Just a three-and-a-half hour drive from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, the town of Baños de Agua Santa snuggles into a deep valley surrounded by the mountains skirting the Tungurahua volcano. With an elevation of close to 6,000 feet and a population of around 15,000 residents, Baños has a bit of a ski town feel: The city slows down during the day while travelers are out doing activities, and picks up again in the evening when they come back for dinner. It’s a magnet for unshaven backpacker types taking a break from hiking the route around Ecuador’s volcanoes and craters. They often begin their Baños extension with a week of rest, which then becomes a month’s sojourn, but soon they buy a bike and adopt a street dog and, well, maybe that’s why all the foreigners in the cafes of Baños seem to know everyone else’s name. Baños is a comfortable home for a getaway artist.
But I arrived after dark and the town looked, frankly, depressing. A line of boarded-up clapboard shops selling tacky T-shirts lined the road in, and the central plazas were occupied only by the occasional dog. When I checked into my inn, the air in my room felt damp, and the mattress hard. I had heard through a long, winding grapevine that Baños was an outdoor lover’s paradise, but as I tossed and turned that first night I wondered if I had come all this way for nothing.
Then, the next morning, I opened the curtains on my modest room. A long, white waterfall was pouring down the mountain in front of my window, a stone’s throw away, roaring to the bottom and creating the same soothing sound that people select on their sound machines. Near the base of the waterfall, a steaming pool was already occupied by morning bathers. And surrounding them was the multi-shaded green of forest, from which an occasional bird call would emit. The damp air now felt vibrant and healthy. Maybe I’d stick around after all. Maybe even for an extra day or two.
The town is famous for its heart-pounding thrills — zip line rides and paraglide flights and bungee jumps — but also for its therapeutic post-adventure options in the form of muscle-soothing thermal baths, saunas and indigenous herbal teas. So on my first morning, after a delightful hot chocolate of Ecuadorean cacao at Aromi Cafe y Chocolate, I made my way to one of the tour agencies in town, GeoTours, and signed up for a smattering of activities, not sure exactly what was in store for me.