24 hours in Banos

Despite a stolen camera, Fergus Shiel stays focused on hummingbirds, thermal baths and burritos.

Snuggled between Peru and Colombia on South America's north-west coast, Ecuador is best known for the natural wonders of the Andes and as the gateway to the Galapagos Islands.

But this small republic boasts an even greater natural phenomenon: its camera thieves - men, women and children devoted to dispossessing you any time, anywhere.

Having wheezed my way onto the bus from Quito to the lakeside market town of Otavalo, I am permanently deprived of my Panasonic Lumix within minutes of leaving the terminal. Quito is the second-highest capital in the world but surely the world's No. 1 spot for vagabonds on the make while the unsuspecting tourist is on the move.

Like Fagan's limbo dancing cousin, the thief came from under the seat behind, pinching the camera from a bag sitting between my girlfriend's feet.

I blame Jean-Claude Van Damme for the incident because the Universal Soldier is beating the tripe out of a triad goon on the bus TV rather than monitoring our valuables.

Once discovered, my loss is such that not even the merry parade of hawkers offering helados (ice-creams), plantain chips, empanadas and other home-made snacks is consoling.

We spend most of the next day in Otavalo unsuccessfully attempting to report the crime: the bus companies blame each other; a police officer with gold pistol lapel pins says he's unqualified to take our report.

Although it is difficult to stay dejected for long in Otavalo, where market stalls heave with embroidered dresses, gold beads, nut necklaces, woven table runners, shawls, ponchos and paintings, we try our best to.

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The experience of crime without punishment has wounded our gentle extranjero hearts so deeply that we walk straight past the giant popcorn stall, a previously unheard of demonstration of culinary restraint.

Determining that it's time for new horizons, we steel ourselves for the bus trip to Banos in the hope that its famed waterfalls, gorges, orchid mists and thermal baths will lift our spirits high above the Amazon plains.

10pm

We arrive to a warm welcome at La Casa Verde guesthouse owned by Seymour-raised Doug Greenshields and his Kiwi wife, Rebecca. A British guy tells us that locals came close to noosing a guy who attempted to pinch his camera on a bus the day before.

The tragi-comic anecdotes of two Brisbane doctors who unknowingly apologised to yet another thief as he stole both their cameras cheer us even more.

La Casa Verde, El Camino Real, Barrio Santa Ana, Banos. Private double with ensuite, from $US31 a person, breakfast included. See www.lacasaverde.com.ec.

6.45am

The alarm clock scythes through the early morning peace. My mission, should I accept it, is to rise and search for the world's smallest hummingbird: the gorgeted woodstar.

See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorgeted-Woodstar.

7am

My hideout is the first-floor balcony of Casa Verde. The valley on either side is beautiful. Beneath, in the garden, is the target zone: a bright pink begonia bush.

7.05am

Doubts set in. I have never before ''birded on'' and wouldn't know a dabbling duck from a titmouse. Who am I kidding to think I can spot a bird that clocks in at 5.7 centimetres at full stretch? But soon, two hummingbirds hover into view, zip towards the begonia, then fly out of sight. One has petrol-green feathers and a sidestep Fernando Torres would envy.

7.15 am

I've no idea if these dawn chorus acrobats are rufous-tails, fawn-breasted brilliants, booted racket-tails or Andean emeralds but they're too big to be Ecuador's smallest hummingbird.

7.25am

Well, blow me over with a sparrow's fart if there isn't a tiny flying object bopping on the begonia. Years of inexperience convince me that it is the wondrous gorgeted woodstar, not just a bee with weight issues.

9.30am

Awake for the second time, I descend the pale wooden staircase in the morning-fresh glow of ornithological achievement to feast on organic muesli, home-made bread and sugar cane for seconds. Outside, two condors ride thermals like winged surfers high above the Rio Verde swelled by overnight rain.

10.30am

To market we go, with our host, Greenshields, and John, his three-year-old son. John, Banos's only celebrity blonde, darts about, brave and bold as a comet, while locals shower him with affection.

11.30am

In the shadow of Tungurahua, the Black Giant, the largest volcano in Ecuador (5016 metres), we swim in the scalding hot and shrivelling cold waters of La Piscina, the thermal baths, until we're blanched like stone fruit.

1.30pm

It's almuerzo time. A sign on the door of Cafe Hood says: ''Bullfighting is tortura. Ni arte. Ni Cultura.'' I endorse the sentiment with a beer, a bean burrito and warm husky rice.

Cafe Hood: Maldonado, next to Parque Central, phone +593 6 274 0537.

2.15pm

We are hiring bikes when the bike lady's toddler Carolina does a bolt past me down the street. Having joined the search party, I locate the chubby escapee several frantic minutes later. She's eating ice-cream, unfazed by the alarm she's caused. Bikes can be hired at several shops in the centre of town for about $US5 a day. Check that the brakes and gears work before taking off.

2.30pm

The road from Banos to Puyo along the Pastaza river valley is a melodrama of waterfalls, sharp bends, sheer drops and snaking tunnels. We don't have to pedal, just clench our butt cheeks and brake for dear life.

3.45pm

We start our descent on foot through rainforest along an old rum-smugglers' trail to ElPailon del Diablo, the Devil's Cauldron, a thunderous basin of fizzing water guaranteed to tackle even the toughest stains. We catch a flat-bed truck back to town to save the hassle of cycling uphill and to spare the indignity of baring my particulars to the good folk of Banos because of a wardrobe malfunction, i.e. one pair of badly torn shorts.

8pm

Dinner at Cafe Mariane. The candle light on the deep red walls makes us wish Benjamin Franklin had never had a kite; the mushroom steak's bigger than Tasmania and, best of all, the pan flute quartet spares us Guantanamera.

Cafe Mariane, Halflants and Rocafuerte, Banos, phone +593 6 274 09.

11pm

I mimic the dramatic courtship dive of a hummingbird, the quickest known aerial manoeuvre in the natural world, as I collapse into bed and am out for the count quicker than a missed Kodak moment.

The nearest airport is in the capital, Quito, about 140 kilometres from Banos. LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Quito for about $2220 to Santiago via Auckland (about 16hr), then to Quito via Guayaquil (about 7hr). Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect and back from Auckland non-stop and pay about $100 more. Fare is low-season return, including tax. There are many buses from Quito to Banos (4hr).

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