There is something in the water in Baños, a small town in the middle of Ecuador. Some people will tell you it is holy. Others say that it has minerals that lead to better health. Others don’t care about the water because they are too busy throwing themselves off bridges, swinging over cliff edges, and ziplining across river gorges, and quite frankly the water wouldn’t help them even if it did have magic properties!
Nestled in a peaceful river valley and guarded by the 5,000 metre high, and rather active, Tungurahua Volcano, Baños is a destination with a little bit of everything. It is a common stopping point on the backpackers circuit, but it also attracts lots of local Ecuadorians for the spa baths and laid-back attitude. It is a place that can tempt someone to visit for three days and then never leave – as evidenced by many of the hostel and restaurant owners!
With our 14 month old Piper in tow, thereby limiting the amount of white water rafting and mountain biking we could do, we opted to go for a lovely hike along the fields and hillsides overlooking Rio Pastaza. We were hoping that Tungurahua would show itself, but it remained mysterious and shrouded in the clouds.
We wandered along a winding path up into the small fields and rampant plant life of the area. The moisture that comes up out of the Amazon region and the lower altitudes makes the whole region from Ambato to Baños a prime fruit and vegetable growing territory. We saw lots of tomate de arbol trees, also known as tomarillo (a fruit commonly made into juice here), maracuyas, or passionfruit in English, (another fruit that makes an even better juice), and normal tomatoes as well.
In fact, we had a lovely little exchange with a family harvesting their tomatoes as they stood on the other side of the small river valley from their greenhouses. They were using a tarabita – a small metal cart that hangs off of a metal cable operated by a pulley system. Using this simple mechanised transportation system saved this family hours of hauling wooden crates of tomatoes down and then back up the steep slopes of the river gorge. Cora helped to unload a few crates, gaining bemused looks from the family which was clearly not used to gringas moving their tomato harvest! We exchanged a couple of cereal bars for fresh tomatoes – so good we enjoyed them right there as we hiked!
Back in Baños we wandered into churches and past cafes. We saw a small local festival, admired the local graffiti and watched people at the ubiquitous candy shops pulling the equivalent of taffy in the doorways. It was odd to see so many of these shops all offering their version of the same thing and literally standing mere feet from each other as they pulled long strings of the light brown sticky substances off of pegs. Wrap and pull, wrap and pull, and at some point determine it is ready!
An unexpected find was a classic Italian trattoria, owned by a native Italian! Carpe Diem had fantastic handmade pastas and a casual setting away from the main area of town that made it perfect for us. We are not huge connoisseurs of Italian cuisine, but this was truly wonderful home style cooking.
A common outing from town is to hire bikes and ride the road down the river valley heading towards the jungle. Along this road are a series of waterfalls, the most famous of which is El Pailon del Diablo or Devil’s Cauldron. This thunderous waterfall carves its way through a narrow gorge to dramatic effect. To truly experience it, you can walk down into the river gorge on a fairly well built path and then slink your way under and around rocks to stand virtually under the flow (bring a change of clothes). It is loud, wet, and intense but well worth the effort to get so close to a true spectacle of nature.
A trip to Baños wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the baños, the thermal baths. The main baths were in the centre of town at the base of a waterfall. We opted to go as night fell to experience these magical waters under the stars. Every afternoon they empty the pools and refill them from the source so we were treated to a lovely clean and hot thermal bath. Though we arrived early, soon the baths were full of people enjoying their warmth and healing. It was a great experience seeing people of all walks of life relaxing and enjoying the waters.
Our home away from home for the couple of nights was La Casa Verde. Set a couple of kilometres outside the city centre and right along the river, it is a quiet oasis with a very eco-friendly approach. The hospitality from Sharon and Steven, the temporary managers, was phenomenal. These two took a hiatus from teaching in international schools to slow down a bit and try their hand at running an eco hostel. They did a fantastic job and had great insights on the area. Strangely the actual owners intended to hold a lottery to ‘auction’ off the place. For one dollar you could enter and they would pull out a winner, who would soon become the new owners. Tempting as it was to pack it all in and move to Baños – we decided to skip the opportunity. The world is just too big to settle down in one place quite yet, but Baños was a lovely place to experience!