An absolute must-see if in Baños, Ecuador is the “Pailon del Diablo”. The devil’s cauldron is an indescribably powerful waterfall, particularly if seen during the rainy season. Its 5-star rating with nearly 2000 reviews on TripAdvisor is well deserved. A few different options exist for getting there from the city, as it lies a short distance away. We elected to rent bikes and pedal our way through the Andes to the falls. Julian, Rhonda and I picked up bikes from one of the many rental places in downtown Baños. An employee gave us a very rudimentary map, pointed us in the general direction and we set off.
Despite being the rainy season, we weren’t really ever confronted with actual rain. What we did have to deal with though, was a relentless, drizzling haze. This made the paper map utterly useless as it almost immediately turned into a soggy mess. No worries. We’ll figure it out. One thing to note on Ecuador, is they are not big on signs pointing towards tourist destinations. With fingers crossed, we continued in what we hoped was the right way.
Amazing views surrounded us the entire bike ride. We wound our way up and down, along rivers, through small villages, past ziplines and next to a hydroelectric dam with flood gates open. We stopped for photos frequently while we dodged big smelly trucks and small scruffy dogs. At one particularly popular spot for pictures we stopped to take a rest.
My bike had not been shifting gears very smoothly on the trip but I hadn’t worried too much about it. Now, the brakes were a different story. My bike didn’t appear to be in perfectly maintained condition and the idea of cruising down the backside of some winding rain-slicked mountain road with iffy brakes did concern me. But the brakes ended up being fine. The chain and gears, not so much. As we were starting back after our brief break, my chain popped off. Unfortunately, Julian and Rhonda were in front of me and by the time I thought to yell out to them, they were out of hearing range. Great. I’m here with a broken bike, my wife and step-son pedaling happily away from me, and no cell-phone reception. I flipped my bike upside down and began to repair it all while a local policia watched me impassively from a few feet away. For the few minutes it took me to fix the chain his gaze never left me. I couldn’t figure out why he was so interested in my roadside repair to stare, but not interested enough to help. With my bike back on two wheels, I set off in search of my family.
A few minutes up the road I found them by the side of the road waiting for me. “Where were you?” was my greeting from Rhonda. “My bike broke! I tried calling after you two, but you guys were gone.” We shared a laugh at my misfortune and at the strange policeman. Our journey continued on until we paused for a bathroom break next to a cable car crossing the deep valley. LINK TO BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER. The lady working the cable car was an excellent salesperson as she convinced us to take the ride by yelling out “solo dos dolares!” For two dollars, how could it not be perfectly safe? We three hopped on the cable car with a roughly 10-year-old boy as our guide and we rocketed across the valley to the densely forested far side.
From that side we hiked a small trail and came across a restaurant. It didn’t make any sense. We were in the middle of a forest, in the Andes mountains, on the wrong side of a valley from the road and here was a restaurant. We ordered an orange juice and promptly had the freshest juice we’d ever had. The lady working there walked across the trail to some orange trees, gathered a few, and then made the drink right in front of us. It was fantastic. We were told there was a great view of a waterfall with another short hike from there. We began the hike, but after seeing a giant fuzzy caterpillar in the path, Rhonda and Julian decided to sit at the restaurant while I went adventuring.
What I was neglected in being told was the great view of the waterfall was from the very top of it. As I worked my way through the dense foliage, I was suddenly greeted with open air in front of me and the river to my left plummeted away into the mist-shrouded depths of the valley below. A moment of vertigo swept over me as the sudden openness and sheer drop appeared mere feet away. I took the requisite pictures and hustled back up the trail. We took the only slightly terrifying cable car back and returned to our bikes once again.
A short time later we grew concerned that we weren’t going the right way so I approached a nearby truck to ask for directions. The truck was backing up with several people sitting the bed. I asked the driver “Perdon senor, sabe donde esta el Pailon del Diablo?”. I don’t know if it was the shock of a gringo speaking Spanish or something else, but the driver looked at me puzzlingly while continuing to reverse. Only when the guys in the back of the truck started yelling did the driver realize what he was doing and slammed on the brakes – barely missing a telephone pole directly behind. He eventually regained enough composure to say we were going the right way and the falls were very close. “Gracias!”
The entrance to the falls was surrounded by stalls hawking all kinds of wares. Fresh coconut, watermelon, and strawberries were available everywhere. Colorful souvenirs washed out the beautiful natural surroundings. The hike down to the falls wasn’t entirely welcome after the long bike ride, as it was decently strenuous and we didn’t have the right shoes on for hiking. We had been warned to bring rain coats since the spray from the falls is quite strong. I will issue my own advice. Forget the rain coat. It won’t do you a damn bit of good.
I don’t know where to begin with the scene. I’ll do my best to paint a picture. Thick forest gave way to a stone path. The path led up to the middle of the falls. Two sets of stairs split from there – one going several stories up and winding to the right, the other going two stories down. Separating the stone path from the falls was stone wall roughly three and a half feet tall. The path and stairs made a miniature waterfall itself as it was constantly bombarded with water from the crashing falls. We elected to take the stairs down first. To say the roar of the falls was deafening would vastly undersell the experience. The falls spewed forth the kind of sound you feel as much as you hear. The deep, unsettling rumble shook us. We made it only one flight down before deciding to work our way up. No words exist that are capable of describing the fear we felt. This was a primal, instinctual fear meant to keep us from dying. After the fact, logically, I can say that we weren’t in any mortal danger. The stone wall was solid and could withstand the fall’s torrent. But logic is useless when confronted face-to-face with the raw power of mother nature. Just as there are no words to describe the unfounded danger we felt, it is impossible to describe the violence the falls were continually unleashing.
After wearing ourselves out with the bike ride and the hikes, we were happy to hop in the back of a truck for the ride back to town. About 15 people piled into the back and enjoyed the scenery.