pigs

Art in the park
Art in the park
Guinea pig anyone?
Guinea pig anyone?

I had originally planned to go to Salasaca on Saturday but, on talking to Angela (the Belgian/Italian lady), it appeared that the main market was on Sunday, so I had to think again. I lingered over breakfast with Angela and a young couple and their girls from Montreal. The others were all French speaking and I tried to converse but what came out of my mouth was such a jumble of French and Spanish, I had to revert to English. Why does this happen?!

After breakfast, it was still raining, so I dilly dallied around and decided to have a rest day. I still had to go and collect my laundry, so set off at lunchtime, when the sun had reappeared, and combined it with lunch at the market.

View from my lunchtime cafe table
View from my lunchtime cafe table
Inside the church
Inside the church

However, it was too crowded and then I espied the guinea pigs. Luckily, after I sat down, a contingent of Americans at the next table queried the price and I realised that it was going to cost me $20. Strangely enough, I decided that I didn’t really want to try it that much after all, so found an Ecuadorian cafe that served the ubiquitous chicken soup and a main for $2.75. Far more reasonable!

Afterwards, I strolled around, collected my laundry and visited the church and the bakery. The town was very busy and there seemed to be a number of girls entering the church, wearing some very fine dresses, so assume it must have been for a special ceremony.

Back at the house, I tried out the hammock chairs on the deck and read for most of the rest of the day.

Courtyard next to the church
Courtyard next to the church

On Sunday, Angela came with me to Salasaca. We were going to catch the bus but a rose growing Colombian couple, who were returning to Quito, offered us a ride, which we gladly accepted. It was pouring with rain again! As we drove up to the town, I suddenly realised that we were climbing higher and higher and started worrying about the altitude. Luckily, Angela had some aspirin as I definitely started feeling the effects once we had arrived. (Salasaca, I discovered later, is at the same altitude as Quito. Banos is only 1,600 metres and we had ascended quite rapidly, which is why I felt the effects.)

The market was a little disappointing as it was very small. Having read about it, I was expecting something much grander. If the guide books and websites were to be believed, we should also have been able to see ladies weaving in the streets. Alas, this was not the case, however, so the Lonely Planet is either out of date or wrong! Angela chatted to quite a number of people whilst I wandered around, guzzling water and trying not to think about nausea. We ended up sitting with Maria and Maria, who were shelling beans and selling a concoction of beans, potatoes and corn, which was surprisingly tasty and made me feel better.

Angela talking to Maria and Maria at Salasaca
Angela talking to Maria and Maria at Salasaca
Traditional dress in Salasaca
Traditional dress in Salasaca
Produce market in Banos
Produce market in Banos
An array of colourful fruit
An array of colourful fruit

There were a number of buses going back to Banos, Salasaca being on the main Ambato road, and we were taken back in a very airless bus (Ecuadorians do not like to open the windows) for the grand sum of 50 cents.

On arrival, we searched for the Sunday fruit and vegetable market, (different to the everyday covered market) which was well stocked with a variety of colourful produce. I bought an excess of mangoes, grenadillas and lychees, as well as an avocado, all of which, of course, cost next to nothing. I was set for the rest of the day, once we had stopped at the bakery, after which we made our way back to the Casa.

We hadn’t been back long and the heavens opened once again. I have been lucky, though, over the last few days, as the rain seems to have always held off whilst I have been walking.

More walking, swimming and a facial

The track up to Bellavista
The track up to Bellavista

I started the day feeling slightly out of sorts and didn’t quite know what I felt like doing. It was pouring with rain once again, so I lingered over breakfast, chatting to Angela, a Belgian lady, who lent me a hairdryer to dry out my camera in the hope that that would solve the problem. Eventually, I decided to go swimming after I had dropped my washing at the laundry.

Main park and church in town
Main park and church in town

By this time, it was nearly midday, which meant that it was too late to be able to get my clean clothes back that day and I then discovered that the swimming pool didn’t open until 2pm. What to do until then? I wasn’t hungry enough for lunch so walked up to the Bellavista view point and had a look at the town from a different hill.

A very small (old) library building
A very small (old) library building

Needless to say, the walk was vertical. It had also become quite warm, I had forgotten to bring water (actually, the bottle wouldn’t fit in my backpack with the washing and swimming togs) and I was wearing my warmest clothes (skinny jeans, which are definitely going to be jettisoned and merino t shirt). I was accompanied all the way to the top by the sound of a brass band, practising on one of the soccer fields below.

Back in town, I bought a much needed drink and then headed for the pools, where I waited for the cashier to arrive. I was the only person swimming in the lane pool, not surprisingly, as it was freezing. I forced myself to do 20 lengths, which was a struggle not only because of the cold but also because of my fitness, and then rewarded myself with a dip in the warmer pool, followed by a steam bath and jacuzzi. Afterwards, I squeezed myself back into my skinny jeans (who invented them?!) and went off to the money machine to extract the final instalment for the Galapagos. Here, I discovered that not all ATM’s restrict you to $300. This one permitted $600 per day, so it is a pity I didn’t find it earlier.

After finalising the trip with the travel agency, it was too late to stop for lunch as I had an appointment for a facial with Angie, the massage lady, at the Casa, so I bought a fruit juice and avocado in the market and some rolls and cake at the bakery and headed back. The sun had miraculously made an appearance, the sky was a deep blue and it was hot. What a difference it made to the landscape!

The facial was a whole new experience for me. Firstly, I had to lie on my stomach with my head, under a towel, hanging over the edge of the bed and a bowl of fragranced hot water. Whilst I was doing this, Angie massaged my back, gently this time, so it was very relaxing. Next, she wiped off the prolific sweat and scrubbed the top layer of skin off my face with something very gritty.  She also found a few spots to pierce with something sharp. (I hope the pain I undergo in order to make this blog interesting to readers is appreciated!) Then came the clay mask and I was left on the table, in the dark, listening to gentle music. Lastly, my face, shoulders and neck were gently massaged with cream. Wonderful! I can thoroughly recommend this treatment.

Afterwards, I was practically asleep, so another evening was spent in my room, doing very little.

My room is the one next to the hammocks
My room is the one next to the hammocks

Ruta de las Cascades

One of the many hydro electric dams
One of the many hydro electric dams

When I woke on Thursday, the weather looked a bit brighter so I decided to take the opportunity to hire a bike and do the ‘Ruta de las Cascades’ or Waterfall route. I had a leisurely breakfast, which is not unusual this week as the breakfast of homemade muesli, fresh fruit salad and homemade bread is excellent and there is always someone to chat to in the dining area. Afterwards I took advantage of the fast internet, which is more than a little spasmodic, to upload some photos. Meanwhile, the bike had been delivered and it had started to rain again!

Tunnel
Tunnel

Nevertheless, I set off. Luckily, the rain was light. Unluckily, the route took me down the busy main road, which made me nervous. I had to travel for some distance and through a tunnel, of which there were a number, before I could get on to a side road. Fortunately, I only had to cycle through one tunnel as there are a number of them and some are very long. They would have been very unpleasant on a bike with trucks and buses behind and overtaking.

The route was mainly downhill, so I could do a lot of freewheeling. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all along the side roads as these were just there to avoid the tunnels. The road followed the river gorge for about 20kms, passing a number of waterfalls and plenty of opportunities for adventure seekers to jump off bridges, zipline or do canyoning (not that I am absolutely sure what the difference is between the latter two!).

Plenty of opportunity for adrenaline seekers around Banos
Plenty of opportunity for adrenaline seekers around Banos
An unused orange tarabita attached to this unfinished house
An unused orange tarabita attached to this unfinished house

At the Rio Verde, I parked my bike, along with quite a few others, and walked down (and then naturally back up) a steep path to view the Diablo Waterfall. This was quite magnificent because of the sheer volume of water that was cascading down after all the rain we have had over the last few days.

I squeezed my way, almost on hands and knees, through the very narrow ‘path’ (if that is what it could be called) under rocks and then pulled myself up through a hole to get behind the waterfall itself. I’d like to say it was worth it but I don’t think my knees would agree! My camera is now only functioning spasmodically as it has been used so often in the rain lately that there is water inside it and I never know whether I will get the black screen of death or it will work normally when I turn it on. Hopefully, it will dry out soon.

After walking back up to the top, my bike was hoisted aboard a camionetta for the trip back to Banos. Thankfully, I didn’t have to cycle all the way back up the long hill, the locals having the transport well organised for tourists like me. I had to wait about half an hour, though, until 6 people had arrived, as it wasn’t worth it for the driver to go with any less. Our seats were wooden benches in the back of the truck which, naturally, were not fastened to the floor. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable ride but far more so than cycling would have been!

I was soaked through from the waterfall by this stage and getting quite cold, as well as being starving, so, once back in Banos with the bike returned and the next instalment paid to the travel agency for the Galapagos, I went to Cafe Hood, which overlooks one of the parks, where I had a huge plateful of Pad Thai. And I ate it all!

Afterwards, I took a short walk in town, mainly to look for the weaver that had made all the wall hangings in the Casa. They are all made by one family and there were quite a variety on display. However, none of them screamed ‘buy me’ so I left empty handed. These woollen wall hangings are traditionally made in Salasaca, which is close to Banos, so I will venture there for the Saturday market and see what I can find.

By the time I arrived ‘home’, I was feeling quite weary so had a very quiet evening (just for a change!).

Walking, reading and planning

Bridge over the river
Bridge over the river
Unusual colours in the rocks across the bridge
Unusual colours in the rocks across the bridge

The last couple of days have been spent relaxing, reading and walking. The weather has been variable, to say the least, so the latter has often been a bit wet.

On Tuesday, Jemima walked with me up and down a track on the opposite side of the river, past farmland with views of the town. She very kindly adjusted her pace to my very unfit one and we chatted about all sorts of things along the way. She has studied theatre, contemporary dance and art therapy and was brought up in the middle of nowhere in North Wales, so has quite a story to tell. She and Qui Quo (that spelling looks very strange!) are looking after Casa Verde for about 6 months, after which time, they hope to find a country where they are both able to live and work, which is currently proving to be a little challenging.

View down the valley towards the house
View down the valley towards the house
Mountain side houses
Mountain side houses
Looking down from the 'jumping off' bridge
Looking down from the ‘jumping off’ bridge

After the walk, she returned to the house, whilst I had lunch and a wander around Banos, looking for a hairdresser and collecting my laundry. In doing so, I chanced upon a travel agency offering tours to the Galapagos so I asked for information and then booked for the week after next. Having dithered for so long about whether to go or not, because of the extortionate expense, I decided that I would only have regrets if I didn’t. Unfortunately, in Ecuador, if you pay by anything other than cash, it incurs a 6% or 8% surcharge, so there were a lot of visits to the cash machine over the next few days. The ATMs here only allow you to withdraw $300 at a time, which is quite irritating as that, in itself, incurs extra bank charges. The banks always win!


I awoke on Wednesday to torrential rain and when Qui Quo told me that they had juggled the rooms so that I could have one upstairs (as opposed to next to the kitchen with a view of the washing line), I decided it was the perfect opportunity to read until the room was ready and the rain stopped. This happened about lunchtime when I walked the 25 minutes into town, where I found a hairdresser to rectify the last disaster, and then had lunch at the market. Haircuts are always a little hit and miss when travelling and this one, whilst a little short, appears to be one of the more successful ones.

Chicken soup with a banana on the side!
Chicken soup with a banana on the side!
Tilapia, lentils and plantain for lunch
Tilapia, lentils and plantain for lunch
Waiting for doughnuts to cook in the market
Waiting for doughnuts to cook in the market
Its a long way up!
Its a long way up!
On the way down
On the way down

For lunch, I sat at a small plastic table with some Ecuadoreans and had the menu of the day, which was chicken soup and chicken or fish for ‘seconds’. As soon as I ordered fish, I realised it was a mistake as it would be the dreaded tilapia, all bones and no flesh and often tasting of mud. And it was. The soup was excellent, although I was a little bemused to be offered a banana with it. However, when in Rome……. It went surprisingly well.

Afterwards, my walk of the day was up to the statue of the Virgin on top of one of the many hills overlooking the town. There are no flat walks here. All of them are vertically up and vertically down. This one was no different except that there were steps and they did not fit my natural stride. Also, on the way down, they appeared to slope downhill, which, in the wet (for it was now raining again) I felt was a little precarious. I proceeded very carefully.

A number of the tombs had coloured tiled crosses
A number of the tombs had coloured tiled crosses
Tombs in the cemetery
Tombs in the cemetery

Safely at the bottom, once again, I visited the very white cemetery and then returned to the Casa for my massage appointment, which is one of the excellent services offered at the guest house. However, this was not one of those relaxing hours as the massage was very firm and sometimes quite painful. ‘No pain, no gain’, so I am sure it was very beneficial!

The rest of the evening was spent on my bed, planning and booking the next couple of weeks – Alausi for the Devil’s Nose Railway, Guayaquil, Ballenita (randomly picked small beach town near Guayaquil) and the Galapagos. It’s so nice not to have to think for a while now!