In Spanish, the word baño means literally bath, though it’s often used to mean bathroom as well. So you really have to wonder what the intent was in naming that unfortunate town in California Los Baños. There was clearly no malice, however, in naming the resort town in Ecuador. Even though everyone just calls it Baños, they know that the full name, Baños de Agua Santa, is richly deserved. Given its abundance of waterfalls and thermal water, it’s easy to think that it truly is a place of magical waters, whatever the state of its toilets.
January 22nd - First day in Baños
You can get to Baños from Ambato easily just about any time of day, with several bus lines and shuttles offering frequent departures from Terminal Intercantonal M. América on the east side of town. The cost for the bus ride is a whoppingly low $1.25 per person — yes, that’s dollars. So we hopped aboard a bus on Saturday afternoon, after we’d finished teaching for the week at South American Language Center. And an hour later, we were dropped in the heart of town, a short walk from the hostel we’d booked for a couple of nights.
Arriving at Hostel Rincon Banero in Baños de Agua Santa - January 22nd
It was an unpretentious little hostel where the lobby featured some odd little shops that sold ribbon and other such goods. After finding a desk clerk with considerable difficulty, we got checked in, and went up to our room on the third floor — a private room with a private bathroom, soap and towels included. Did we mention that the cost is 10 dollars a night. It wasn’t luxurious, but it was clean and comfortable.
After unloading our gear, we began perambulating about town, and quickly saw that Baños was every bit as alluring as our students indicated. The streets were abuzz with vendors, and all kinds of little shops, and tour companies. There was a huge, majestic cathedral, and a chocolate factory that offered tours (including the opportunity to make your own chocolate), many restaurants, cafes and bars — many of them evidently catering to foreigners.
Flowers, birds and butterflies found in Baños
One of the most curious, if not downright bizarre things we saw was a number of sidewalk vendors selling shoes. Sometimes out of the back of a car or from the top of a car. Evidently there’s a big demand for designer brand footwear in Ecuador — we heard about a mugging in Ambato in which the thief was primarily interested in relieving his victims of their sneakers.
At one spice and nut shop, we even found and bought some bulk tea, which we’d been scouring the seven seas for during the past few weeks.
Oh, and there’s also one of the area’s towering waterfalls, right in the thick of things. Most of the waterfalls in the area require an admission fee to get a good glimpse of, but it would have been impractical to keep this one under wraps. It’s right next to one of several thermal bath sites open to the public.
above photos taken January 23
There were a number of excellent coffee shops, serving not only outstanding decaf coffee, but pretty good tea. And at very reasonable prices — as little as a buck. But the strange thing is, none of them opened until 8:00 a.m., no matter the day of the week. Either the folks in this town aren’t accustomed to waking up to a jolt of caffeine, or they just wake up earlier — at least the baristas do. Somebody needs to teach them the real meaning of agua santa. So Dennis had to twiddle his thumbs for a couple of hours in the morning before getting his daily tea fix. We couldn’t make tea, or cook, in the hostel as we would have preferred, because we didn’t have a kitchen. So we again had to draw upon our skills as cold “cooks”, assembling meals from whatever ingredients we could get from the store that didn’t require heating.
On Sunday morning, after the cafes had opened and we had fortified ourselves with a proper cup of hot refreshment, we began hiking up the side of a mountain. Our intended destination was Casa del Arbol (The Tree House), which is… well, a tree house, of sorts, that sits up on the top of a mountain, and has a couple of cool swings whereby you can swing out from the mountaintop. This was on our list of attractions to check out in the area, and today was going to be the day, by golly.
Except we grossly underestimated the strenuousness of the ascent, and the length of time required. After about an hour and a half of going up steps, and up and up and up, we were zonked; and looking at Google Maps, we realized we’d made it only about a quarter of the way. So we turned back, figuring we could take some means of transportation other than shoes to the peak on some other occasion. (Spoiler alert. It happened the following weekend.)
Hike up Volcano Tungurahua to Mirador La Virgen - January 23rd
Our hike took us just past the Mirador de la Virgen (Virgin Lookout), a religious shrine, part of which came from Spain and was lifted into place by a helicopter. It was intended to be visible and inspiring from anywhere in the city, a sacred icon peering down on you from the mountainside. But in fact, while it can be seen from all over town, you can’t make out any details; and if you didn’t know what it was, you might think it was just a lemonade stand or something.
After resting up a bit, we continued ambling about town until we happened upon a cave. Well, it was a rather small cave, and there was of course an admission charge, but it was a cave nonetheless. It was enhanced by a light show, and a recording of cave-ish sound effects and First People music. We had a hard time deciding if the effect was cheesy or appropriately moody.
That night, we realized that after two nights and a full day in Baños, we’d thoroughly enjoyed basking in its atmosphere, but hadn’t really visited any major attraction, hadn’t really had any experience that stood out. And we realized that we still had time to work in something on Monday before we had to take a bus back to Ambato.
Spoiler alert. We did.
Colorful sidewalks are a theme throughout Baños
Jan 22-23, 2022