Baños, Ecuador may not appear to be anything special at first glance, but looks can be deceiving. This little tourist town is actually one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ecuador.
Besides amazing natural beauty (countless more than 60 waterfalls), Baños offers everything from extreme sports and nature to miracle cures and thermal baths. It is also the “gateway to the Amazon,” a perfect spot to begin an exploration of Ecuador's Oriente region.
If you're beginning to feel spoiled for choice, begin with this list of the best things to do in Baños Ecuador.
Start by exploring the town of Baños de Agua Santa
Baños, the “gateway to the Amazon,” was our final stop on a tour of Ecuador's Amazon basin in 2014. Our overnight stay made a nice contrast to the days we had spent “roughing it” in the jungle, a chance to relax for a night before heading home to Cuenca.
Banos is your typical Ecuadorian town which, if you're the curious sort, can be interesting in itself. When we travel, we think it’s fun to just soak up the local atmosphere and see how another culture lives – I'm talking about houses, shops, markets, clothing, what have you. Walk through downtown Baños, explore the side streets, wander into shops … even if only for a short while, it's all part of the experience. You can even go a little further afield and explore the residential areas.
We especially like to walk through town squares, which often have nice gardens or interesting statues. Banos had a particularly delightful town square near the cathedral that was chock full of flowers. Sightseeing is fun, but sometimes it's good to just “set a spell” so you can watch children playing and passersby
Cascada de la Virgen
Baños can boast of over 60 waterfalls in the area but apparently, the Virgin Mary makes an occasional appearance at the waterfall in the center of town. This may appeal to you if you're Catholic.
According to the locals, Santa Maria has performed a number of miracles in town, and so they named the waterfall in her honor, Cascada de La Virgen. As you'd expect, Baños is a pilgrimage site for the faithful of Ecuador. Even the town's official name, Baños de Agua Santa, means Baths of Sacred Water.
Speaking of faith, Baños can also boast that it sits at the base of a live volcano. Tungurahua erupted only a few days after we were there, which really upset Dan. He wished he could have captured all the activity on camera.
Non-photographers might imagine that living at the base of an active volcano would make its residents want to relocate. Not in this case … they believe that Baños is protected.
Photo tip: At the other end of town is a short but steep hike to a statue of the Virgin Mary that offers fine views of both Baños and active Volcano Tungurahua.
Basilica Reina del Rosario de Agua Santa
Baños dates back to 1570, a few years before the foundation of Quito, when Dominican missionaries traveled the region evangelizing. So, considering the importance the Virgin Mary has in the town's history and culture, it makes sense to begin with its religious focal point.
Banos' first church was a humble hut. According to legend, someone saw an image of the Virgin Mary and two angels leave the hut and come to rest at a nearby waterfall. The following night, the Virgin appeared to the priest and told him to build a church. She also promised that the faithful who bathed in the waters would be cured of their diseases.
The town showed its gratitude for the promised miracles by building a neo-Gothic style basilica out of volcanic rock. They named it Our Lady of the Holy Water (Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa). Or Church of the Queen of the Holy Water Rosary (Basilica Reina del Rosario de Agua Santa).
Every October, Banos holds a festival in honor of la Virgen de Agua Santa. It is visited by hundreds of domestic and foreign tourists who arrive in search of spiritual peace, some for the virgin or simply out of devotion.
Regardless of its name, Banos' faithful citizens have always fled to the church whenever volcano Tungurahua erupts. Thus far they have always come out unscathed. Yet one more of the Virgin's miracles.
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.
Shrine to the Virgin. 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 I don't consider it a compliment to the mother of our Messiah. It looked like a corpse overdue for burial.
Not far from Banos cathedral is a pedestrian mall with stalls selling crafts, silver jewelry, and touristy knick-knacks. Many of them are crammed so full of stuff it is almost overwhelming.
We saw one vendor sitting outside his shop, I guess because it didn't have enough room for him as well!
As you can see, this woman knits hats for a living. (It can get cold in the mountains!) She was carrying on a conversation with her friend across the street, so focused that she didn't even notice Dan photographing her.
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 that are portrayed in the basilica. You can see the remains of the bridge that fell, but far more impressive is the beautiful gorge itself.
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. Any travel partners who don't want to get their hearts pumping can enjoy their slice of nature at the local zoo (Zoologico de San Martin).
If you're an extreme sports lover though, you'll think you're in heaven. Just about anything you can do outdoors can be done in Banos.
- 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. Whatever extreme adventure you can dream of, someone probably offers it. Tour companies are all over town. Take your pick.
Try the melcocha, a local sweet
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, then 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 sample, fresh off the peg. Be careful if you have dental work, though; it’s strong stuff.
Eating in Banos
The mercado in the center of town is where to find local produce, meats, and more. If you’re adventurous and hungry, join in and sit at a stall where 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!
Baños has plenty of bars of course, 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's chicken lasagna was made to order. Can you tell?
Visit a spa
After all that activity, set aside some time to visit a spa. Whether you prefer high end spas or something moroe budget friendly, you'll find your fit in Banos.
A local specialty worth considering is a $5 bano de cajon, or “box bath.” Literally named, you sit on a stool in a box, and are enclosed up to the neck so your body can be bathed in eucalyptus steam. You can control the steam via a lever inside and they will ask if you want breaks from the steam. That's when you immerse yourself in icy water.
Massages, a spa classic worldwide, can be had for $25-$35 per hour. Other services, such as facials and manicures, are available as well. Unfortunately, since we were there for only one night, I couldn't carve enough time out of our visit for any firsthand research. What a disappointment that was.
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 aguas termales, or natural hot springs — and there are plenty of them in and around town, some complete with gyms and spas.
All of the baths are fed by the hot springs coming from Tungurahua, the adjacent active volcano. The yellow water might make you pause, but relax. It's not dirty water you're looking at, but water that is rich with sulfides and natural minerals. The locals swear by its healing powers.
After all the hiking we’d done we were ready for a hot soak, so after dinner we headed over to the public baths, called Las Piscinas de la Virgen. “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, then I was directed to a shop selling snacks and trinkets to purchase the required bathing cap (40 cents!). After donning our bathing suites in the changing rooms, we showered and joined everyone else in the nearest pool. To say the pools are crowded is an understatement, but the atmosphere is friendly and pleasant.
The hot water for the public baths comes from Tungurahua, the volcano next to Banos. The water is naturally full of healing sulfur. Few things can beat soaking in a natural hot springs, knowing you're getting good-for-you water, with a view of the sacred waterfall, La Cascada de la Virgen. Good memories.
Anyway, different pools have different temperatures, depending on the amount of cold water mixed in. Some pools are so hot you'll need to take a break now and then just to bear the extreme temperature. There are even ice cold pools for people who enjoy shocking their bodies. We avoided both of 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 pools are open during the day and again at night, with a break in between to clean.
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
Roger and Jo also recommended some other baths that they like, right outside of Cuenca. It sounds like another field trip might be in order….