Ecuador: Mountain Biking on the Highway of the Waterfalls
By Jon Brandt
The topography of Ecuador is as diverse as you could ask for: in the highlands you find mountain ranges high enough to be covered in snow, yet they aren’t because of how close they are to the equator. Only the tallest peaks in the country are snowcapped.
The mountains are either lush with vegetation or a bit drier and desert-like. On the coast the vegetation changes a bit and plantations of bananas open up into huge expanses of land, as the temperature rises dramatically.
Sandy beaches stretch up and down the coast. And in the Oriente, or Amazon Rain Forest, the vegetation and wildlife is dense and thick, as you would imagine seeing in any jungle.
In the town of Baños, you get a little of both. Three hours southwest of Quito, the town sits at 5940 feet (1810 m), and is only 38 miles (61 km) from the town of Puyo, on the edge of the Oriente. Along the way you ride on “La Ruta de las Cascadas”, meaning the Highway of the Waterfalls.
Baños is a place to get started for extreme sports, and though you can rent dune buggies, ride horses, or charter a tour bus, my friends and I wanted to mountain bike down the beautiful road towards Puyo.
Getting Started on the Road
Baños is filled with tour companies that offer roughly the same deal, so we only shopped around to a couple of different groups before we settled on one that was right across from our hostel on one of the main roads, Martínez y 12 de noviembre.
To rent bikes for the day it would cost $5, but if we wanted to pay $25 we could ride until the last stop at a waterfall, get picked up in a truck and driven the rest of the way towards Puyo.
This would include lunch, safety gear (not included otherwise), and a visit to a nature reserve where we could play with monkeys. We had enough people to work out a deal and got the price down to $22 a person. Nearly everything in Ecuador is negotiable.
The sun was already beating strong as we headed out of the shop on the busy Saturday afternoon, and it was only 9:30 a.m.
One thing you always need to bring with you in Ecuador, no matter where you are, is sun block.
Because you’re high up in the mountains, you might not feel that it’s so hot, but you’re right on the equator and you start to get the effects of the sun almost immediately. I forgot mine, and though I borrowed some from my friends, I was definitely feeling it by the end of the day.
I hadn’t ridden a bike in a while, so at first it was a bit awkward to get settled in, but once we started out on the road, it felt totally natural. As the old saying goes, once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. Riding down a slope, the wind was blowing in my face and the sun was beating down on me, and the views were just adding to the excitement.
Swerving from left to right to avoid pot holes, cars, and occasionally people, the hardest part of the ride was finding the balance between looking up at the mountains on each side and keeping my eyes on the road.
The majority of the ride is downhill, so you can coast through most of it, but there are a few parts that are uphill, so if you plan on doing this some day, it’s a good idea to be in fairly good shape, especially since the altitude makes it harder.
Incredible Scenery Along the Way
On each side of the road the mountains flanked as high as your neck would stretch. On the right side of the road a river rushed by down below, even though it was the low season, and waterfalls sprung up out of nowhere.
Somewhere in the distance was the Volcano Tungurahua, which can normally be seen, but we weren’t able to view it. The volcano is still active, and spews out smoke and ash from time to time. As recently as 2006 the volcano was active.
As the ride progressed you could see the vegetation changing a bit. The green hills became thicker with more trees and plants, and going downhill meant it got hotter.
Because we were mountain biking on a road, and not down an actual mountain, it wasn’t too rigorous or straining. But the most dangerous part was definitely watching out for other cars and the bikes themselves.
Many of these tour companies will give you cheaper, older bikes that break down. You should always go for a short test ride before you leave the town. We went on a test ride, and still had problems along the way.
One of the girls in our group had a flat tire, then the chain got tangled, and then the gears wouldn’t work. My chain eventually flew off too, but was soon fixed on the stipulation that I no longer change gears; a hard thing to do when shifting from uphill to downhill.
The problems started to mount as the day went on, but we finally made it to the last stop, Machay Waterfall. Costing 50 cents to get in, it was a steep, 15 minute hike down to the falls, which was well worth it.
Huge with power and force, the waterfall offered some relief from the heat, as you could go down to the pools it created and jump around. Or you could just stand back and get sprayed from afar if you didn’t have swimwear.
Playing with Monkeys
The hike back up was pretty tough, and by the time we got to the top we were sweating again, but we piled in the truck and headed towards Puyo, which was a beautiful downhill drive.
As we arrived into the town you could tell that we were on the edge of the jungle. After a lunch of soup with every part of the chicken and some grilled meat, we headed over to Fundación Los Monos Selva y Vida, a shelter for monkeys and some other animals including turtles and anteaters.
Though apprehensive at first, we eventually warmed up to the monkeys and some of them jumped on our backs. The shelter also had a swing tied up to a few palm trees, and we were able to swing with the monkeys hanging on, and it felt a bit like Tarzan swinging through the jungle.
By the end of the day we were tired and sweaty, and I was burnt pretty badly, but we were rejuvenated with the memories that we’d just went biking through some of the most beautiful scenery we’d ever been through and finished it all off by swinging with monkeys. We piled into the truck and headed back to Baños, tired, but happy.
Getting There: From Quito, you might be able to find a direct bus, but you could also take a bus to Ambato and from Ambato take a 45-minute bus. Buses are about a dollar an hour.
Where to Stay: We stayed at Hostal Plantas y Blanco on Martínez y 12 de noviembre. Prices range from $4.50-$7.50. It was clean and comfortable with helpful staff. Free internet was available, and there was a rooftop restaurant with an amazing view and terrific pancakes. There was also a bar where you could take beer on the honor system.
Tours: We went with Exodotours, which also had tours available for canyoning and rafting. They were true to their word with the truck and lunch, but the bikes were troublesome. Generally you shouldn’t pay more than $5 a day for bikes, unless you go with a more expensive option like the one we chose.
Machay Waterfall cost 50 cents to enter and Fundación Los Monos Selva y Vida was a part of our tour, but normally you would have to pay to enter. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many people in Baños speak English, but it is always helpful to know at least a few Spanish words and phrases.