Baños, Ecuador: Hot Springs, Waterfalls, and Taffy
Departing from the bubble of a modern, busy city never really felt like a barrier that was hard to overcome. The act of leaving is also substantially easier when your eyes are completely enamored with the rising, rugged landscape ahead of you. Beyond all of the twists and turns of the mountain roads that cut through sheltered valleys & raw ridges was a different world, one that was highly polarized from the existence we just left behind. Our goal was simple; get to Baños, relax, eat well, and get revived. The echoing banter we seemed to encounter in every travel conversation spoke highly of this area, describing it as a peaceful Andes mountain town overshadowed by lush, green cliffs and a powerful river cutting down through the valley. Baños is known as the gateway to the Amazon because it’s the largest city in the mountains before reaching the jungles of the Amazon Basin. The town itself has over 50 waterfalls, and there didn’t seem to be any shortage of green vegetation in any direction. There was also plenty of chatter about the natural hot springs & healing pools supplied by geothermal activity. For all of these reasons we were itching to get our feet on the ground and seek some quiet enjoyment in the small ciudad and see what the surrounding lands held for visitors with eager eyes.
We arrived in an old bus depot in Baños in the late afternoon, and sought out our digs for the night. We began walking down a narrow street that was lined with stores and life milling about. I remember being caught off-guard seeing a man hand pulling taffy, a treat we hadn’t encountered yet in our travels and one familiar to our childhood in the states. I started scanning around to see if this was just an anomaly and noticed that several other shops close by had the same product for sale, and guys pulling taffy in the same fashion. Each had a large hook mounted onto the wall shared with the next store over that was used to pull and stretch the taffy. The person making the taffy would sling a heavy piece of the sugary rope over the hook and pull it until it softened up. We watched with curious eyes for a while before carrying onward to find a place to lay our gear down for the evening. Research later confirmed that Baños is known for it’s taffy & hand carved wooden parrots, oddly enough.
It appeared that expats had discovered this area long before we arrived in town, most noted by the wide selection of food from around the world. We passed by several places with menus we would have relished on, but was a little out of our reach on the budget scale. Thai food for two would have been savored until it completely disappeared from our plates, but would have cost us a few nights rest in a modest hostel. As luck or fate would have it, we stumbled upon a tiny little family owned restaurant that boasted the best friend chicken & papas in Baños, and naturally we caved in. Our meal was prepared by an 80 year old woman, who’s secret recipe was the glorious legacy of this 8 table restaurant. She proudly told us of her special oil pressure cooker that flash cooks the chicken so that each bite is savory, crunchy, and full of flavor. I could have lived out the days of my life eating that chicken and listening to that wise old woman’s cackle, which was complimented by the hundreds of wrinkle lines her face made when she laughed.
After checking out a few sleeping options in town, we settled on one that seemed to have a decent kitchen and some outdoor space. A quality kitchen area rated high on our priority list, and outdoor space was essential for getting away from the bunk bed dorm room/cave, and to preserve sanity during downtime. I developed a keen ability to tune out my immediate surroundings and I did a lot of my writing after breakfast and before bed, but almost never in bed. Rarely could I find inspiration in a dark dorm room with strangers sleeping or milling about. An odd feature this hostel had was a Turkish bath on the roof, which didn’t seem to have any instructions or indication of how it operated. It didn’t matter much to us, because our primary goal for Baños was to get some relaxation time in the natural hot springs.
After breakfast we set out to find the hot springs on the edge of town, eager with anticipation. Right outside of the springs were public laundry washing stations comprised of concrete irrigation channels that fed shallow tubs for workspace. These channels were strategically fed by the run off from the waterfalls cascading down from the side of the near vertical cliff adjacent to the baths. The water coming off the falls was extremely refreshing, and formed a cool mist that hugged the base of the mountain. The entrance & building for the hot springs was beautifully classic in it’s appearance. I’d place a time date stamp on late 70’s-early 80’s construction and hand painted signage. After paying our fees we changed into our beach attire, took a go at the outdoor coed showers, and slinked into the hot, yellowish thermal baths. The springs were fed by mineral rich, geothermically heated water captured into a large communal pool and several different hot tubs of varying temperatures. The pool was fed by several pipes that were carrying the naturally heated water, so your desired temperature could be somewhat controlled by your position. A glance around the pool revealed we were one of the only tourists there and the cast of characters was some solid people watching material, complimented by a gorgeous 200+ foot waterfall in the near distance. Some people came to swim laps while others came to chat with their friends as part of their morning ritual. Everyone was extremely friendly to each other, which passed along the good vibes to start the day.
Opposite the large communal thermal pool was a shallow cooling pool, fed by bone chilling water most likely collected from the waterfall. It’s easy to trick your brain the first time to get right into water that is the polar opposite of what you just became extremely relaxed in, but after that you’re on your own. The sensation of absolute cold hits you in a way that forces your body to contract, which in my case resulted in pulling the air out of my lungs in short, choppy releases. The best way to describe the feeling of your skin going from hot to cold in this fashion is to try to imagine diving into a pool of cold mouthwash. Every pore on your skin has a tingle and tries to dance itself out of your body, hovering only slightly off the surface in perpetuity. This experience makes the return back to the thermal baths irresistibly enjoyable, and does the exact opposite in reverse. However, this hot/cold therapy is part of the maximum health benefits of heated thermal springs, and I can attest it does make you feel like a new person.
After our spin at the hot baths, we wandered around town a bit more to see what else was going on. We heard from some travelers that there was a bridge jumping business near the bus station, and that sometime in the afternoon there were going to be some tourists trying it out. When we showed up to the bridge, sure enough there were some guys with a group of girls in the middle of the bridge fastening harnesses and giving out instructions. We took a walk down a path that seemed to go underneath the bridge, which was probably around 150 feet above the churning river below, to get a better vantage point of the jumpers. One by one we watched a few jumpers go, and snapped some pictures of them swinging under the steel bridge. I grabbed a few good images and figured I’d walk up and ask if they wanted me to email them to them for souvenirs. As we spoke with a few of the girls and guys, we turned around to talk with the jumper I just shot images of and to our surprise it was a very familiar face! Coincidentally, one of the jumpers I took pictures of was a travel buddy named Ilse, a dutch girl we last saw in Colombia when we parted ways near the border. Small world.
The next day we went back to the hot springs in the AM for some more heat therapy before setting off on a hike that led to a vista above the town. The trail was consistently steep all the way to the end, which afforded a gorgeous, sweeping view of the valley and city beneath us. Along the way there were small footpaths to private residencies, which from my understanding were only accessible by this long hike on a narrow trail. A nice jaunt back to town had us hungry for some quality food, which we found in the central mercado near the fried chicken spot we found our first night there. Inside the mercado were dozens of stalls selling vegetables, fresh fruits, and delicious smoothies. There was an assortment of items foreign to us that could be put into juicers or blenders which yielded fresh, tasty treats. I asked one of the stalls if I could watch them prepare some sort of doughy bite sized snack, and there were no objections. Everyone seemed to be very easy going, living life at their own pace tucked away in this mountain valley near the Amazon. Could be something in the water here.
On one of our last days in Baños we chose to hire some bikes, get out of town, and explore the statuesque valley below. We biked along the only road that led out of town along the edge of the river, hugging the skinny shoulder on a long, gentle decline. Little gatherings of houses and streets would occasionally come and go as we whizzed by on inflated rubber tires, enjoying all the primitive and simple pleasures of the ride. Occasionally there would be pull off along the gorge to showcase an impressive waterfall and panoramic views. There was usually some sort of business catering to adventure tourism demand at these stops, typically ranging from paying money to climb up a tall tower for a better view, zip lining along the gorge, zip lining across the gorge, bridge jumping above the gorge, paying for a gondola ride across the gorge, or restaurants with a view of the gorge. The road had been cut through portions of the tall, solid wedges of rock, forming a tunnel out the other side. Usually a few hundred feet before the tunnel entrance a small bike lane would veer off to the side, hugging the contours of the valley walls. These side paths seemed like the used to be the original road before lots of traffic came to the region, and were comprised of mostly hand placed brick and concrete walls. This zig-zaggy path led us to all sorts of surprises, and some beautiful curves that would take us underneath chunks of cantilevered bedrock dripping with groundwater and hanging plants. We took it all in and kept soaking in the views as we went further and further down in elevation along chocolate colored river below.
Eventually we came through a town and the path diverted us onto a series of bridges that went over crystal clear water of what must have been a rogue off-shoot of the roaring river we had been following all day. The stream had a gentle, zen-like babble as it made its way over rocks and around large cobbles protruding out of the surface and basking in the sun. The sleepy little village seemed to be a great place to stop, explore, and enjoy the mountainous setting we stumbled upon. The bike bath we were on came to another tunnel going through yet another mountain ridge, with the entrance disappearing into a void of black nothingness. Not wanting to press on further away from Baños, we followed the stream to see where a little path that hugged it’s banks led to. Houses dotted the worn out road here and there along the way, and I couldn’t help but let my imagination wander into what life would be like living in this quiet, peaceful area somewhere between the Pacific Coast and the Amazon. We found a spot to rest along the banks near an old cargo pulley system that was probably used as the only means to get to the other side of the stream during wetter parts of the year when the river ran high.
We chose to thumb a ride on the side of the road, looking for any truck that had space for us to get back up to Baños. The entire ride back to town was uphill, which, while not impossible, was definitely not at the top of our list of things to do at the end of the day. We flagged down some nice driver with a large empty truck, tossed our bikes up in the back, and climbed aboard. The ride back was very refreshing, and we got to ride through the cool, dark tunnels we couldn’t bike through for obvious reasons. When we got back to Banos, we biked around a little more before heading back to the rental shop to drop off our rides. We were planning on setting off the next day to dig a little deeper into Ecuador’s gut, and were excited to see what new experiences were on the horizon.