Written by: Bernarda Carranza
Pictures: Paula Holguín
Baños, “little piece of heaven”. Baños, the swing at the edge of the world. Baños, backpackers’ Mecca. Baños, will Tungurahua someday destroy you? Baños, Gateway to the Amazon… Call it what you will, Baños de Agua Santa (Baños of the Holy Water, its official name) is a major tourism hub. Despite being a small, remote town, it received over 250,000 foreign tourists and over 155,000 Ecuadorian tourists in 2017, and ranks among the six most-visited places in Ecuador. Being the go-to destination for young adults in Ecuador, Ñan sent two reporters, who also happen to be millennials, to seek out the most “authentic” Baños experiences.
The bus terminal is almost always full; dozens of tourists get off, carrying backpacks many times larger than their backs, wide-eyed and excited, hoping that this small town wrapped in forest at the foot of Mount Tungurahua is the “little piece of heaven” its local nickname promises.
Some may find, however, that Baños already has many tell-tale tourist-trap symptoms: more souvenir shops than bakeries; llama keyrings and hemp bracelets, the I <3 BAÑOS t-shirts overflowing from shopfronts; bedraggled foreigners who look like they missed their plane out of Ecuador many years ago; and then the uncanny amount of hostels and infinite amount of signs that offer every “best tour in town” on bike, quad, buggy, chiva, to the waterfalls, to the jungle, to the Tree House, to the viewpoint… Aaah, the visual overload!
It is difficult to imagine Baños in the distant past, when was home to little more than 600 people and the ‘Ipos’, a tribe that disappeared when the Spanish colonizers arrived.
The entire area then belonged to a Spaniard named Palomino Flores. It is certainly difficult to imagine Baños without its imposing Neo-Gothic Cathedral (located on Calles Ambato and 12 Noviembre) where the icon of Our Lady of the Holy Water lies. The temple’s construction was started by Belgian Father Thomas Halflants and completed by architect Father Pedro Brüning (responsible for over 220 constructions throughout the country) in the 19th century.
Inside the Cathedral, it is worth stopping by to check out the enormous ex-votos (votive offerings), paintings created by faithful devotees that tell the story of families in Baños who have witnessed miracles granted by the patron saint Our Lady of the Holy Water in and around the city (one even tells the dramatic story of how the “holy water” Virgin calmed a great fire hundreds of kilometers away in coastal Guayaquil.
But there are those who do remember this past with nostalgia, like Julio Pazos, a Baños writer and professor who lives in Quito and remembers his childhood in these very streets with a sigh. “It was like being in a permanent party, because there were people coming into town to celebrate the patron saint,” he says (some things apparently have not changed).
“It was always an important place for travelers since it was the nexus point between the Andes and the Amazon Basin.”
People came for two reasons: to visit the Virgin of the Rosary and to bathe in the hot springs. The hostels, the extreme sports, the bars… that came later.
The cult to the Virgin has always brought devotees from all over the country, who have visited these lands to bathe in Her “hair” (at a waterfall located east of the city). The natural mineral water that flows from this volcanic enclave, many claim, has healing properties. That’s what the “Holy Water” add-on is about (if you ask the locals, they will tell you that the Virgin would leave the church to bathe in this very waterfall).
To the side, on Juan Montalvo, you can visit the Virgin’s “spa”, where Pazos says he learned to swim and which is still open to the public today. But now new additions, including Termas de la Virgen, on Calle Luis A. Martínez, and the Termas de El Salto offer more pools, thermal waters and slides.
Sandwiches, melcocha and guava treats…
It’s peculiar that sugar cane is not actually produced in Baños: there’s tons of it everywhere. As soon as you exit the bus terminal or the thermal baths, you’re confronted with rows of vendors in small bamboo kiosks offering their famous “sánduche” (sandwich, a drink with cane alcohol, lemon and cane juice). In this case, the cane comes from Puyo, the vendors tell us with a smile as they lure us with their charm: “come and try some my darling, my prince, my king”.
Wine-red guava (guayaba in Spanish) sweets abound, and they come mostly from Ambato. But the true typical sweet here is the melcocha or alfeñique. It’s everywhere.
Between the souvenir shops and the hostels, you find colorful candy stores with the owner shaping the thick strands of caramel, which actually look like adult boa constrictors hanging from a wooden hook on the door.
This artisanal candy is made of panela, cane, strawberry essence and tangerine peel. “Taste it,” they offer the passersby as they break off a piece. Melcocha is the fresh, softer variety, while alfeñique the dried and solid version.
Pazos tells us that the origin of melcocha is uncertain, although there are 18th century documents that say Jesuits in neighboring Patate, where sugarcane plantations existed, produced a similar sweet. In any case, it has existed for centuries. “From the moment I was born,” laughs Pazos, “I had a piece of melcocha in my mouth.”
Visit a candy factory
In Baños there are four candy factories that make the famous melcocha and guava sweets. Visit the factory of Nibaldo Salazar and his family, “La Selecta”, on Amazonas, via Puyo, past the San Vicente neighborhood, next to the highway, where you can observe the process of making these delights and taste new creations.
The full-on Baños experience
One of the reasons for Baños being such a millennial magnet is price: there are plenty of hostels that offer rooms from $10 to $15 (in high season) and medium-luxury hotels such as Hotel Sangay, Hotel Samari or Luna Runtún (with a spectacular view of the city).
Renting bicycles for a day (such as the waterfall route to Pailón del Diablo) costs from $5-8 a day, while quad bikes, buggies or a 4×4 car go for around $20-40 per day. Activities such as zip-lining, canyoning, rafting, bungee jumping and rappelling are a favorite among tourists and you can find these types of tours anywhere in the city center. And of course, you mustn’t miss the opportunity to literally hang from the sky at Casa del Árbol (the Tree House).
Buses to Pailón del Diablo and Casa del Árbol
There are two bus routes that go to these places daily and at different times. The bus stop for Casa del Árbol is on Pastaza and Rocafuerte (in front of the Don Gato bakery) and the stop for Pailón del Diablo is on Eloy Alfaro and Luis A. Martínez.
Food options are broad, from Argentine barbecue at Quilombo (Juan Montalvo y 16 de Diciembre), Italian cuisine at Carpe Diem (Montalvo and November 12) or Swiss at Swiss Bistro (on Eloy Alfaro and Luis A. Martínez). A very popular place to grab a bite is to look out over the city atop Café del Cielo located in Hotel Luna Runtún.
If you are looking for Ecuadorian fare El Aroma y Sabor de Mercedes never fails; besides having delicious cheese, chicken and meat empanadas, you can find locro, mote pillo, and mote with pork rind (Maldonado y Ambato, also just to the side of the Pailón del Diablo waterfall). Or visit the Mercado Central to taste traditional llapingachos, chicken broths, yahuarlocro (the famous potato-and-blood soup) and the “levanta muertos”, a potent drink with avocado, spinach, guava, an endemic fruit called borojó and malt extract that, they say, cures your hangover in minutes. Next to the market you can visit Pasaje Artesanal for more souvenirs or if you are looking for art, café/gallery Barahona, on Calles Vieira and Montalvo, where artist Marcelo Barahona displays his work.
Another reason why Baños is popular is its nightlife.
You can start early on Eloy Alfaro and Ambato (the bar strip in town). The Leprechaun is a classic (Eloy Alfaro between Oriente and Espejo) with its three different ambiances: a nightclub, a backyard with a bonfire area and a salsoteca on one side; or you can go dance at Volcán, Son Cubano or Mocambo; of taste the German-style craft beers at Cherusker…
Like the good millennial that I am, I must admit I have visited Baños many times: I’ve bungee-jumped off the San Francisco bridge, had my shots of the “sánduche”, partied at the Leprechaun and Volcán, taken my very own selfie on the swing at Casa del Árbol, rented buggies to travel the city, and biked down to the Pailón del Diablo, stopping at every waterfall along the way. When friends visit from abroad I always take them to Baños… Baños, the backpacker’s mecca, Baños, the endless fiesta. Baños, the outdoor activity hub. Baños, the land of waterfalls and nature. Baños, the little piece of heaven…
Find out more about the region around Baños in our Tungurahua issue.