The Sacred Water Trail


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Baños has long been a magnet for both local and international travelers. Its popularity has grown and grown over the last decades, and, although the town is associated more with thrill-seeking backpackers, families can also enjoy the area’s greener-than-green world, especially by visiting the string of waterfalls that tumble down the mountains on the road east to the Amazon Basin.

Here you’ll find outlines of faces carved into the rocks next to the ‘holy water’ waterfalls, as Baños’s main waterfall is known. There are many stories and legends
to tell here. Each name evokes a legend or perhaps local lore: the Devil’s Cauldron (Pailón of the Devil), the Virgin’s Hair, (Cabellera de la Virgen), the Ghost (El Fantasma) and the Goblin’s Gully (Encañonado del Duende). The route from Baños east to Puyo boasts no less than 60 waterfalls that feed the hungry tributaries of the mighty Amazon.

From just about any point in the town, one feels the presence of water. The fall that is born atop the Bellavista Hill cascades its crystalline waters down 80 meters — the Virgin’s Hair is constantly rearranging with this magical flow. Rising amid the great folds of Mount Tungurahua, the volcano that dominates the town to the south, its waters feed the Baths of the Virgin, where the locals and visitors alike come to soak up its hot, healing (perhaps even sacred) waters.

Starting out on the road east to Puyo, we soon come to Ulba, the starting point to discover Ecuador’s highest waterfall: Agoyán. It flows into the Pastaza River below, roiling and rushing, echoing from the surrounding mountainsides in a wonderfully harmonious hum. A kilometer further along, the Heaven’s Gate (Puerta del Cielo) cascades down right next to the road. The locals call this area “paradise” and they may well be on to something.

Like a flash of light (or sometimes two) the Bride’s Veil (Manto de la Novia) peeks through the vegetation as we make our way downhill. Its name was no doubt inspired by the whiteness of its waters. It’s home to dozens of bird and mammal species that, perhaps without realizing it, inhabit two regions at once; the Andes and the Amazon. Take a ride on the rickety cable car to reach it on the southern bank: families can picnic and camp there, too.

San Pedro and San Pablo are our next stops. Once can appreciate these waterfalls from leafy green viewpoints, as well as by boarding the longest cable-car in the country that swings over the 400-meter-wide abyss of the rushing Pastaza. They say that this area was a hiding place for the pre-Columbian rulers of these lands, who came to pay tribute to gods here.

The road continues ever-downwards and eastwards, through tunnels dripping with water (best circumnavigated if traveling by bike!), seemingly carved by hand. Finally, we reach the
small settlement of Río Verde. The biggest attraction here is, without a doubt, the majestic Pailón del Diablo. Taking the path and descending to its base through the humid forest is a great experience. Ironically, you can also find “Heaven’s Crack” (Grieta del Cielo) by following the signs: a semi-open tunnel that crosses the mountain and allows you to see the waterfall from the inside. The path requires you to kneel uncomfortably, but the reward is to literally walk beneath the water.

You can explore further down, to the Toucan Cliff (Peñón del Tucán), Parrot Refuge (Refugio de los Loros) and Angel’s Veil (Manto de Ángel). These waterfalls lead to a larger waterfall: Machay or, for its translation, ‘The Cave’. The walk takes 20 minutes down an orchid-, butterfly- and bird-filled path. They say this is the place to enjoy “rock therapy”: the water, in contact with the boulders and rocks, creates a mineral-rich dew that purifies both the environment and visitors.

You can complete the Waterfalls Trail in a day, but we advise you to take your time, to listen to the stories of the locals — who recount a time when it took days to complete and weeks to explore this route. Perhaps there are even hidden waterfalls not yet visited, waiting to be named, with new stories to be told.

Make the most of your Toyota and reach Baños on the slower and rougher roads of the beautiful Kuripishcu eco-toure. Discover the seldom-visited highland towns of Tungurahua, the lovely Patate, the volcano views and forests of Hacienda Manteles, and the singular landscapes and cultures that make up this fascinating land.

Check out this routes’ map here.

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