If you enjoy a warm, relaxing bath, I know a travel destination that just might appeal to you. Most international visitors to Ecuador are in a hurry to get to either the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon. But when Ecuadorians vacation, one of their prime destinations for relaxation is Baños de Agua Santa – more commonly known as Baños.
With its picturesque scenery, lush, green mountains and soothing thermal baths believed to offer health benefits, Baños is a popular vacation spot. It’s also a convenient stop en route to towns such as Tena and Misahualli along the Oriente, the Ecuadorian side of the Amazon jungle.
There’s no airport at Baños, so you must travel there by road. It's a three-hour bus ride from Quito. It was not on my original itinerary when I visited Ecuador, but the raves that I heard drew me here out of curiosity. The Ecuadorian family I stayed with in Quito highly recommended a stop in Baños on the way to the jungle town of Misahualli.
I take these local recommendations to heart when there are no ulterior motives involved and it’s from someone I trust. I did not regret my visit.
Sometimes described as the “Gateway to the Amazon,” Baños is inhabited by people of Spanish and Quechua ancestry. The locals refer to their community as a little piece of heaven. Visitors to the attractive resort town can understand why: The scenery on the road from Misahualli grew steadily more spectacular as we approached Baños. The bus station itself overlooks a magnificent gorge bisected by a river and surrounded by green hills. I stood for several minutes just drinking in the beauty before catching a taxi to my hotel.
Baños is a tranquil sanctuary. It has a mild climate year-round. The town’s primary draw, the mineral baths, are believed to alleviate such afflictions as arthritis. There are two hot springs and two with cold water. Visitors arrive from throughout Ecuador hoping to soak in the health benefits. I took an early morning stroll from my hotel room to the La Virgen baths, located at the base of a waterfall. Families formed lines for the opportunity to take an early morning swim beneath one of the 60 local waterfalls.
The Basilica de la Agua Santa (Church of the Holy Water), prominent in the central plaza of Baños, is dedicated to the Virgin of the Holy Water. An October festival honors the virgin. It is believed that several local miracles have occurred due to the grace of the Holy Virgin and that she is the town protector.
This sentiment may provide a feeling of comfort and protection from the “Black Giant” that overshadows town. The highest active volcano in Ecuador is the beautiful, yet ominous 16,450-feet-tall Mt. Tungurahua. The hot springs stemming from the base of the volcano have a high mineral content, resulting in the thermal springs.
You can take a volcano tour via a chiva (an open-sided bus) to the mountains to watch an eruption. The volcano will occasionally let off some steam. While this may be unnerving to the visitor, the locals welcome it as a much-preferred alternative to the destructive ash that it spews every so often.
In 1999, the volcano coughed up ash and lava for two weeks, causing much of the population to evacuate. There have been subsequent significant eruptions in 2006, 2008, 2010 – and on April 2, 2011, when it began spewing ash up 11 km in the air. Many locals voluntarily evacuated the area. Due to this unpredictability, it is wise to check local conditions (volcano watch) before visiting Baños.
Despite (or, perhaps, because of) this Damocles sword hanging over their head, the inhabitants of Baños celebrate their town as a place of parties and joy. There are plenty of outdoor activities for the adventurous traveler, including ziplining, whitewater rafting, hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, kayaking and mountain biking. If you prefer more cerebral activities, you can challenge one of the locals to a game of chess in the city square. Baños also has an active nightlife – there are plenty of bars, discos and opportunities for karaoke. Clearly, the locals manage to live life to the fullest.
Another adventurous activity in its own way is shopping. The markets in Baños are a fascinating place to watch the locals go about their daily routines. Sunday is market day in Baños. Pick up some local produce. Sample some melocha candy, the chewy toffee that is popular here. Visit the craft stalls and local souvenir shops, where you can find wonderful traditional Andean handicrafts and arts.
Another motivation for visiting Baños – and Ecuador in general – is to scout out a possible retirement location. Many expats have found Ecuador a comfortable place to retire on a much lower budget than is necessary in the US. If you feel you can never afford to retire, you may reconsider that notion after visiting here.