Our tour to the Amazon was chock full of new experiences. Besides sleeping in the Amazon jungle and visiting an indigenous community, we were also able to spend our final night in one of Ecuador's most famous towns, Baños, named for its public hot baths. If you're planning a trip there yourself, here is our list of the best things to do in Banos Ecuador.
If you're visiting Quito, it's worth the 176 km trip to visit Baños. The town sits on the side of Tungurahua volcano, which violently erupted only a few days after we were there. You might imagine that would make its residents want to relocate, but no … they say the town is protected. Apparently the Virgin Mary occasionally appears at the waterfall in the center of town (appropriately called Cascada de La Virgen) and there have been quite a few miracles in town that they attribute to her. Some people visit the town because of its church and miracles, but there's more to Baños than even that.
Best things to do in Baños
1. Visit the basilica
The town showed its gratitude to the Virgin Mary by building a neo-Gothic style basilica out of volcanic rock and naming it Our Lady of the Holy Water (Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa).
Instead of the usual Bible scenes that decorate the walls of most churches, the artwork on the walls of this sanctuary depict miracles that occurred in town, including saving the church from the volcano’s fury.
You can also visit a whole separate area with a shrine to the Virgin. While I’m sure it works for the locals, it definitely doesn’t work for me. With its pasty skin, the doll they used was pretty creepy-looking. Forgive me, but it looked like a corpse overdue for burial.
2. See the Rio Pastaza Gorge
This isn’t just any gorge, this is the gorge that a priest didn’t fall into! The story goes that one very early, foggy morning, a visiting priest was riding into town, but he was so drowsy that he just let his horse lead the way. When he arrived at church, the townspeople were surprised to see him. “How did you get here? The bridge over the gorge is out!” This is one of the miracles featured in the basilica’s paintings. You can see the remains of the bridge, but even more impressive is the beautiful gorge itself.
3. Explore the town
Walk through downtown Baños, explore the side streets, wander into shops. Go a little further afield and explore the residential areas.
It’s fun to just soak up the atmosphere and see how another culture lives. As you can see, this woman knits hats. She was carrying on a conversation with her friend across the street, so focused that she didn't even notice Dan photographing her.
We especially like to walk through town squares, and Banos had a particularly delightful one that was chock full of flowers. Sightseeing is fun, but sometimes it's good to just “set a spell” and watch the people pass by.
4. Try the melcocha
You can’t walk through Baños without seeing someone standing in the doorway of his shop, pulling and wrapping a pliable length of color. They are making melcocha, a sweet taffy made from sugar cane.
Each melcocha artisan has installed a wooden peg on the inside of his door frame. He will wrap the confection around the peg and stretch and beat the taffy again and again, until it’s just the right texture. Once it’s done to perfection, they cut it in lengths and wrap it, ready for sale. If you’re lucky, you might be offered a taste, fresh off the peg. Be careful if you have dental work, though; it’s strong stuff.
The mercado in the center of town is worth a visit. This is where to find local produce, meats, and more. If you’re adventurous and hungry, sit at a stall where they’re cooking, and they will be happy to serve you a tasty and filling lunch of platos típicos, typical local fare for only a few dollars. Way to go … eat like the locals!
Not far away is a pedestrian mall with stalls selling crafts, silver jewelry, and touristy knick-knacks. Many of them were crammed so full of stuff it was almost overwhelming. We saw one vendor sitting outside his shop, maybe because it didn't have enough room for him as well!
6. Enjoy the hot springs
That Baños is a popular vacation spot for both Ecuadorians and foreign tourists was pretty obvious to us from the number of hotels and backpackers we saw. The big attraction is its baths — and there are plenty of them, some complete with gyms and spas. All of the baths are fed by the hot springs coming from Tungurahua, the adjacent active volcano, and all are within walking distance of the center of town.
After all the hiking we’d done we were ready for a hot soak, so after dinner we headed over to the public baths. “They’re easy to find,” our guide said, “Just walk toward the waterfall.” Sure enough, we found the baths at its base. We paid our $3.50 admission, I bought the required head cap at a shop selling snacks and trinkets (40 cents!), and then we found the changing rooms. We donned our bathing suits, showered, and joined everyone else in the nearest pool.
Different pools have different temperatures, depending on the amount of cold water mixed in. There are even ice cold pools for people who enjoy shocking their bodies. (We avoided those. Not crazy yet.)
By the way, we were among the last to leave and we saw the staff draining and scrubbing every pool.
Tip: The water may look dirty, but no worries, it’s safe. Blame it on the high mineral content that makes the hot water so good for you.
7. Go on an adventure
Baños is the Ecuadorian mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Walk through town and you’ll find plenty of agencies eager to take you on an amazing outdoor adventure. You can take your pick:
- try rafting Class IV rapids,
- climb a volcano,
- visit the remote Llanganates National Park,
- tour the Amazon rainforest,
- take a mountain bike or an ATV out on a rugged trail,
- hike to one of the 60 natural waterfalls in the area,
- ride a horse,
- go ziplining,
And that's just for starters.
On the other hand, if you don't want to get your heart pumping, you can still enjoy a bit of nature at a local zoo.
8. Visit a spa
After all that activity, set aside some time to visit a spa. Massages can be had for $25-$35 per hour. Other services are available, such as facials and manicures, though I couldn't carve enough time out of our visit for any firsthand research. What a disappointment that was.
9. Enjoy the nightlife
Baños has plenty of bars as well as both international and local restaurants. We found a bar offering 2-for-1 happy hour mojitos (at Ecuador prices!), then discovered a wonderful Italian place called Pappardelle Ristorante while searching for an early dinner.
Dan got a chicken lasagne that was obviously created just for him. Can you tell it was made to order?
After dinner we headed straight back to the hotel to get our bathing suits. This was our first opportunity ever to visit public baths and we weren't going to miss out!
We arrived to find another couple from our tour were already soaking in the hot water. What a pleasant surprise! Roger and Jo are in their 80s and have more energy than anyone we know. They recommended that we visit some other baths that they like, right outside of Cuenca. It sounds like another field trip might be in order….