If you only have to time to hike to a single waterfall while visiting the area around Baños, then the Pailón del Diablo should be your choice. We had read little about it before arriving but had been told by numerous Ecuadorians that it was a place we did not want to miss. For those of you who like surprises, I don’t want to ruin the experience for you so you may not want to read much further. But do keep in mind that you will need to take:
Rain gear – or dress in very light clothing that dries quickly;
Shoes that can handle slick rock;
A waterproof camera;
A waterproof bag for your more delicate electronics;
A flashlight if it’s a cloudy day or dimly lit spaces freak you out;
Money for the entrance that comes towards the end of the trail ($2 a person to be safe; take change);
Money for drinks along the trail or for a meal or snack at entrance to the falls;
And don’t take a big backpack… it will only get in your way.
Visit with a sense of adventure and be ready to practice the zen art of patience. The trail gets tight and one way traffic is a part of the experience. Curious yet?
We arrived at the parking lot of Pailón del Diablo around lunchtime, a little later than planned because we had missed the original sign to the falls. In fact, I don’t think it existed. I have a theory about signs in Ecuador. If there is a handy-dandy sign giving an independent traveller a clue of which direction to go, that tourist has no need for a guide. So why would a budding tourist industry put up signs in the first place? After all, a major point of tourism in Ecuador is to provide jobs to the local community and that includes hiring tour guides.
For those of you who are driving or traveling by bicycle and don’t want to miss the waterfall, exit just before the tunnel in Rio Verde. A narrow road will take you around the tunnel and into a part of town where you will find the parking lot and entrance to the major trail to the falls. Buses are near constant, picking up and dropping off tourists and local workers a like. Taxi drivers were offering rides to those who biked the 17 kilometers to reach this point and just couldn’t imagine biking 17 kilometers back, up hill, while crazy drivers crowded them off the road.
Once you’ve arrived, you’re going to have to hit the trail. Unlike other waterfalls along the route, this one cannot be seen from the road. You need to hike and you need to hike down (and then back up again). The trail in excellent condition, especially compared to other trails we’ve hiked in country, and we credit the company that charges the entrance fee. They obviously invest some of their earnings into maintenance and for that we are very grateful. That said, you hike a kilometer or two before finding the actual pay entrance to access views of the waterfall.
But there is no need to be in hurry. There were birds camouflaged in trees and flowers to sniff out a long the side of the trail. There was an occasional juice stand as well, in case we got thirsty from hiking. And in a half hour or so, we found ourselves at the entrance of a large building. It was quite a surprise actually as we weren’t expecting anything but a waterfall. We didn’t enter, thinking it was a tourist trap only to learn that it was the only way in to see the falls. So if you go yourself, follow the welcome sign!
Inside, there are clean bathrooms and a restaurant with a view of the river. There is also an entrance to the trail that takes you to different views of the waterfall. Let me tell you in advance… the entrance fee is worth every penny!
As we approached, the sound of roaring water got louder and louder until it was impossible to talk to one another. We wouldn’t have been able to hear ourselves much less each other. Water spray fell like mist and we pulled out raincoats to protect our cameras. We took a few shots and then the cameras that weren’t waterproof were stowed away, deep in the safety of the dry back pack. Water was literally falling from the sky and we were standing immediately next to its source. Looking up, we saw a monstrous amount of water expanding over the mountain edge. This waterfall wasn’t falling; it was leaping from the cliffside as far out as it could manage before plunging down into the solid rock bowl at its base. Once there, the water wasn’t content to listlessly meander downriver. No, it churned and frothed and foamed in a glorious cacophony of sound and power. The piles of logs jammed to the side gave proof that this wonder of nature was no tame cascade but a dangerous beast. And we were standing so close as to feel its very power.
It’s hard to walk away from a natural wonder so mesmerizing but when you know the trail continues, it eventually draws you away and upward. We took care on the slick rocks and hiked further to another view point where it looked like we could go no further. As we peered over the edge, we noticed out of the corners of our eyes people coming out of a small, dark hole. It looked like a cave. But when we looked closer, we realized it was an entrance to the remainder of the trail. Bending down and adjusting gear, we crouched low to enter. With a combination of shuffling in a squat and almost crawling on hands and knees, I followed my family into the dim light. The only light came from an opening that looked out towards the roaring water. The walls dripped, the floors were slippery with grit and puddled mist, and I couldn’t exactly take my time as this was a one way road. As long as I was on the path, others couldn’t pass me coming or going. So with fortitude, I pushed onward. I have never in my life felt claustrophobic but in these close quarters I came close to a moment of panic. My family was practically running through in excitement and I was having trouble finding the most basic footing. My glasses steamed up. I couldn’t look straight ahead as that would mean hitting my head on the ceiling. My hat had gotten in the way and I had clumsily placed it under one arm and was trying not to drop it. My pack was around my waist and it worked neither in the front, where I had to double over it, nor in the back where it would it the ceiling. It seemed like forever when I finally reached some steps carved into the stone which led out of the cave-like passage.
As I exited, I felt the wind blow spray into my face. I am still unsure where the wind came from but it is completely possible that the strength of the falling water created its own powerful blast. And the sound of the deluge was louder than you could possibly imagine.
We were practically at the top of the waterfall. Just a few more feet and we actually walked behind a moving, living curtain of water into a small curved space carved into the mountain. Water was gushing everywhere but it was so thrilling to behind an actual waterfall that we didn’t mind how wet we were all getting. We were literally giddy with excitement.
It was only afterwards that I was thankful my camera gear was stowed away and dry. Water of this kind could have easily ruined it beyond repair. Please, please take something to stow your important electronics, even your cellphone. A pocket won’t be enough to protect it.
Sopping wet, we made our way back to the entrance where we asked the gatekeeper about the amount of water pouring over the mountain edge. We figured we were visiting during the wet season. He told us that in a month or two, the trail would probably close because so much water would pour over the side that it wouldn’t be possible to walk behind it. I can’t even imagine this waterfall displaying more strength that it already did. We may just have to return to see it for ourselves!