A visit to the town of Ibarra and its surrounding villages.

15 January 2015.

On our way to Ibarra, a northern town situated in the highlands of Ecuador. I am hitching a ride with ESPOL and their students who are attending a workshop at Yachay University, also known as the “City of Knowledge’ because of the government building a top level university aimed at science and engineering.

That is how we all got to meet at Las Peñas, the lower campus of ESPOL that is situated two blocks away from the Malecon, on the evening of Wednesday, 14 January 2015 with our bus scheduled to leave at 9pm. At around 8:45 the bus arrived whereupon we all made our way onboard and waited for a couple of stragglers to arrive.  Unfortunately we never got off to the best of starts because the driver informed us that he had a minor accident on his way to the pickup point that resulted in the loss of a side mirror. Therefore instead of us starting on our 9 hour journey, we had to make a detour via the main campus, around thirty minutes across town, in order to find a replacement. Fortunately, this was done fairly rapidly and with the assistance of a couple of the students, the driver managed to bolt a new window on to the bus. At least I thought that was it until the driver pulled a disappearing act by running off in the direction of the main building, only to return 5 minutes later with what looked like a 2litre bottle of oil… not the best way to start a long cross country trip… and when Catalina told me that he had been involved in a rather nasty accident a few years back, it did little to inspire any confidence.

The entrance to the Hotel Conquistador in Ibarra

The entrance to the Hotel Conquistador in Ibarra

Things seemed to get better after that and we set off to Ibarra without any further mishaps, stopping along the way to freshen up at a truckstop in the middle of nowhere in Luz de America, around four hours outside of Guayaquil.  Along the way we came across a number of other university busses who all seemed to be heading in the same general direction.  Sure enough, all the universities were invited to take part in the conference that happened to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the president (Correa) being in power. Catalina telephoned one of her friends in government who confirmed that the President was planning a surprise visit and that he would in fact open the conference.

Inner courtyard at the Hosteria Pantavi

Inner courtyard at the Hosteria Pantavi

The hours seemed to role on by and pretty soon it was dawn, and of course we discovered that we were lost! How this is possible on a straight road and with almost everyone on board the bus equipped with a GPS on their phone I still don’t know. I would like to hazard a guess, but I may be called sexist, I may also be single and homeless, so I shall desist from offering my views.  We stopped a couple of times and all the people told us to just keep going straight, and yet our intrepid navigator and driver managed to turn a nine hour journey into a twelve hour one. We eventually offered someone a ride who was going to the same town as us, Ibarra, and that settled the issue once and for all as he managed to guide us – all along the straight road – safely to our destination.

The beautiful garden leading to our room

The beautiful garden leading to our room

Ibarra is in a valley, surrounded by three volcanoes, which makes it a rather spectacular city to enter coming in from the upper slopes with the snowcapped peaks staring down on you. The town was abuzz with police who were preparing for the presidents convoy which made the roads a bit of a mess, but we navigated our bus through the organized chaos to the hotel where the students were staying.

Some of the cows that I had passed with a spectacular background

Some of the cows that I had passed with a spectacular background

While they were booking in to the Hotel Conquistador, situated on the banks of a rather spectacular lake, Catalina called a taxi who would take us to Chachimbiro around 40 minutes away where we had booked in to the Hosteria Pantavi. We were both so tired by now that we completely forgot the cardinal rule of travelling by taxi in Ecuador, that of agreeing to the fee before departure, which cost us quite dearly, because an eight dollar journey ended up costing us TWENTY dollars! At least our hacienda at was worth the price we paid ($56 p/n), and our room, small though it was, was clean and comfortable with a good WiFi connection, which is really all that one needs to keep you happy.

Catalina was planning to go to the conference which left me free for the rest of the afternoon and I planned to have a hike around the hills and farms to explore our surroundings a bit more, but first it was time for a shower and a short nap!!

One of the local villagers soaking up the last warmth of the setting sun

One of the local villagers soaking up the last warmth of the setting sun

At around 2pm, after a nap of around one hour, I packed some water and snacks and made my way to the reception area where I had earlier spied some maps. I took a couple of them which were marked in various colors and chose to take the blue route, which was the shortest at around two hours.  The route seemed to go through a farm and into the nearby village of Tumbabiro. I started off on my trek, which lead me on a rather dusty path through a farm and a swarm of mosquitoes which had a feast on my unprotected arms and I cursed myself for not bringing along any Detan. After around thirty minutes into my hike and just after passing a few cows idly strolling along the same path, Catalina called and told me that she was returning to the hacienda. I made my way along the dusty path into the nearby village, bought a couple of cokes for $1 and strolled downhill along the tarred road.  Once Catalina arrived we ordered a couple of drinks and spent the evening in the Jacuzzi which was followed by a great dinner in the restaurant.

16 January 2015.

Today we decided to take a longer hike to the local hot springs. After a very good breakfast consisting of an omelet, toast, and fruit salad, complimented by some good, strong coffee, we started on our hike, taking the tarred road in the direction of Tumbabiro. The walk towards the village was approximately 15 minutes (1 km) during which time we were faced with a full frontal assault of all the mosquitoes. Fortunately the shop at which I bought the two soft drinks the previous day was open and we purchased a bottle of insect repellent, good old Detan. This had the desired effect and after taking a few pictures of the town, we followed the road towards the hot springs. Even though we had a map of the route, we were so wrapped up in the beauty that we missed the first turn off, but fortunately we had road signs along the way therefore we were not too worried about getting lost.

Some road signs guiding us along the hike

Some road signs guiding us along the hike

Along the way we passed a couple of vultures who were feasting on a dead piglet that had fallen off a rather steep embankment. There was also a rather distressed cow who went chasing after a couple of dogs and a very friendly llama who came begging for scraps of food. After passing a small village of San Francisco, we rounded a bend and discovered that our short hike would be around ten km long. However we were troopers and in spite of the steep two km uphill climb near the end, we eventually trudged along towards the summit and our final destination at Chachimbiro.

Our friendly Llama

Our friendly Llama

The first thing we did when arriving at the hot springs was order a cold cervesa, at $1.50. We soon discovered that there were two sets of hot springs with the one costing $5 while the other, more expensive option was $10. We opted to go with the more expensive option, which proved to be a good choice because the facilities were amazing.

Enjoying a much needed rest on the outskirts of San Francisco

Enjoying a much needed rest on the outskirts of San Francisco

We started off by buying a swimming cap for Catalina ($1), apparently people with hair needs these sort of things. We were then given a set of keys to a locker in which to store our clothes which was in front of changing rooms. The place is undergoing plenty of upgrades, no doubt due to the large influx of Argentinian tourists who make the four hour drive annually, therefore the changing room was a bit of a mess due to the upgrades taking place.

A view of the Chachimbiro hot springs

A view of the Chachimbiro hot springs

After spending the afternoon at the hot baths during which we enjoyed three different pools, a cold mini waterfall in hot water, and a rather stifling sauna, we had a quick snack at one of the local restaurants before boarding the bus ($1.50) for Ibarra at 3:30pm. The bus went through a number of villages, picking up people along the way and pretty soon our fairly empty 50 seater bus was packed from front to back as people were making their way back home. We arrived in Ibarra at around 5, just in time to purchase our bus tickets back to Guayaquil at the Terminal Terrestri, at a cost of $22. We also purchased tickets back to our hacienda (75c) which was due to depart at 6:30. This left us precious little time to find something to eat and to purchase some snacks for the ride home. We made our way outside the terminal terrestri in search of food and came across a mall where we bought the required snacks. Outside was a local KFC. Don’t judge, desperate times calls for desperate measures… at least the meal was filling…

Some of the shops leading up to the entrance of Chachimbiro.

Some of the shops leading up to the entrance of Chachimbiro.

We then ran back to the bus stop just in time to board the bus. The ride back was as eventful as the one that brought us to Ibarra earlier and along the way it was completely taken over by school children who substantially added to the noise levels in the bus. After around an hour on the bus, we disembarked at Tumbabiro and took the 15 minute walk back in total darkness although there was never any fear, on the contrary, the clear overhead skies and balmy temperatures resulted in quite a pleasant walk back.

Outside the terminal terrestri in Ibarra

Outside the terminal terrestri in Ibarra

Once we arrived at the hacienda at around 19:45, Catalina made arrangements for a taxi to take us back to Ibarra in time for us to get our bus that was due to leave for Guayaquil at 21:30. This left us with around 25 minutes in which to pack and freshen up before our departure. The taxi arrived at 20:10 and as for after making agreeing on the fair $15, we went back to Ibarra. We arrived at the terminal terrestri at around 21:20 after visiting the local park, which had been recently built where the airport had been. Although it was blanketed by a dense layer of fog, I could see that it was a really impressive park with basketball courts, football fields, running tracks and play areas for younger children stretching over 5km.

As with most things in Ecuador, things are either ridiculously strict or hopelessly lax. On my previous trips around the country I had used the public bus services and the same rule applied there. On this occasion our bus to Guayaquil was due to leave at 21:30 but fifteen minutes after it was due to leave it had still not arrived. We were becoming increasingly restless and just as we were about to protest the bus finally made its long awaited appearance much to the relief of all present. After about ten minutes of offloading and loading, we were on our way to Guayaquil, leaving at around 10:00pm. After a short stop at the petrol station in order to fill up and almost leaving behind Catalina, we made a rather rapid trip back and arrived without another stop along the way back in Guayaquil shortly after 8am on the morning of the 17th. Along the way we came across one accident where a seemingly empty bus had overturned, but luckily no one seemed to be injured.

17 January 2015.

In Guayaquil we arrived at the local terminal terrestri via a short stop in Duran and Cata and I jumped onto a city bus just outside the terminal. We were meant to pay the fare of 25c each, but the driver was in a rush and ushered us through. We figured that we would pay on the way out, but as luck would have it, when we alighted, it was in the middle of a rather busy intersection and we never had the chance.

From there we hailed a taxi, paid the $2 fare and five minutes later we were back at home, just in time for our baby to wish her mom a happy birthday!!

Overall it was a really good trip, something that I would recommend, but be wary of the many people ready rip off unsuspecting tourists in this part of Ecuador.  They really seemed to have mastered the art of getting money out of tourists, especially the local taxi drivers!!

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Finding Success in Brazil: South African Entrepreneur Tells Her Story

South Africans taking over the Americas 🙂

AWP Network

Sometimes as an entrepreneur, you do not always have to start your business from scratch. Your path to entrepreneurship could be an expansion strategy for an existing company. If this is a path that you would like to consider, take the time to identify the industry that you would like to make a difference in, and move forward from there. This is exactly what Roxsanne Dysselldid. While completing her graduate studies at NYU, Dyssell attended several networking events which led to meeting Nalla Brazil representatives.

She said, “compared to the very negative perceptions of the U.S. job market for recent graduates, the potential for success and the supportive environment of African networking events that I attended while completing my education at New York University convinced me to follow through on this business opportunity.”

Dyssell is also organizer of the African Women who Brunch roundtable. She started this initiative…

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A guide to establishing a small business in Ecuador.

Establishing a business in Ecuador is not only tricky for expats, but virtually impossible if you do not know which steps to take. And using a lawyer will virtually bankrupt you before you have even started.  Below is an account of the steps that I followed in order to establish a small startup in Guayaquil over a period of around 2 weeks without making use of expensive lawyers.

First a rant: Why is it so complicated to start a business? Surely the legal minds can all come together and find an easier way to make money off us startups without us having to go through the mind numbing boredom and pain of running around from one office to another having to sign and resign documents that makes zero sense to those of us with little or no legal background? They are already charging us an arm and two legs only for us to have to do their admin for them as well!  Ok, rant over, now where was I? Oh yes, the rather tricky business of starting a business in Ecuador.

Our time at the notary involved watching Mr Bean reruns on TV while waiting an eternity to be helped

Our time at the notary involved watching Mr Bean reruns on TV while waiting an eternity to be helped

It all started off swimmingly well when, after making the necessary enquiries at the Superintendencia de Compañias in Guayaquil, my partner was given the rather reassuring news that the entire system of registering a business was now done online.  This could be done by visiting the Superintendencia website at http://www.supercias.gob.ec/ Armed with this information we set about registering the company by first establishing whether the name was available.  This we did by checking on the website in order to verify that we were not infringing on any other copyrights with our chosen name. After being given the all clear, we then started the process of formally registering ‘Pacific Shuttles’ in the online portal. When registering, you have to be a natural citizen (Ecuadorian) or be eligible to work in Ecuador, so make sure that you have the requisite Visa before starting the process to avoid any disappointment later. My specific Visa is a 9IV which I obtained as a result of having an Ecuadorian child. This makes me eligible under Ecuadorian law to enter and work indefinitely.

Without giving too much details, the company we intended registering needed at least two partners.  Once the one partner registers, they are asked to give the details of the other partners who are then sent an email with the specific link to the website. Once you have set up your profile you are then able to enter the site and add all your personal details.

After completing most of the necessary details in the online portal, we suddenly hit a few snags. One of which was the system informing me that I was deceased. After lots of head scratching we decided to try and access the site by using another laptop, which seemed to work since now I was able to include my personal details. The elation at not being dead soon gave way to frustration after the system simply refused to move on to the next page regardless of how many times we changed the data that was required. Eventually we decided to forego the ‘more convenient’ internet portal and use the rather outdated method of physically going to the office in Pichincha road, near the Malecon 2000.  Once we arrived at the offices we were told by a rather pleasant woman at enquiries that they were currently experiencing difficulties with the online registration portal and that it could take up to one week to fix. Anyway, even if the portal had been operating as it should, it was simply a way of collating the information that would then be printed out which would then have to be submitted to a lawyer or notary. Good to know, now if only they tell you this before starting this process!

Anyway, after being told what steps to follow, we made our way down to an internet cafè in order to print the requisite documents. These included a copy of each partners cedula, my passport as well as the letter that we received from the Superintendencia informing us of the availability of the name we had chosen. As an Ecuadorian citizen, my partner also had to present a proof of address by means of a utility bill as well as proof that she had voted.  This we then took to a notary who we hoped would be able to assist in finalizing the registration process at a cost of around $11 per partner. This prices varies according to the size of the company and it is based on a percentage of the capital that is in the businesses bank account. After being given the runaround at two notaries who seemed to be really busy, we eventually ended up at a lawyer who happened to be in the same building up the road from the Superintendencia. He was good enough to give us the information that we needed but at a price of $400 per partner we naturally balked at the exorbitant fee and fled his office like that of a criminal fleeing the scene of a crime, which is what we felt he was trying to perpetrate on us!

Our very helpful, and expensive, lawyer.

Our very helpful, and expensive, lawyer.

We made our way back to the original notary where we were informed that the same service could be performed by them for a fee of $50 which we happily handed over. We were told that the process would take a couple of days and that we should return with a further $60 that would go towards the notary fees. This still seemed reasonable when compared to the lawyers fees, therefore, two days later we returned and signed off on the requisite forms with me signing as director and my partner as president. Note that under Ecuadorian law, spouses may NOT be partners in business, so if you do decide to get married at a later stage, one of you will have to sell your shares in the company. Also note that the roles are not fixed and that you need to switch roles every 2 to 3 years. You also need to complete a registration form online for the Registro Mercantil at their website: http://registromercantil.gob.ec/guayaquil.html which needs to be printed out, in which you accept the legal responsibilities as director.  You have to do the same for the position as President.  The president of the company is more of an administrative function while the director, or ‘General Manager’ in this case carries the legal responsibilities of the business.

Be prepared for the endless bureaucracy and make sure you have all your documents at hand.

Be prepared for the endless bureaucracy and make sure you have all your documents at hand.

After having all the documents (in triplicate) legalized at the notary, we then moved off to the north of the city, near the Mol del Sol to Registro Mercantil who shares an office with the Dirección Nacional de Datos Publics, in order to drop off the copies of the cedulas, passports, proof of address and the three copies of the ‘articles of association’ of the new company.  It transpired that the cost of $11 which we assumed would go to the notary, was in fact payable to the Registro Mercantil as part of their admin fee. The verification process takes around three working days, if there are no hiccups, but beware, even the smallest mistake could lead to unnecessary delays.  In our case the notary had written the companies name as Pacificshuttles (one word) whereas we had written it as Pacific Shuttles. This resulted in an email asking us to please return and clarify the name before it could be registered.

After this step, the company is then officially entered as a legal entity and you are then able to move on to the next steps that includes setting up a bank account, acquiring the requisite permits from various government departments and a tax clearance certificate. Only once all of these steps are completed then you may formally and legally operate.

And voila!!!!! A business is born!!

I will be writing about these steps in later blogs over the course of the next couple of weeks so feel free to return if this has been helpful.

A Week in Banos, Ecuador

Travelers tips:

  1. Do not carry large denominations of notes. Anything more than $20 notes will be difficult to use, especially in smaller towns like Banos.  Use dollar notes/coins and $10 notes wherever possible.  If you have large bank notes, simply visit one of the larger banks, Banco Pacifico or Pichincha and exchange it for something smaller.
  2. Always give exact fares to taxi drivers. They hate giving change!
  3. Carry sunblock at all times. And use it liberally or YOU WILL get burned quite badly!
  4. Always carry plenty of water and drink as often and as much as possible.
  5. Always wear a cap or hat!
  6. Temperatures are quite comfortable ranging between 15 degrees at night to 32 degrees at midday. Carry a light jersey for after sunset but usually you can get away with a long sleeved shirt. There is very little wind to speak of but it can get quite gusty higher up in the mountains.
  7. Agree on the amount BEFORE using the taxi in order to avoid being ripped off.
  8. Beware of the dog ‘landmines’ which can be found on the outskirts of town.
  9. The month of October is a festival month when Banos residents pay homage to the Virgin Mary. It’s a great time to visit but beware. The festivities kicks off at around 5am with loud firecrackers (really loud!!!!) which makes you think you are in a warzone at times. This lasts all day and only stops at around 9pm.  So if you want a quiet, peaceful time, do not visit in October!!!  If however you want to see plenty of dancing, music and merriment then October is probably the ideal time to visit.

About myself:

Mi nombre es Shawn Berry… if you thought that the rest of the post would be in Spanish, then unfortunately you would be dead wrong! As a semi gringo, ‘mi nombre es’ was probably the only Spanish I knew before embarking on this adventure.  Having only just relocated to Ecuador and setting up shop in Guayaquil, and with my partner having to spend two weeks in the USA, I decided that now was as good a time as any to get to know the country that had been so welcoming and accepting of this semi gringo.  Why only a semi gringo I hear you ask?  Well, I am South African, with my original home being Cape Town.  I am of mixed heritage which means that I quite closely resemble a Latino male.  This is all quite confusing when speaking to an Ecuadorian as they automatically assume that I am a local.  Needless to say, after a few garbled Spanish words explaining that ‘mi no hablar Espanol’ in my very fluent Ecuadorian accent, the conversation usually takes on the familiar course of ‘are you sure?’ ‘but you look like one of us?’. After the first couple dozen of these conversations I realized that Ecuadorians, probably more than most, are quite accommodating to those who do not speak Spanish, and even more so once they realize that your native tongue is English.  They really are fascinated by the English language and the sheer number of English language schools bears testimony to this. There are also plenty of places who offer Spanish lessons and their rates are quite reasonable, starting at around $15 per hour, one usually needs around 6-10 lessons to understand some of the basics of the language.  The best advice I can give though is probably to purchase ‘an Idiots guide to Spanish’ a couple of weeks before embarking on your trip which will probably be as useful as your Spanish lessons. Anyway, back to my trip to Banos.

Day 1: Guayaquil to Banos (20 October 2014).

I am a firm believer in the philosophy that if you really want to know the country and its people that you have to travel around it as a local. Although there are a host of travel and tour companies, these usually operate on set schedules and budgets that mere mortals can only dream of.  Although travelling around the country using public transport is fun and exciting, if you are working on a limited time or you are not interested in getting lost, frustrated or having to wait hours between connections, the safest and most convenient way to travel is by using a shuttle service such as Pacific Shuttles who will not only collect you at the airport, but will be able to transport you to almost any destination within the country.  They can even arrange tour packages that makes sure you get the best out of your holiday.  Please forgive the shameless advertising, I recently started the company and just could not help myself there, but in case you missed it, visit www.pacificshuttles.com :-D) For those on a shoestring budget who likes the added adventure, the public transportation system is definitely the way to go.

In Guayaquil, I went to the ‘Terminal Terrestri’ which is this huge bus terminus taking up at least 5 decent sized blocks. Fortunately for the directionally challenged, it only has two entrances named, funnily enough, Entrance 1 and Entrance 2. And even more conveniently, the place to purchase the bus tickets to Banos is smack bang in the center, just off the food court.  If you cannot make any sense of the many numbers and letters on the information boards, don’t worry, simply look for counter number 76.  You should see a Sweet and Coffee (local coffee shop) and a letter ‘B’ indicating the terminal. (note: take care of personal belongings and do not display jewelry or money in public).  This rule should be followed everywhere and in any country you visit.  If you are lost or need help in the terminal, approach one of the security officers. They are the uniformed men armed with fully automatic rifles, you can’t miss them.

An aerial view of Banos.

An aerial view of Banos

Although I purchased my ticket a day in advance in order to avoid a rush, one can usually walk up to a counter at the last minute and purchase a ticket if you wish (and as I discovered the next day).  However, these are all subject to availability therefore I would suggest getting the ticket sooner rather than later.  A single ticket costs $9.  Make sure that you bring your passport, cedula, or any other legal proof of identification such as a driver’s license.  The bus to Banos usually departs at 11pm from level 4, number 101. You have to arrive at the ticket counter 30 minutes before departure in order to pay a tax of 25c and to receive your ticket.  All the information you need regarding your departure such as gate and time is on there.  Make sure you hold on to your ticket because it has to be scanned in order for you to gain access to the bus terminal. So, having checked the availability of my hostel, checked the weather and packed and repacked my bags, I was ready to leave for the Terminal Terrestri when my two year old decided that she needed me to help her fall asleep…long story short, I eventually called one of the local ‘executiva’ or private taxi companies ($5) which took me to the terminal. After a frantic drive, which is not uncommon in Ecuador, and a mad dash to pay my 25c tax, I rushed up to the bus, number 101, only to see its tail lights disappear around the bend just as I arrived at the turnstile.  Now at this stage any run of the mill gringo would simply just shrug his shoulders and try again the next day, but as a recently legalized Ecuadorian who considered himself every bit as local as any born and bred Ecuadorian, even though I had only been in the country for a grand total of 3 days, I dashed down to the ticket office and bought a ticket to the nearest town to Banos, Ambato, which set me back $7.50.  This bus was scheduled to leave at 11:15, which gave me around 5 minutes to run back up and get the bus at terminal 108.  By sheer coincidence 108 was the number of my apartment back in Cape Town, but I digress. Well, I handed my luggage to the bus driver, at least I hoped he was; and leapt on to the bus a few short minutes before departure. At the time I thought it would be seconds but this driver was apparently not as much a stickler for punctuality as the one that drove the bus to Banos was.

So, at 11:20 pm we left the terminal in Guayaquil and made our way to Ambato via Duran, which is a stop just outside Guayaquil. The trip is rather uneventful and usually the bus is quite empty. On my trip there were about 10 people on a 50 seater, so I found a seat near the front and made myself comfortable.  There is one ‘convenience’ stop around halfway in to the trip where you can use the bathroom and buy water, snacks and the like.

Around 5 hours into the trip and just on the outskirts of Ambato, we actually passed the bus that left for Banos from Guayaquil and I started thinking of stopping our bus and then waving down the one that was on route to Banos. It would most certainly have added some extra excitement to the trip and would no doubt have added an extra paragraph or four to this blog, but in the end sanity prevailed and at 4 in the morning, in the middle of the Ecuadorian Highlands, it somehow did not seem like the right time or place.

As it turned out, the decision not to abandon ship proved to be the smart choice as a few minutes later the bus driver announced that those who wanted to get a connecting bus to Banos should disembark at the petrol station instead of going to the local Terminal Terrestri. At least that is what I assumed because I heard the words ‘Banos’ and ‘bus’ and after some hand gestures I figured I was at least partially correct and since I was now only an hour away from my destination anyway, I could always use one of the many taxis that was stationed there at the time.  So I disembarked and ambled in the general direction of the taxis when I heard the word ‘Banos’ and saw an ancient looking man pointing towards his even more ancient looking car.  I looked inside and saw a couple of passengers and assumed that this was the local way of moving between towns whereby they make use of ‘private’, we would call them ‘rogue’ taxi drivers who charges significantly less than the registered, yellow cabs. And at a rate of only $1 for a 45 minute trip to Banos who was I to refuse?  Well, obviously I had to use the rogue driver and quite frankly I never felt threatened by either the driver or his two passengers in the slightest because their combined age was probably well over 200, so what harm could they really do? A word of caution though, as a rule, DO NOT use rogue taxi drivers. Always make sure that they display their registration details, especially in the larger cities because until a few years ago there was a spate of robberies whereby thieves would impersonate taxi drivers only to rob the passengers. So be very wary of choosing the correct taxi.

A view from my room.

A view from my room.

Forty five minutes and a rather harrowing drive later whereby I questioned the wisdom of my choice to use a geriatric with cataracts, Alzheimers and all sorts of ailments that affect us as we get older, I finally, and much to my relief, arrived in the town of Banos.  The driver dropped me off in the center of town at the 16 December taxi rank whereupon I did the walk of the hopelessly lost to the nearest hostel in order to seek directions to the Hostel Llanovientos in Luiz A Martinez street.  After getting said directions from a puffy eyed receptionist I started the trek up to my hostel. As luck would have it, fate conspired against me and two things happened almost simultaneously. There was a huge downpour and a yellow taxi was flashing me. Well, I hopped in and 3 minutes and $1.25 later I found myself at my destination having arrived there at around 05:15.

Day 2: Cycling the river route (21 October 2014).

After a shower and a short nap, I was up at 8am (due to loud blasts) and ready for my first day of Banos.  I sauntered towards the kitchen area and had my breakfast which consisted of two hard rolls, cold eggs and bad coffee which at $3 is a rip off of note to say the least. I figured that probably explained why the breakfast area was deserted when I arrived there.  Apart from the bad breakfast though, the rest of the hostel, is actually not too bad.  It is a hostel after all, therefore one cannot compare it to hotels. But at $13 per night I was quite happy with my room which contained a single and double bed, my own bathroom and free WiFi. The staff, especially Mayra, Maria, Daniel and Gandhy were also quite helpful and friendly and were willing to help wherever they could.  My room and bathroom was cleaned daily and they did my laundry at a cost of $1 per kg which was a nice touch.  The hostel is situated on the outskirts of town near the top of a rather steep hill but this was offset by my nice room (#8) which afforded me a great view of the town.

Augustine, before his ill fated accident.

Augustine, before his ill fated accident.

After breakfast I took a leisurely stroll down the hill towards a rather impressive looking waterfall.  I later discovered that this was the Cascada Y Termas De La Virgin (Virgin Waterfalls) which is situated below La Cruz, Casa Del Arbol, in the shadows of Volcan Tungurahua. There you will find a public baths that opens around 6am until 4:30 and then again at around 6pm to 9pm.  I suggest you go early in order to avoid sitting in someone else’s bath water.  Unless of course you are in to that sort of thing in which case by all means go as late as possible.  I then worked my way towards the center of town which is not that difficult considering that it consists of around 7 main streets, each around 3 km long running from East to West.  You could easily walk around the town in an hour or two, which you probably should.  The center of town, and where most of its activities takes place, is around the two parks on 16 December, although 12 Novembre also has some nice pubs and eateries.  There are plenty of tour operators and hostels in town therefore I won’t even bother with a description, but there are hotels such as Luna Runtun which is an amazing spa and hotel with rates for basic rooms starting at around $90 p/p in the off season to the more basic Hostels with rates as low as $12. You can literally walk in off the street and book a room in most places and the facilities, although basic in many of the hostels, are good and with so many of them littered around town, the entire place is a WiFi zone which means you can stay connected wherever you are.  As for the tour operators, I suggest you shop around because I paid $8 to rent a bicycle for the day only to see two blocks down that they were renting them for $5. All the tour companies offer the same services though and they all make use of the same transportation companies, usually taxis, busses or chivas, which ferries people to their respective destinations.

As I mentioned earlier, after breakfast I decided that I would go for a cycle and get to see as much of Banos as possible.  As luck would have it, I chose the most expensive operator in Banos who overcharged me for the rental of the bicycle. I did however score a good map from him and it showed that there was a 22km cycle route, all downhill and very convenient!!!  The cherry on top though was the fact that it ended at a rather nice restaurant which happens to be the place where weary, or lazy cyclists such as myself can load their bicycles on to a bus, for $3, that will take you back all the way back to the town Centre.  If you are fit enough, you should try this route as it passes a number of really impressive looking waterfalls where one can stop, have a swim, hike up into the hills or just admire from afar.  For the more adventurous, there are also a number of zip-line companies along the route and for a nominal fee of $10 you can do the 800m across the valley 200 m below, towards the waterfall.  For $15 you can enjoy the zip-line on the way back as well, however the cable car ride back is equally impressive so you won’t miss out on the adrenalin rush.  I suggest you take your own pictures here because even though you can buy one, the quality is rather poor and you are not offered the alternative of a digital copy.  Although it started off on a serene note, the bicycle trip was quite noteworthy for two incidents.  The first one was me meeting a rather nice Rastafarian street juggler from Argentina named Augustine who I cycled with for a short distance until he made an ‘emergency’ stop for a smoke break.  The second incident was me coming across a condor chicklet that had fallen out of its nest and ripped its left wing right off. The little guy was really happy to have me pick him up and he made a beeline up my arm towards some shade. He was actually in remarkable shape considering all the pain he must have been in. for.  After mulling over what to do with him, a toss-up between leaving him near water and allow nature to take its course or the more humane thing of killing him, which I just could not do, I was lucky enough to come across a couple in a car and after explaining what had happened, they offered to take him to the national park service which was close by.  As for Augustine, my Rastafarian friend, I bumped in to him a couple of days later and he was looking in a sorry state. He explained that after his smoke break, he was feeling one with nature and went for a swim in one of the rivers. After the swim he was so invigorated that he went speeding downhill, had a speed wobble and wiped out at around 80 km/h. Luckily for him, our bicycles came with a safety helmet, but the grazed skin on his forearms, legs and chin will surely serve as a souvenir of the time he spent in Ecuador long after he has left.

Well, after my rather eventful afternoon, my long journey from Guayaquil and lack of sleep finally caught up with me and after a couple of cervesas (beers) it was time to call it a day at around 7pm. I reasoned that the famed nightlife of Banos could survive without me around.

Day 3: Hiking towards Casa de Arbol (22 October 2014).

Today I had a nice long lie-in, well, until 7 am because that is when the fireworks and the construction work woke me up. I was also kept awake by the sound of a cat that could not find its way back inside and its incessant cries had me thinking of all sorts of ways that I could assist it in using up one of its nine lives.  However with the break of dawn all those murderous thoughts took a back seat and I was up and ready to take on one of the many mountains around Banos.  I decided to give the local kitchen a wide berth and opted instead for a hostel directly opposite the December 16 park that happens to have a restaurant, called, Meztizort, which offered me a great view of the town as it woke up from its slumber in preparation for another perfect day. My choice of restaurant certainly paid off since, at the modest price of $4 I managed to get two scrambled eggs, a croissant, jam, coffee, fruit juice and plantain.  This proved to be the perfect breakfast in preparation for my hike up Volcan Tungurahua.  So it was at around 10am, after a rather leisurely and filling breakfast, that I found myself at the start of the hike up the mountain. If you intend to undertake this hike. Make sure you have plenty of water and some snacks for the road.  Although I never ate anything on my hike up and there is a restaurant at the casa del arbol, I did have a quite substantial breakfast.  Carry a couple of liters of water because the humidity results in quite a high percentage of water loss through perspiration and the chances of dehydration is quite high.

A swing at the Casa del Arbol.

A swing at the Casa del Arbol.

The hike starts at the Sendero Bellavista sign and the first 30min of it consists of a fairly steep incline. The humidity and high altitude, coupled with the exertions of the previous day and my general lack of fitness all combined like the perfect storm and my jelly-like legs just about carried me to my first stop at the Virgin del Rosario de Agua Santa.  The 30min hike took me 45 min to complete but the views of the town are quite spectacular and certainly worth it.

After a short break and a couple of pictures of the town, I was ready for the 2000m hike up to my final destination.  The hike was breathtaking and the route went up, over and under some rather dense vegetation.  There was also a light drizzle but the heat and humidity resulted in it having a minimal effect.  Although it did add to the overall experience of the hike and the light rain certainly helped in cooling me down.  After approximately 2 hours of arduous hiking and stopping to help Muhammad, a young American who had lost a bolt on his quad bike which caused him to lose steering and his dignity, I made it to Casa de Arbol. I have to be honest and admit that I completely ignored the greenhouse and made a bee line to the restaurant adjacent to it where I promptly ordered a Pilsner cervesa (beer) and watched the American tourists taking turns on the swing while enjoying my icy cold $1 beer. After they had left I took a couple of swings, got some great pics, enjoyed another cervesa and started the trek downhill back to Banos.  This was infinitely easier, probably in no small part due to the beers, but the view down was equally breathtaking.  Around five hours after starting my journey, I finally made it back to Banos, and not a moment sooner because the weather was taking a turn for the worse and it had become rather gusty in the upper regions of the mountain. The hike ended at the cemetery on the Eastern side of town, which rather luckily happened to be just a few blocks away from my hostel. My aching legs and blistered feet just about carried me back and after a nice hot shower it was time for a nap.

At 7pm I went to one of the restaurants in town and discovered a quaint little bookshop/coffee shop that was run by a Belgian woman and her partner.  Unfortunately I forgot the name of the place, but they are situated one block away from the Park, directly behind the clock tower. They make the most amazing cappuccinos using locally grown products and water. And the company was not bad either.  After dinner, coffee and a nice conversation, it was time to call it a day and make the long trek up back to my hostel.

Day 4. A tour of the town (23 October 2014)

Thursday started off in typical fashion with loud blasts and the distant sound of trumpets and percussion instruments in the background.  After testing out my still aching body, I decided that it would probably be best if I took a break and just spend it idling away my time in town by taking in some of the in-town activities and by writing a blog about my experiences thus far. On my way in to town I came across a very beautiful procession of dancers, preceded by the customary band and fireworks that started at the top of the hill, near the cemetery and worked its way all the way to the Cathedral about 2km away.  Although the dancing and fireworks were great to watch and hear, I found particular joy in watching the recently arrived tourists flinch at every deafening blast. By now I had become rather accustomed to the blasts, at two to five minute intervals, but the recently arrived tourists gave me a glimpse of what I must have looked like when I first arrived.  It was also at around this time that I realized that I was no longer a tourist in Ecuador, but a tourist OF Ecuador since I had emigrated here the previous Saturday. Even though I had only been here a few days, it nevertheless gave me great comfort in knowing that I could again visit this beautiful town nestled in a valley, in the shadows of one of the few active volcanoes on our planet.

After this fleeting moment of introspection, my stomach reminded me with a loud growl that I had missed breakfast and that no amount of gawking, smirking or ogling would fill me up. I then sidled down one of the side streets and found my way to a nice panadenier (I probably misspelt It quite horribly) well, it’s a coffee shop/bakery which is situated in Oriente street where I had a rather substantial breakfast of two eggs, toast, the healthy breakfast that included fruit and yoghurt and a rather nice cappuccino. I also bought a couple of bags of Ecuadorian coffee at around $7.50 each.

Battle of the Bands in front of the Basilica.

Battle of the Bands in front of the Basilica.

After brunch, the rest of the afternoon was spent at the Parque de Basilica listening to four bands battling it out in front of the Basilica in honor of the Virgin Mary.  As can be expected, there were lots of merriment, and a substantial amount of drinking, that no doubt added to the raucousness of the occasion, by the men, of a clear looking substance that could not have tasted too good judging by the look of anguish on the faces of those who were offered the drink.  While the men were displaying their machismo, the women and children were drinking a homemade fruit juice that had an altogether more sobering effect than their male counterparts.

After whiling away the hours in the park, I felt that my body had recovered sufficiently enough for me to try some mountaineering.  Well, not sufficiently enough to do it today, but I went off to my booking agent who arranged for me to do one at 1pm the following day. With the activities for the next day safely planned, I went for dinner at a great little Mexican restaurant, A Lo Mero Metro, situated in Alfaro street. For only $6 I enjoyed huge enchilada and a tall Pilsner. They have tables outside on the sidewalk and it is a great place to just sit and people watch as this is a rather popular street with a number of pubs and clubs that are frequented by tourists and locals alike.  It was a great way to end what was a nice, relaxing day during which I got to learn a bit more about the festivities during the month of October in honor of the Virgin.

Day 5: Zip-line, bridge walk and mountaineering (24 October 2014).

After my breakfast, which consisted of a chocolate pan and cappuccino at $3.50, and a walk to the ‘Terminal Terrestri’ to purchase my bus ticket back to Guayaquil which cost $8, I once again went towards my booking agent at around 12:30 and at 1pm he flagged down a local taxi which took me to the San Martin canopy zip lining route.  Here I met up with 6 other tourists and after a weigh in, we were handed our safety gear and then proceeded towards the first of two zip-lines. As the heaviest in the group (note to self: drink less beers!!!) I had to do all the activities last, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I felt no pressure to hurry along and I could therefore enjoy the spectacular views of the rather angry river in the arid looking canyon below.  Finally my turn arrived and the 850m literally flew by at a speed approaching 120km/h. We were warned to keep our arms tucked behind our backs because at one point during the zip-line, one passes quite close to the walls of the cliff and those with longer than normal arms are certainly in danger of losing them!

At the completion of the first zip-line, which comes to a rather abrupt end on the other side by means of a rapid deceleration, the next part of the tour is a rather intimidating bridge walk of approximately 250m across a pliant and bouncy bridge. We were given a safety talk and shown how to use our safety clips which we had to attach to the safety line at all times.  The bridge walk was probably the scariest and most exciting part of the tour for me as it went directly across the river and because I was last, I had more than enough time to marvel at the spectacular surroundings while the rest of the party were inching their way across to the other side.

After the bridge crossing, the next phase consisted of a vertical climb up the face of the cliff.  Once again we were given a thorough safety talk after which we made our way up the cliff face with the aide of wrought iron bars that had been bolted not the side of the cliff and which acted as a ladder. The ladder certainly came in handy and assisted us novice climbers in negotiating what proved to be a rather tricky ascent. This added to the sense of adventure though and by the end of the climb I wished it had been a bit longer simply because I had just mastered the art of moving the safety clips along the safety line at 3m intervals.

Zip-lining at the Canopy St Martin.

Zip-lining at the Canopy St Martin.

The final section of the tour consisted of another zip-line, at around 500m long, back to the place where we started. We all negotiated this without any difficulty and this time we were encouraged to open our arms which naturally we all did. At the end of this zip-line was a photographer who captured the moment and we were given the option of purchasing it at $2, with a digital copy being made available on their Facebook page. Overall it was quite an exciting experience and at a cost of around $25 I would highly recommend it, even to those who are moderately fit, such as myself.

After all the excitement of the day I was rather famished and went hunting for some food that would slay the savage hunger pangs that were emanating from my now viciously growling stomach. I thought I had found just such a place when I stumbled in to Comics, burger place in Oriente street, however, in spite of the good burger, the poor service and rudeness from the manageress left a rather poor taste in my mouth. I hate complaining about places as many times it is simply down to a lack of communication or different ways of doing things, but to be given a burger simply wrapped in a foil take away container when one is sitting at a table is ridiculous. Add to this the fact that there is no plate, no cutlery or even a table cloth while at the very next table, where people are just having a coke that they bought at an outside shop, not even at the restaurant, they have all the condiments and cutlery present. Well. I made a mental note to write a bad review about the place and here it is. I certainly gave it a wide berth during the rest of my stay there and quite frankly there are many other places in Banos that not only has better food, but also treats its patrons with a bit more respect. Anyway, enough of the rant.  I certainly did not allow that one bad experience to spoil my night and after dinner, as I ambled back to my hostel, I came across an impromptu street party a couple of blocks from my accommodation and I spent the rest of the evening enjoying the live band that was entertaining the rather raucous crowd.

Day 6: River rafting (25 October 2014)

After a very hearty breakfast I was off to book a river rafting tour. This proved to be the best spent $30 ever and the adrenalin rush certainly was ratcheted up a few notches during this wild and often tumultuous ride that lasted around two hours. Like all the other tours, one can walk in to any of the tour operators and make the booking and the prices are fairly similar regardless of which operator one uses.  However, by now I had built up quite a good relationship with my operator and we had managed to work out quite an elaborate communication technique involving hand gestures, facial expressions and all sorts of other body language techniques which certainly made communicating with each other easier than if I had moved to someone else. Besides, he was giving me a good service at a reasonable price and I like to show loyalty if it is reciprocated by good customer service.

White River rafting down the Rio Blanca.

White River rafting down the Rio Blanca.

I met up with two other members of the group, two brothers from India, one a shrimp farmer who had been at a conference in Guayaquil who was accompanied by his brother, a chili farmer who owned a 45 hectare farm back home. Being from India, the two brothers and I soon got to talking about all things cricket and we hit it off immediately. When we were informed that we would be delayed by a few minutes while waiting for the rest of the group, they used the opportunity to go zip lining. Twenty minutes later and the rest of the group arrived which meant that we could make our way down to the river.  Once at our destination we were all asked to change into our ‘wet’ gear which consisted of booties, a 3mm wetsuit, a safety helmet and life vest. After our very thorough safety talk during which we were explained the various scenarios by which we could return to the boat in the very likely event of being thrown clear or a capsize event, our party of seven took to the waters.

It took us all of thirty seconds before we hit a rock and almost capsized and all thoughts of a nice gentle cruise downstream were immediately wrenched from our minds. After this first scare we were all on our guard and for the rest of the journey downstream during which we negotiated class three and four rapids, we managed to acquit ourselves rather well for a bunch of novices. This is not to say that we never had any incidents.  On the contrary, we just about missed wiping out against a bridge, almost got swamped and capsized when we entered a rapid at the wrong angle and one of us just about managed to hold on to the safety rope or he would have been washed overboard.  At around the halfway mark we stopped at a small village and joined the local villagers in bathing on the banks of the river.  It was a nice and unexpected extra and something that was the cherry on top of the entire day.  At the end of the trip we stopped off for lunch consisting of chicken, rice, salads and some cervesas after which we returned to Banos. Thus came to an end the best and probably most exciting experience I have had on my entire trip.

Back in town the adrenalin was still coursing through my veins and I decided to hire a quad bike at $15 per hour. With the bike I was given a map and off I went for a ride around the hillside surrounding the town. After a couple of hours I returned, had a nice supper and by this time the adrenalin had worn off and a combination of sunburn and the exertions of the day meant that after my shower I passed out as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Day 7. A visit to the market (26 October 2014).

On Sunday morning I awoke and was planning on taking a stroll in to town for what had become my daily routine of two eggs, coffee and the healthy breakfast option when I came across the Sunday market just one street down from the hostel. Once again I seemed to be the only tourist there and the big rucksack on my back singled me out as an outsider which meant that almost every hawker who had something to peddle virtually shoved it down my throat.  Not that I was complaining, because with all the food samples that I was being handed I virtually had a free breakfast.  The hustle and bustle of the market was a real pleasure and I spent a good few hours just soaking up the great atmosphere of a traditional Ecuadorian market in the foothills of the Andes.  After some naranja juice and breakfast, courtesy of all the hawkers, I walked down the hill on the general direction of the Virgin de Agua where my week had started. On my first visit there I had seen that one can collect some water in a plastic container which I wanted to take back home for my partners mother who is a staunch Roman Catholic.

The Virgin de Agua Waterfall.

The Virgin de Agua Waterfall.

Once at the waterfall I purchased the container at a cost of 0.50c and then proceeded to fill it up with the water. The local inhabitants were enjoying the water and I drank some of it which was really rich in minerals, slightly aerated and really sweet. It was great! Legend has it that the water causes those who drink from it to live a long life, and by the looks of all the geriatrics around town, there seemed to be some truth to that legend.

After the falls, I proceeded to walk along the pavilion which passes a pool, football pitch and an indoor arena. Along the way I sampled some plantain and cheese for $1, which I really enjoyed and then when I reached the park in front of the Cathedral I noticed all the locals eating from small yellow, plastic bags and upon further inspection I came across a lady with a cart who was selling pork belly and various kinds of corn, in yellow plastic bags. Obviously I had to sample it and after paying the $1 I went in search of a pub where I could purchase a cervesa with which to wash down the food.  This I promptly found at a place called ‘Mama Fanny’s’ which had some very comfortable looking chairs outside under an umbrella which came in real handy as a couple of minutes later it started raining. I then proceeded to enjoy a nice relaxing afternoon in the sunshine with a light rain, watching everyone go about their business. After a few beers I went back to the local football field and watched some rather awkward looking teenagers trying to play the beautiful game but with little success.  When it became too much to bare, and just as it felt my eyes would bleed from the pain of watching football being desecrated in such an awful manner, I started on a winding course back to my hostel whereupon I ended the day by enjoying the great view from my room.

Day 8. Banos to Guayaquil (27 October 2014).

Monday morning I left quite early in order to have a quick breakfast in town ahead of my anticipated 7 hour journey back to Guayaquil. With my bus leaving Banos at 9am, I figured that I could have a nice, relaxing and filling breakfast at one of the many restaurants in town, little did I know that they were all late openers and by 8 am I was still searching when I came across one of the local drifters who had a distinct whiff of weed about him. He promptly directed me to the nearest open restaurant who was open at that hour. Sure enough, his recommendation proved correct and why wouldn’t it as he would be as good a person as any to know where one could satisfy the ‘munchies’ that early on a Monday morning! After a nice breakfast of coffee, two scrambled eggs and bolon with cheese, I trudged to the Terminal Terrestri where I, together with a couple of other hapless souls waited for the bus to Guayaquil to arrive.  A little after 9 am, the woman who sold me the ticket directed us to cross the road where we boarded the bus.  Where the trip to Banos was relatively straightforward and without too many stops, this one proved to be the complete opposite. Not only did it not have air conditioning, but the driver made sure that he stopped as often as possible which meant that instead of the anticipated 7 hours, the journey back to 9 hours instead! Having done the journey both ways, I would highly recommend travelling at night because not only is the journey faster, it will also be much more bearable since you won’t be cooked alive in the hot Ecuadorian sun while packed like sardines in a tin can.

Nine hours came and went and after a quick stop in Duran, we finally arrived at our destination in Guayaquil which brought to an end a very exciting, painful and above all, memorable journey in Banos, Ecuador.