Whilst you travel through Ecuador, why not spend a few relaxing days away from cosmopolitan Cuenca, chilling in picturesque Baños de Agua Santa?
Located on the slopes of the ominous and still active Tungurahua volcano, surrounded by dramatic mountain ranges, and the region’s “Gateway to the Amazon”, Baños (for short) is a delightful travel stop!
Situated in Ecuador’s eastern Tungurahua Province some 190-kilometres from Quito, beautiful Baños is a major tourist and adventure hub.
Although the Tungurahua volcano is billowing smoke right now, locals don’t seem perturbed about this and go about their daily activities without stress.
Streets are clean and tidy, with pretty tiny lights adorning power lines and trees at night time.
Baños is also popular for its Spanish schools so why not stay a while and learn a little of the language?
On a Sunday, you can only buy alcohol in Ecuador in restaurants between 10 am – 4 pm, nowhere else. Is this still the norm these days?
A little history
Hailed as Ecuador’s ‘most beautiful town’, Baños de Agua Santa is Spanish for ‘Baths of Holy Water’ and aptly named for its therapeutic hot mineral springs.
Baños also clenches onto a couple of legends regarding the town and also the haunting Tungurahua volcano…
The indigenous Quechua believe that ‘Mama Tungurahua’ is similar to a wicked, but alluring beautiful and promiscuous woman that captures the hearts of men and women.
If Mama Tungurahua doesn’t get what she wants, then enraged, she belches hot ash and lava soaring into the air as an act of anger and to terrify locals.
The indigenous Quechua believe that Baños is ‘Mama’s love child’, which she protects with bubbling hot medicinal springs. However, on arrival of the Spanish, another legend emerged…
Apparently as the Virgin Mary had ‘apparitions’ whilst visiting the region, the newly-arrived Catholics believed that its because of this, the waters in Baños have healing properties. And so, the name changed to its current name with a shrine erected in Mary’s honour.
Think I prefer the Quechua version.
What to see
Locals flock to Baños not only to relax with some hydrotherapy in the famous Virgen hot springs whilst gazing across to the calming cascading waterfall, but also for extreme sports.
Zip-line through lush tree-canopy between mountains over a gorgeous canyon, cycle, walk or go on the many hiking trails, take an exhilarating canyon abseil, catch a Motocross event or one of the many parades, or check out the active Tungurahua volcano.
Parades there are many. Then, there’s the religious aspect of Baños, which pilgrims from Ecuador and elsewhere visit each week for its sanctuary, dedicated to “Our Lady of the Rosary of Holy Water”.
If these dizzying activities are still not enough and you have loads more time, then hire a mountain bike and take yourself along the Ruta de las Cascadas that passes through a valley with 7 stunning waterfalls and dazzling views. Sadly, no time to indulge but I hear that the Pailón del Diablo suspension bridge along this ride is massive!
Nuestra Senora del Agua Santa
Started at the end of the 19th century with completion in 1929 and constructed from local red and black volcanic stone, the Basilica sees many pilgrims visiting to thank the Virgin of the Holy Water for her miracles.
The 7th October until the end of the month sees loads of celebrations that we’ll just miss – Carnival Sunday is big in Baños.
Opulent internal features, ceilings at dizzying heights, elegant floors and tile work are remarkable.
Intricate murals grace the walls depicting miracles, which correspond to natural disasters from the 16th century onwards.
Declared as Cultural Heritage of Ecuador in 1997, the basilica’s Sanctuary is said to be the ‘most important historical, cultural, and artistic centre’ of Baños.
Trek to glimpse Tungurahua volcano
Although smoking a lot, still decide on a little trek to the Mirador (look-out) to glimpse the Tungurahua volcano.
At a height of 5,016 metres, the commanding and spectacular volcano panorama can be seen for miles.
Finally finding the Mirador after a little unsuspected detour (read lost) shrouded in volcanic cloud, it’s no point going any further.
Not the only ones on the return downhill path to Baños…
Not sure how long this hike should take, but today it’s a 3-hour return trip.
Parades and Go-cart race
Colourful and noisy parades in South America are a common occurrence regardless of the size of city, town, or village, and always running into one along the way.
Today, a crazy boisterous go-cart race billing out smoke followed by a parade spill out onto the highest and longest street in Baños. Thousands of spectators watch for hours – so why not check it out?
…it really is a long steep street!
Unperturbed and very cool dudes at the finish line.
Always time for a spectator discussion – perhaps a little money is involved or just a lolly-pop swap.
Vibrant traditional costumes and vivacious folk dancing are a treat.
…as is spectating at a height.
Some just look on curiously.
Throughout South America, it’s amazing at the lengths in which parade participants go just to be noticed – this angel is such a cutie!
Elegant but apprehensive.
Pirates of Ecuador.
Just a few street scenes for you…kerbside schooling or play time?
Any form of travel is great. A quick shot from the bus window at traffic lights, before the moment is lost forever in time.
Love the tiny holes in the wall from which locals pop out and do business…
If you’re game to try the local delicacy – I’m not – then BBQ Cuy (Guinea Pig) is served along the streets. Also known as quwi or jaca in Quechua, all appear to have meet a violent death!
Starting from the Cuenca Terminal Terrestre bus station, the bus travels north along the E-35 Pan American Highway and takes anywhere between 6 to 8 hours.
Expect unscheduled pick-up/drop-off stops along the roadside and anything else that happens to disrupt your trip.
Music and movies blare out in Spanish, quite stuffy as no air-con, and we travel through curving mountains at alarming speeds and ever-changing stunning vistas.
You wait at Riobamba for the connecting bus, which hopefully is there when you arrive – ours isn’t, so wait.
On the bus again, keep your camera handy as loads of great street scenes along the way. Everything travels on a bus – not sure how these sheep keep their balance!
Roadside BBQ – another violent death?
As you travel in the canyon towards Baños breath-taking scenery awaits, whilst volcano Tungurahua puffs away in the distance…
…enveloped in its cloud-cover blanket.
Today, the trip takes a long 8 hours, but arrive unscathed nonetheless.
As of 2018, buses run direct from Cuenca to Baños. You’d hope this shaves time off the journey.
What you can expect during bus travel in Ecuador
Hot and stuffy. Noisy and loud. Sometimes scary. The occasional local throwing up near you. The scent of odd smelly food from passengers. Hawkers hopping on and off the bus, but the worse thing is the driving – reckless.
Fearless Formula 1 driving style seems to be the job description or the prerequisite for Ecuadorian bus drivers – actually it’s the same throughout South American.
Whether it’s day or night, raining or sunshine, snow or gravel, cutting curves through double yellow lines, overtaking on blind corners or the crest of a hill regardless of oncoming traffic, or worse ensures you’re poised on the edge of your seat white-knuckled for most of the journey.
If you don’t have a lot of money for flights or are travelling long-term, then buses are your only choice. Private drivers are also too expensive and I’m sure you’d still experience the same driving-style on your travels.
Where to sleep
Check out the Hostal Princesa Maria for wonderful service from hospitable owners, for an inexpensive spotless double including private bathroom. A communal kitchen is also available.
The location is great as it’s an easy walk to shops and the square.
If you stay at this hostal, book a room off the road as it’s tad noisy otherwise.
A few relaxing days in Baños and now it’s time to travel north to Ecuador’s capital and bustling city of Quito on the 08:45 bus tomorrow morning – hear there’s a nasty scam brewing in Quito…