By Jill Sare
Just a four hour drive north of Cuenca, yet a world away, Baños de Agua Santa is a popular destination for every kind of tourist and part of a larger Andes-Amazon traveling circuit.
Baños is known not only as a place of religious pilgrimage and a haven for health and healing, but due to the surrounding natural wonders, it is a popular jumping-off point for adventure sports and great hiking.
A well-developed tourist infrastructure in Baños provides a myriad of lodging and dining options, numerous handicraft shops and a lively bar scene.
Along the way
Part of the charm of Baños is simply getting there. The area around Baños includes the famed Avenue of the Volcanoes where you pass Ecuador's tallest peaks: Cotopaxi (5,897 meters), the Illinizas (South peak: 5,230 meters), and Chimborazo (6,310 meters).
You can stop at one of the traditional markets along the way – Pujilí on Wednesdays and Sundays and Saquisilí on Thursdays – and enjoy a variety of national cuisine such as the chugchucaras in Latacunga, helados (ice cream) from Salcedo, and the colada morada and the famous bread of Pinllo, served all year long.
Once you arrive in Baños choose from adventure, relaxation, or a cultural encounter among the rich attractions of the town.
Baños lives up to its slogan, "Un Pedazo de Cielo" (A Piece of Heaven). Nestled in a bowl-like valley at an altitude of 1,800 meters (5,850 ft), Ecuador's adventure capital boasts a year-round, spring-like climate.
From everywhere in town visitors can admire the "Cascada Cabellera de la Virgen," (Cascading Hair of the Virgin) waterfall. Green hillsides beckon trekkers to the well-marked trails that promise breathtaking vistas. And any of the numerous tour operators can arrange for a river-rafting expedition, a bungee jump from a local bridge ("puenting"), or a rappelling adventure down a waterfall gorge ("canyoning").
Many tourists rent bicycles and ride down the "Ruta de las Cascadas" (Waterfall route), which follows the Pastaza River and offers views of stunning waterfalls along the way. Stop to take a "tarabita" cable car across the river or clip on a harness and fly along a canopy zip line.
Other great pasttimes in Baños include a hike to the base of the powerful "Pailon del Diablo" (The Devil's Cauldron Falls) and a refreshing dip in "El Rocio" Falls near Machay.
Admire the view from the "Madre Tierra" (Mother Earth) lookout where the river widens as it flows to the Amazon Basin. After an exhilarating 4-6 hour downhill ride, tired cyclists can load their bikes on a truck or bus to head back up to Baños. Less athletic visitors can visit the Waterfall Route via open-sided wooden buses, better known as "chivas."
At the end of a day of hiking, biking or adrenaline sports there is nothing better than a soak in La Virgen hot baths at the base of the waterfall (every day until 4:00 p.m. and again from 6:00 -9:00 p.m.). Or visit the mineral rich thermal pools at El Salado, nestled in the Bascun River Valley, a 20-minute uphill walk from town. The Salado baths are open daily from 4:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and are located at the base of the frequently active Tungurahua Volcano (5,023 meters / 16,480 feet).
The Santa Ana baths offer hot, warm and cold pools in a lovely natural setting located just east of town (open Friday through Sunday). La Moderna is a large in-town complex with water slides and warm and cold pools (open only on the weekends). In addition, the Santa Clara public swimming pool has just been remodeled.
If those aching muscles require more than just a soak or a swim, Baños also offers a wealth of spa treatments, from healing mud packs and ionized foot detoxification baths to ear candling and facials. Individual steam boxes called "Baños de Cajón" are also very popular. All around town you can find many types of massages while the larger hotels offer full spa facilities. Two popular places for a secluded treat are Luna Run Tun and Samari Spa.
The Cultural Beat
"El Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Agua Santa" is the official name of the Baños Catholic Church. Hordes of faithful worshippers come to visit and give thanks to the Virgin of Agua Santa. The walls of the sanctuary are lined with paintings depicting miracles attributed to the Virgin. During Carnaval the town fills to capacity as both national and foreign tourists arrive en masse; the colorful indigenous dress mingles with all-too-common backpacker garb.
The cloisters beside the church house a small museum which includes a surprising array of folk art and the ample wardrobe of the Statue of the Virgin.
November 2, "Día de los Difuntos," or All Souls' Day is also a busy time in Baños as families pay homage to their ancestors. In early December the Fiestas de Baños are celebrated with parades, fireworks and go-kart races.
Children will enjoy a ride on the whimsical "Gusano" Bus or a visit to the Baños Zoo. Perched on the edge of the San Martin Gorge, the zoo makes use of the hilly terrain to create natural animal enclosures. Just across the road is a Serpentarium and Reptile house. Visitors can admire the rushing river below from several lookout points, ride across in a cable car or take a canopy zip line flight.
"Pacha Mama" has graced this magical place with vivid representations of the four elements: Winds sweep up from the Amazon Basin. Water is everywhere – falling, surging, shaping and carving the terrain. The land is rich with agricultural bounty, the green patchwork hillsides yielding exotic fruits. And fire explodes upwards from Mama Tungurahua, offering breathtaking sights, sounds and sensations. Her powerful volcanic activity is but one of the many attractions that draw visitors to this pocket of paradise that is Baños.
Credit: Reposted from the Miami Hearld International Edition-Ecuador, www.todayinecuador.com; photo captions: Looking down on Baños; tired hikers on the “Avenue of the Waterfalls,” east of Baños.