If someplace is called “The Adventure Capital of _______,” you know we’ll will be there. Baños de Agua Santa is where the Andes slope into the Amazon, waterfalls gush from the mountains, and adrenaline-junkies play in their wake. River rafting, canyoning, ziplining, rock climbing…you name the adventure activity and this spunky little town has it on tap. This brings backpackers by the thousand but their hot springs make it a charming locals retreat as well. The energy is infectious in Baños and we found ourselves strapping on a harness or helmet for a new adventure each day.
Setting the stage for adrenaline addiction, the highly active Tungurahua volcano hovers over Baños and a waterfall cascades right into town. They say a vision of the Virgin Mary was seen near the falls and that she protects the town from volcanic activity (the cathedral has frescoes depicting Mary combating eruptions). We arrived on a Sunday, so the whole town was out and about…relaxing in the hot springs, playing sports in the park, or sitting in the church square eating cevichocho (our favorite snack with a ceviche-style veggies and spices with lupine flower seeds, hold the pork skin.)
Our Baños Lodging
We heard great reviews on Hostal Erupcion—location, vibe, value, solid WiFi on and on–so we checked in for four nights. There was a lively scene in the yummy cafe/bar, while our private room looking out to the park and mountains was still completely relaxing. Best of both worlds and for $35 a night.
Biking the Waterfalls Route
To tap into all this adventure, we went to Geotours, one of the longest running and most respected outfitters in town. We loved the vibe of this sporty office…you can tell everyone feels they have the best job ever. Hey, wouldn’t you want to rock climb and kayak all day? We signed up for the next day’s river-rafting trip then rented bikes to ride the 18-km Waterfalls Route. Heading east out of town, we hugged the river and saw waterfall after waterfall explode into the canyon.
Manta de la Novia Falls
Ziplining is set up all along the river gorge for tourists, but they also have these little makeshift cable cars, running off old bus engines, for locals to get across to their villages. (You know which one we picked, right?) We flew toward Manta de la Novia (Bridal Veil Falls) and hopped out to do ariver walk and picnic stop. For $1.50, it’s the best cheap thrill in town.
Pailon del Diablo Falls
The most dramatic fall along the Waterfalls Route is Pailon del Diablo. We hiked down a steep winding path for 15 minutes then reached a little ticket booth. We’re always a little perturbed when people charge for nature access, but once you see what the villagers created, you’ll want to pay them double upon your return. This 100-foot waterfall creates such wind and spray it’s literally hard to walk, yet the community managed to build balconies into the cliff-face and even behind the falls. Once you accept getting soaking wet and filthy, crawl through the narrow rock tunnels to see the sheet of raging water crash inches from your face…it’s a giggle-inducing rush.
Cascada de la Virgen Hot Springs
Trucks wait for weary bikers above Pailon del Diablo to whisk them 18km back to town and avoid the winding roads at dark. On the ride, we got chatting with two awesome guys from Seattle and before you know it, we were heading to the town hot springs together. Dipping into pools of ice-cold river water, followed by 131-degree volcano-heated cauldrons, I tried to focus on the health benefits of mineral intake and improved circulation, but at times I wondered why anyone would pay for such torture. Laughing off the repeated shocks to the system with our new buddies and reveling in the awesome locals scene, got me through this ONCE-in-a-lifetime experience. (For the record, Mike loved it.)
The next day at 9am we were at the Geotours office for our river-rafting wetsuit and helmet fittings. Due to the constant fluctuation in rainfall, the Lower Pastaza river is a new river every time you run it, with whirlpools and rapids ranging from Class II to IV. From the raging waters to the gorgeous scenery to our super fun guides (watch minute 0:56 on the video)…this is a river rodeo, you don’t want to miss.
Casa del Arbol
No trip to Baños would be complete without trying the “Swing at the End of the World.” Take a bus from the corner of Rocafuerte & Pastaza, up 20 minutes to a seismic monitoring station turned playground. In chatting with the man who owns the property, he said he built the treehouse as a quiet place to play his guitar and hung a swing for a little extra diversion. Though with an extreme drop-off and perfect views of Tungurahua volcano, this sweet spot garnered a lot of attention. Touristy or not, it’s a must and we completely enjoyed our two hours here–trying the swing, riding the zip line, and catching double rainbows over the Andes.
Adventure Capital of Ecuador
While we love hanging in local villages, there is something nice about staying in backpacker towns every once in a while. Everyone is there to go on adventures, hang out, and have fun. With this commonality, it’s easy to make fast friends—especially in town like Baños. While biking, rafting, tree swinging, and dipping in the hot springs, we met so many awesome long-term travelers taking the leap to explore South America and the world for a few months or a few years. We loved that this town has an exciting vibe, no matter if you’re canyoning or just chatting with new friend at a cafe.