When people think about Ecuador, the first thing that comes to mind is Galapagos. Maybe then they remember the high-altitude capital city, Quito.
And then they’re probably stumped!
But we recommend you check out Baños, or Baños de Agua Santa (baths of holy water), to use its full name.
Baños, a couple hours drive from Quito, sits in the foothills of the Tungurahua volcano. The volcanic activity means hot water is in abundance and there are several thermal baths available for you to enjoy.
There’s also spectacular scenery, over 60 waterfalls, and lots of adventure sports.
Wait … a volcano? Is it safe to go there?!
Yes. The volcano is characterized by 26 deep canyons. If there were to be a lava eruption, two of these canyons would divert the molten rock away from town. Plus, this volcano is mostly prone to just blowing ash (which the winds usually take south and Baños isn’t affected). Just in case, though, the town has evacuation routes and safety zones all marked out.
Waterfalls and Ziplining Too
You can rent a mountain bike and coast slightly downhill out of town, stopping at a several waterfalls on your route.
Make sure you go at least to Pailon de Diablo, the most spectacular of the falls, but you can ride all 61 km to Puno if you like. Most bike rental places will come and pick you up and drive you back, uphill, to town.
Pailon de Diablo
This is spectacular not only for the amount of water plunging over the rocks, but for a series of bridges and stairways that take you near and almost under the falls. Plan at least an hour here to explore, and bring a plastic bag to guard your camera.
Several of the waterfall viewing spots have added attractions, such as cable cars to cross gorges and valleys, and, for the more adventurous, ziplines. The cable cars are pretty sedate, though many local Ecuadorians are sweetly nervous crossing high over the beautiful rivers.
If you just want to do one zipline, there’s a fun tandem one over a river. You’ll zip for more than a kilometer and, as it is fairly steep, you’ll build up some good speed. I imagined I was an Ecuadorian condor as I flew along, belly down and attached at my back, opening my wings only to slow down for the final approach.
If you’ve expended too much energy doing some of the great hikes in the region, you can take a double-decker bus (the “chiva bus”) to see the waterfalls and ziplines.
There are frequent festivals in the little towns of Ecuador, and the same holds true for Baños. One of the busiest festival seasons here is October, for the Fiestas de la Virgen (the main waterfall in town is Cascada de la Virgen, as a vision of Mary was supposedly seen there, and the church is named for her too. She’s a popular lady!).
During my visit there were frequent parades through town, complete with bands, costumes, dancing and fireworks (like in China, more for the noise than the light show). At intersections, the parade pauses for an elaborate dance and both locals and tourists stop to watch. As I stood snapping photos, a masked man, complete with leather whip, invited me into the middle of the dance. I whirled around, cheered by onlookers, not quite believing I was doing it. As they say, when in Baños!
Baños is very well set up for tourists. There’s a wide range of accommodation choices for all budgets, plenty of places to nosh (eat lomo whenever you can!), and many shops selling adventure tours. Rafting? ATV? Bungee? Rapelling down waterfalls? Paragliding? Kayaking? Horseback riding? Yup, it’s all here. You can even swing out over nothingness on the “swing at the end of the world”!
While there’s plenty to do here, just hanging around town is great too. And don’t forget the thermal baths. The ones in town are nice, but I recommend that you sample the baths at Luna Runtun Adventure Spa. Even if you’e not staying here (though we recommend it!), you can use the baths and be wowed at the views.
Many thanks to Mathilde for taking my photo on the zipline (that’s me on the left)!