On our big trip through Ecuador last year, we wanted to make a return visit to the waterfall capital of Ecuador, Baños. Our first time through, we visited with our two teenage sons. By far, the most impressive destination of the trip was the awe-inspiring Pailon del Diablo. For that reason, Scott and I wanted to visit again but this time, we chose to hike an alternate trail.
The Pailon del Diablo Waterfall
The Pailon del Diablo Waterfall is a massive beast. While only 262 feet (80 meters) high, the waterfall feels so much taller when standing right next to it. Part of the reason it feels so massive is that huge amounts of water are compressed into a narrow channel before exploding off a mountain ledge. The force of that churning water created a dramatic bowl where it meets the mountain. That bowl holds all of that swirling water before allowing it to exit through a rocky channel down to the valley below.
The result is a second drop that adds a dramatic flourish seen from the first trail we hiked a few years ago. However, despite seeing this flourish from that trail, it’s tough to get a good view of the entire waterfall. Therefore, if you would like to see the full width and length of the Pailon del Diablo, we have an answer for you: a less challenging hike with incredibly stunning panoramas of both the waterfall and the surrounding countryside.
Location of Pailon del Diablo
While known as one of the best waterfalls in Baños, the Pailon del Diablo is actually located in the small village of Rio Verde. When you arrive in town by bike, taxi, or bus, almost all signs lead you to a parking lot next to a large restaurant and several booths selling artisan goods. There is also a large sign telling you that this is where you can hike to the Pailon del Diablo. It’s not wrong but it is misleading.
Instead, turn back and walk towards the center of this tiny town. You will cross a narrow bridge with the Rio Verde river running below it. A short distance in, on the left-hand side, a small neighborhood store sells the famous Salcedo Ice Cream, the multi-flavored, colorful frozen dessert on a stick. Pass it and turn left. You will immediately notice a huge mural on the wall of a parrot holding the famous treat. Congratulations, you’re on the right path!
A little further up the road veering to the left is another small parking lot and park. The park is easy to see. With hummingbird statues and benches located right at the river’s edge, it is a popular destination with locals. Follow the river downstream and there, right in front of you, is the jungle-like entrance to the second of the Pailon del Diablo trails. Called the Isla del Pailon (Cauldron Island), this entrance marks the trailhead to a well-designed, easily traversed path. In fact, if you are visiting with a stroller, this is the best trail for you! It’s not 100% wheelchair friendly – gravel and some steps impede your way.
Isla del Pailon Trail
Before walking any further, know that there will not be any bathrooms further on. The bathrooms just inside the entrance are clean and well-stocked (remember, toilet paper is often OUTSIDE the stall). And while this is not a long hike, please bring water and high energy snacks, just in case you feel the changes in elevation. Certainly, this path is not as steep as its sister trail on the opposite side but it does require some steps and steep ups and downs.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this trail is that it follows the river that eventually becomes the waterfall. Only this trail reveals that the Devil’s Cauldron is actually two bowls, not one. It’s easy to see the first bowl from an overlook of the first drop.
This damp, lush corner is alive with green vegetation and the occasional flowering plant, including a couple of different kinds of orchids hiding in the shadows. The calm of the tree canopy belies the cacophony of the turmoil below. A constant, dull roar in the distance draws us forward to see more.
Next, the trail drops, taking us down a cemented, sometimes stepped-path to the suspension bridge below. This is why the trail is a called an island; it uses bridges to cross impossibly steep mountain walls.
First View of The Pailon del Diablo
From the viewpoint just before the suspension bridge, we catch our first real look at the Pailon del Diablo. The waterfall courses down immediately to our left. In addition, just below us, the steep set of steps from the trail on the other side seem carved out of the mountainside. Amazingly, we can make out people enjoying themselves in the spray of the waterfall, some taking selfies, others just admiring the view. Few people look up in our direction. They have no clue that we are watching them!
The Pedestrian Suspension Bridge
We continue walking onto the suspension bridge. The views of the surrounding cloud forests are amazing, with silver-leaved trees reflecting like beacons amid the darker canopied wood. The thick vegetation must be home to all kinds of endemic wildlife.
At this point, the bridge sways slightly, making me catch my breath! When other people join us, the bridge sways even more. My stomach catches and vertigo stops me in my tracks. The most stable point to stand is where the bridge begins its switchback. Fortunately, it makes a great place to rest a few minutes. I take a moment to take in views from multiple directions.
Along the second stretch of the bridge, we pass directly in front of the Pailon del Diablo. I don’t dare look down but manage to take one photo straight across. The waterfall looks very tame and well-behaved from this angle. However, standing here on the swaying bridge, afraid to look down, I know the water slams into the rock face below with unimaginable force.
Continuing Along the Isla del Pailon Trail
As we continue along the trail, we get closer to the waterfall. The view is amazing. Yet as wonderful as the waterfall is by itself, its the trail on the other side that calls our attention. We relive our hike of years ago as observe people climbing down the steep stairs, ducking down to peer into the crawl-through cavern, and popping out at the other end only to disappear behind a curtain of rushing, white water.
In fact, from this angle, it almost looks as if the trail from both sides should meet somewhere behind the waterfall itself. It does not. The trail on the other side dead-ends on the right-hand-side (facing the photo), directly behind the falls. Our current trail leads right up next to the waterfall on the left-hand-side (as facing the photo). We’re anxious to keep going!
Slippery Steps and Steep Trail Ahead
At this point of the trail, steps take over. Strollers will be hard to maneuver and a wheelchair is near impossible. Scott trots on ahead, comfortable as a mountain goat on the slip rock. I take my time, using the different angles to take different shots along the way. A few years before, I took one of my favorite pictures on the opposite trail. I stood at the highest platform, my children on the one closest to the water. The photo captures the sheer joy on their faces as they peered up at me. I am transported by time, the joy of visiting a place for the very first time washing over me.
At this point, Scott has reached the end of the trail. He’s standing so close to the Pailon del Diable waterfall that I am scared for him. It looks as if the water could literally pound him into oblivion if he leaned in too far. I have heard that the trail sometimes closes to this point and I can see why. It wouldn’t take much more flow for the waterfall to inundate the small landing.
As I walk down further, I notice that Scott has made his way beneath the waterfall. Water drips from mossy walls and pools on the cobblestone path. The fall roars with a vengeance. It is impossible to hear each other speak in normal tones. Thus, we use sign language to tell each other to pose for pictures.
From this point, I can look past the waterfall further east towards the forests where we will go birdwatching tomorrow. Believe it or not, a road runs along the ridge. It is almost impossible to make out from this angle, which makes me happy. I hope it stays that way. It is tempting to widen the highway, to make access easier to Rio Verde. However, part of the magic of this location is the lighter footprint of humans. Yes, they live here. Yes, they have built these trails into the sides of the mountain. However, they’ve also protected the wild spaces, partly by providing an income from tourist dollars that makes it less likely that farmers will cut down trees to make more cattle pasture.
It’s my turn to stand behind the waterfall and feel its might. The sound reverberates in my chest, like the heavy drumbeat of fast-beating hands on a huge Celtic bodhrán. It’s an amazing point to end this story, standing next to a monster of a waterfall, feeling water drip down the back of my neck, my heart pounding deeply in response to being so close to this feat of nature.
All that awaits is a slow but sure hike back up to the top.
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