Ecuador’s tallest volcano, Tungurahua, greets visitors to the country’s adventure capital, Baños de Agua Santa. This centrally located resort, often known simply as Baños, was originally named after its surrounding hot springs. Today, however, visitors are just as likely to come to Baños for volcano exploration tours, cloud forest hikes, whitewater river rafting, or a wide variety of other thrill seeking activities.
The location of Baños in Ecuador’s geographic centre means this retreat is easy to reach from all corners of this small South American nation. Buses travel frequently from Riobamba, Quito, Guayaquil, and Ambato to the tiny northern Baños terminal. Baños itself is easily walkable, but mountain biking is another way to explore this scenic community.
Many Roman Catholics make pilgrimages to the Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water. A sculpture of the Virgin Mary, who was said to be spotted near the over 60 waterfalls surrounding Baños, stands inside this church constructed from volcanic rocks and filled with unique paintings. The Virgin Mary is also believed to have protected the church from several volcanic eruptions.
One of the closest waterfalls to central Baños, Cascada de La Virgen, empties close to the thermal baths. However, many believe the Pailon de Diablo is an even more impressive waterfall. Visitors can also take a cable car ride to the top of the Manto de la Novia, whose most unique feature is its two distinct chutes.
The T. Halflants tourist office is the easiest place to find maps of the many leisurely Baños hiking trails. One of the most challenging treks is to the summit of the town’s Virgin Mary statue. Mountain bikers, on the other hand, may prefer making the 61kms downhill journey to Puyo. Small cable cars travel to many of the waterfalls situated along the first 18kms of this scenic journey.
The amount of rainfall varies the difficulty of the Pastaza River’s rapids from Class II to Class IV. Rafting excursions are often part of larger organised tours into the nearby jungle. Baños is often called the ‘gateway to the Amazon’ because it is the largest mountain community visitors will encounter prior to entering the isolated Amazon River basin. These Amazonas jungle tours, which last from one day to two weeks, frequently include encounters with native villagers and wildlife.
The nightlife of Baños is centred around an area of three blocks known as Zona Rosa. The small businesses in front of the Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water are the most reliable places to purchase local handicrafts, while the local market serves up the cheapest snacks. Most of Ecuador’s signature sugar cane taffy, melcocha, is produced in Baños. Sugar cane is also commonly consumed as squeezed juice drinks or chewable cane pulp sticks.
Backpackers on budgets can either stay in one of the several central Baños hostels or participate in the active Baños couchsurfing community. Arriving prior to Friday or making advance reservations are the easiest ways to ensure rooms during busy weekends. Those with a little more money to spare may wish to splurge on a stay at the scenic Luna Runtun Adventure Spa.
The bravest visitors to Baños can partake in canopying, paragliding, bungee jumping, and rapelling down waterfalls. However, the most unusual Baños attraction may be La Casa Del Arbol. This ‘swing at the end of the world’ is actually a wood plank which people can sit on, then sail over a steep hill edge.