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Baños, Ecuador

Baños Cathedral by Anna Snyder

The adventure capital of Ecuador, Baños has enough charm and natural beauty to appeal to anyone, nature-lover or city aficionado. Located in the Andean highlands of northern Ecuador in the shadow of “Mama Tungurahua,” the snow-capped active volcano of the region’s mythology, Baños has some of the most jaw-dropping mountains, waterfalls, canyons and lagoons that you’ll ever come across. It’s a tried and true favorite of backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts, filled with ready-made tours and hikes through the surrounding countryside.  Fortunately, as a city fueled by its tourist industry, Baños also has countless high-quality hotels and Bed and Breakfasts to choose from at very moderate prices.

It is commonly said, “If you haven’t been to Baños, you haven’t been to Ecuador!” For the adventurous, there are endless opportunities for hiking, mountain-climbing, rafting on the Pastaza River, canyoning, parapenting and horseback riding at reasonable prices. There are dozens of companies throughout the city competing for your business, making it possible to walk up to one of their offices and book a spot in an activity then and there.  Most of these activities should cost around $25 – $35, or you can book through your hotel which may offer a discount.

Alternately, there are plenty of hikes you can do by yourself that lead to various miradores, or look-out points, that offer a spectacular view of the city and the surrounding mountains. The San Francisco Bridge, which crosses the chasm to the north of the bus station, offers a breathtaking vista of the cliffs, cascades and river that border the city. (In the afternoon, it also offers bungee-jumping, if you’re brave enough to jump off a ravine into a dizzying ravine.) If you cross the bridge and hike your way up and around the mountains opposite the city, the road will lead you to a fine view of Baños and, if the weather is clear, of the Tungurahua volcano looming above the smaller mountains. In the western part of town near the hospital, there is a moderately steep hike up the mountainside, past a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and to the summit where you will be able to see the city and everything beyond.

Baños Ecuador View by Anna Snyder

If you’re interested in venturing beyond Baños, you can rent bikes for around $5 a day to explore the surrounding mountains. There are trails to various miradores and waterfalls, such as the jaw-dropping Pailon de Diablo, which you can bike down to and catch a bus back from.  (Most buses will take on your bike as you ride back to the city.) Plenty of travel agencies offer climbing excursions to the National Park Cotopaxi (dress warmly!) or jungle tours for around $55. Imagine Ecuador (website) is a well-known company, certified by the Ministry of Tourism, but there are plenty of smaller companies throughout the city, allowing you to shop around for the best deal.

For the traveler who prefers to spend their vacation in comfort, Baños has plenty of spas, cafes, artisan shops and fine restaurants, all within walking distance. The only cultural landmark is the Church of Our Lady of the Holy Water, which has a series of paintings depicting the folklore of the town, how the Virgin Mary saved Baños from being flooded by lava during an eruption of Tungurahua.

Baños Waterfall by Anna Snyder

No visit to Baños (which means baths in Spanish) is complete without an invigorating dip in its sulfuric hot springs. The closest springs are located just next to the Cascada de La Virgen, the waterfall to the east of the city—a five-minute walk from the church if you follow the signs for las piscinas. The springs are filled with naturally-heated water pumped straight from the volcano, mineral-rich and reputed to be very good for your health. They’re best enjoyed early in the morning before 9 am, when you can meditate to the rush of the nearby waterfall and watch the fog on the distant mountains without being swarmed by local families and their small children. Entry is only $2 and if you finish off your soak with a plunge into the stream of icy water diverted from the waterfall, you’ll feel refreshed and energized for the rest of the day. For a more complete spa treatment, you can also seek out various types of massage on Carrera Luis A. Martinez for $25 – $35 per hour.

Eating & Drinking

While Baños is more expensive than other cities in Ecuador, compared to the United States everything you find will be a bargain. Local restaurants serving traditional Ecuadorian lunches will offer you a full meal for around $3, but Ecuadorian cuisine on the whole is lackluster—think a giant helping of white rice, a piece of fried meat or chicken leg, and a tiny salad of iceberg lettuce. The courageous can attempt to eat the street food, which consists mainly of cuy (roasted guinea pig) and grilled tripe.  A more inviting taste of the local food might be the desserts—Baños is filled with candy shops whose specialty is melcocha, a taffy made from sugarcane juice, which you can watch confectioners stretch and pull in the doorways. The regional cocktail is canelazo, a mix of fermented cane juice and orange juice. Drink these with caution; as they are basically all sugar, they will sneak up on you quickly and leave you with the worst hangover of your life.

Baños also has a good selection of restaurants and cafes geared towards westerners. Casa Hood offers vegetarian meals from $5 – $6, as well as a multilingual book exchange and movies with English subtitles in the evenings. One street over, you’ll find a produce market where you can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as the traditional breakfast llapingachos. A giant platter of fried eggs, oily potatoes, sausages, cheese-filled tortillas and a wedge of avocado, llapingachos will keep you full for the rest of the day, and it costs around $2. If you’re looking for lighter fare, Arte Café and Té has a diverse menu of loose-leaf tea, as well as coffee, desserts, crepes and toasted sandwiches. They also have Wi-Fi and hammock chairs, making it possible to stay there for hours. Various Italian and Mexican restaurants also offer full meals for under $8, with a glass of good Chilean wine for $4 or less. A 10-15% tip is generally appreciated, but not crucial as it would be in the US.

Where To Eat

Stray Dog Brew Pub
Calle Maldonado and Rocafuerte, Baños, Tungurahua, Website

Microbrewery and restaurant, handmade sandwiches $6-7 and artisan beers $4-5

Satiya
Carrera Luis A. Martinez, Baños (across the street from Casa Hood)
Vegetarian café with amazing veggie burgers and hand-cut fries—try their rosemary lemonade.

Il Pappagallo Cucina Italiana
Carrera Luis A. Martinez and Calle Eloy Alfaro, Baños, Tungurahua
Best Italian food in Baños, pizza and pasta $7-10, house wine $4.50

Bambú Steak House
Carrera Vicente Rocafuerte and Calle Eloy Alfaro, Baños, Tungurahua, Website

Various steaks served with vegetables and potatoes, $7-11

Where To Stay

La Casa Verde Eco Guest House
Camino Real, Santa Ana, Baños de Santa Agua, Tungurahua, Website

Eco-friendly and comfortable rooms: Single $26, Twin $46, Matrimonial $52

La Floresta Hotel
Calle Juan Montalvo and Thomas Halflants, Baños, Tungurahua, Website

Double rooms $38, Family rooms $90

Spa Hosteria Miramelindo
Rio Verde, Baños, Tungurahua—15 km outside of the city along the Via a Puyo, Website

Double Room $39, Family Room $97.50

Samari Spa Resort
Via a Puyo 1 km, Baños, Tungurahua, Website

Luxurious rooms, spa, and gardens. Matrimonial Room $186

 

Practicalities

Getting There: Baños is only three hours from the capitol city of Quito, and you can catch a bus for $3.50 from the Quito bus terminal Quitumbe in the south of the city.  Once you arrive in Baños, there are plenty of budget and higher scale accommodations within walking distance, or you can take a taxi for $1 – $2.

Visas: Americans do not need a visa to travel to Ecuador

Getting Around: Baños is well-suited to pedestrians and you can walk from one end to the other in 20 minutes. Bicycles can be rented for those who want to explore the outskirts of the city, but as Baños is in the mountains, biking up the surrounding hills can be pretty strenuous. Alternatively, buses go by the road to Puyo and taxis in the area are highly affordable.

Safety: As Baños is a small city that thrives on tourism, it maintains an extremely safe and welcoming environment. It’s perfectly safe to walk around after dark in the city center—the streets are well-lit and full of people. Use common sense when dealing with money; walk around with a limited amount of cash and a colored photocopy of your passport just to be on the safe side, but overall Baños has a very low crime rate. On the other hand, watch out for scammers, so-called “Gringo-hunters” who like to attach themselves to tourists and leech money off of them. Once they introduce themselves to you, they will make a point to run into you on every street corner, act aggressively friendly, and invite you out for drinks and meals which you will end up paying for. They are harmless, aside from being very annoying, and a firm “go away,” or threat to get la policía should send them packing. Also, if you are planning to take part in any adventure activities, be sure that you’re going with a reputable company that takes all the necessary precautions and has well-maintained equipment.

Health: Baños is high up in the mountains, with an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet above sea level. On one hand, this means that there are no mosquitoes so there is no risk of malaria or yellow fever. There is no reason for you to take malaria tablets unless you’re planning to take a jungle tour while you’re in Baños.  On the other hand, this means you’ll have to acclimatize yourself to the altitude, which may take a few days. Make sure you you’re comfortable with the atmosphere before you take on any strenuous hikes or other activities. Coca tea is a good remedy for altitude sickness and can be found at every café and health food store in the city. Also, as the atmosphere is thinner, make sure when taking part in outdoor activities that you wear plenty of sunscreen and stay hydrated. The water in Baños, (and all of Ecuador,) isn’t potable, so drink only bottled water.

Currency: Ecuador’s currency is the US dollar, which makes traveling there that much easier. There are plenty of ATMs throughout Baños which take foreign bank cards with a fee of around $3 – $5 per transaction.  Most restaurants and shops will only take cash, and people rarely have change for large bills. If you try to pay for anything with a $20, be prepared for an exasperated look and for the vendor to disappear for at least five minutes as they go looking for change from a neighboring shop.

Language: Spanish, but many proprietors of restaurants, tours, and hotels are foreigners who speak English well.

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