Life is a swing over the precipice, she said. It becomes particularly true in Baños, a small mountain town in the heart of Ecuador, just 3.5 hours ride from Quito and 2 hours from Cuenca in the south. It is a popular travel destination for foreigners and Ecuadorians alike due to the adventure sports opportunities it offers. Apart from this, there’s plenty of other things to do in Baños: waterfall chasing, hiking and enjoying thermal bath time. So in a nutshell, this little town is a paradise for the outdoors enthusiast!
As we make our way North from Cuenca, we scrap our plan to laze on the Ecuadorian seaside, and opt for spending yet again some days filled with greenery in those great outdoors we love so much. Our first stop is Baños where, despite being the low season in Ecuador, we hear again a lot of English spoken and eyewitness a never ending line of tour agencies trying to catch customers on the street. We quickly realise how touristy this little town is.
Luckily, Baños has been successful in fighting off becoming the real-real tourist trap of Ecuador and the streets still maintain a lovely, small-town atmosphere. Soon we are headed to the local market. And we notice straight away how friendly the locals are!
The full name of the town is Baños de Agua Santa (“Baths of holy water”) and it has one – or actually two cute stories behind it! According to the Catholic legend the Virgin Mary appeared in the Cascada de la Virgen (“Virgin’s waterfall”) and blessed it. That’s how the healing properties of the town’s thermal water is explained in religion.
There is, however, an older legend from the Kichwa (a major indigenous group in Ecuador) around the healing water. Mama Tungurahua, the volcano, is believed to be a capricious woman who supplies the town with the water. But when she is angry, the volcano spits ashes and lava. Hmm, I just wonder why a capricious character has to be a woman….?!
Why visit Baños on your Ecuador trip?
The town has a lucky geographical situation. It’s nestled in a long valley, surrounded by the Andes mountains and there’s a river right next to the town called Pastaza. As a result, adventure sport operators have popped up like mushrooms in the last couple of years offering affordable zip lining, white water rafting, bridge jumping, canoeing and canyoning experiences. This is a heaven for those who like such extreme sports!
To book any of these activities, simply walk down any of the streets close to the main square. Let yourself fished out or choose from the myriad tour agencies, comparing services and haggling your price.
Another reason that brings tourists over is the thermal water, rich in minerals. It is heated by the active Tungurahua volcano (the name means “throat of fire”) that towers the Southern part of town. Volcanic activity has been measured here since 1999, when the town was evacuated before a major eruption.
Although the volcano is 8 km away from Baños, its extensive tunnels spread out so that it manages to heat the thermal waters. There are many thermal baths in and around town suited for different wishes and wallets.
Although Baños is surrounded by mountains, hiking the lower paths is not as spectacular as other hiking destinations in Ecuador. But they still offer a nice view over the town and the mountains.
Volcano – and capricious women – enthusiasts will rejoice as it’s possible to climb to the top of the Tungurahua volcano with a guide (and with crampons). Climbing a volcano is a lot of fun, the scenery is quite different to hiking a “regular” mountain.
Read about another volcano: Hiking the Osorno volcano in Chile
Best time to visit
If you think that because you’ve come to South America, you’ll have only sunny, warm and dry days, think again. Baños sits in a valley among the Andes mountains of Ecuador. So there’s a lot of rain even in the dry season and the weather is really changeable.
The temperature never gets very high – the warmest average temperature is 23 celsius, pretty much all year round. Activities like rafting and canyoning are available in every season, but the so-called dry season lasts from November to February. Even on these days, prepare with rain gear as the weather changes fast during the day.
Things to do on a budget in Baños, Ecuador
Outdoor activities, such as white water rafting and canyoning, are cheap here compared to more expensive countries. But they don’t always fit to a budget traveler’s wallet. Below are our tips for the top fun things to do in Baños that will suit everyone’s financial possibilities!
Swing at the End of the World in Casa del árbol (“tree house”).
Total cost without bus: 1 USD / person
Total cost with bus: 3 USD / person
Children and children-at-heart will enjoy this mini adventure park at the top of the foothills of the Tungurahua volcano. The most famous activity here is a long swing attached to a tree, with a real tree house on top. You can swing over the slope and your feet will be hanging over the distant mountain background.
The first push feels a bit scary (as you hang over the nothingness), but it’s pure joy afterwards. End of the world, here I come!
The entry to the site is 1 USD and then there’s no additional cost for the different activities. There are 6 swings (2 at the original treehouse, 2 a few meters away on another slope, and 2 that are just usual swings), 2 zip lines and several pleasant picnic spaces and lookouts.
The tree house is a cute place to feel a bit cozy, take photos from and get a view from a few meters higher.
Note that there’s another, similar adventure park right next door (you can see their swings) offering the same experience. The swing above the valley became such a big hit that right now there are several sites offering the same attractions in Baños. If it worked out for the neighbour, why not copy…
To get there
You can either hike to the Casa del árbol from town (see below the Hikes section), or take a bus from the corner of Calle Pastaza and Luis A. Martinez. The hike is a steep uphill – it takes about 2.5 hours. There are several lookouts on the city and the neighbouring hills, but the path itself is not particularly beautiful.
Maps.me has a good map about the paths. (And in general, I cannot recommend enough this brilliant app for your trip anywhere in South America!)
Tour the “Waterfall route” and Visit the Pailon del Diablo waterfall and even more cascades.
Total cost with bus: 5 USD / person
Total cost with bike rental: 8 USD / person
Between Baños and Puyo stretches the road that is called modestly the “Waterfall route” of Ecuador. There are over a dozen waterfalls visible along the road; a few of them earned both fame and a visitor platform around them.
The most famous of all is the 80-meter tall Pailon del Diablo (“Cauldron of the devil”) that is the third waterfall site on the “Waterfall route”. To visit this majestic waterfall you can either take a bus towards Puyo from town (maps.me marked the bus stop), costing 1 USD one way and lasting 40 mins, or rent a bike and burn calories. There are plenty of bike rental shops in Baños, prices start at 5 USD per day.
The bus and the bike routes follow the same scenic road (there’s no bike lane unfortunately) with a view on most of the waterfalls of the waterfall route and the valley, plus a potential pit stop at a local sweet shop near the Manto de la Novia waterfall (just to make sure you don’t burn too many calories).
There are 3 tunnels on the way, from which only the first one is open to cyclists. For the others, bikers have to go around the hill on a diverting path – don’t worry, it doesn’t take any longer.
Once you’re there
At the waterfall there are 2 different paying viewing platforms (what a surprise!), skilfully called the “old entrance” and the “new entrance”. The old entrance is actually sort of a mini natural park striving to be the best ecological site in Ecuador. All the facilities (like bins, paths, booths) are made of natural materials. The entrance to the site costs 2 USD.
The first path goes down to the bottom of the waterfall, all downhill in a forest. In front of the waterfall there’s a viewing platform where one can descend. From there, follow another path going behind the waterfall – you’ll have to crouch through a narrow cave. You’ll definitely get very wet, so take a rain jacket or a poncho.
The third route allows a further peek of the fall, the surrounding rocks and the river which is really green, all that from a suspension bridge. The rock formations are very interesting, they look like folded stone.
Love waterfalls? Discover Iguazu Falls, the world’s new wonder!
We didn’t choose the new entrance but saw its viewing platform: it goes above the fall instead of behind. It also gives a good view but not better than the old entrance. On maps.me the new entrance is the first one when coming from the main road, and is marked as… “new entrance”.
Pailon del Diablo is a touristy place but when we were there (in the low season) it wasn’t too crowded. We even had a little time alone to enjoy the distant view.
On the way back
We stopped at the second most popular but less impressive Cascada Manto de la Novia (“Bride’s dress waterfall”). The fall is 40 meters high and visible from the road, which is probably the best viewpoint.
It’s amazing how the water plunges to the soil – the river is very small so there is no proper pool underneath. In fact, the upper part of the river is also rather thin, so it’s interesting to see it become such a large waterfall, then a thin river again. Not clear? Well, this is what I mean:
To get nearer the waterfall there is a steep hike down until a bridge over the river (1 USD to walk over the bridge) or one can get a closer look from one of the 2 competing cable cars that they locally call tarabita (for 2 USD). From Pailón del Diablo to Manto de la Novia it takes 10 minutes on the bus and costs 50 cents.
Soak in the locals’ favourite thermal bath, Termas de la Virgen, right next to the town waterfall.
Total cost in the morning: 2.5 USD / person
Total cost in the evening: 3.5 USD / person
The Termas de la Virgen (“Virgin’s thermal baths”) were, in 1928, the first thermal baths to open in Baños and probably in Ecuador. They’re at a very special location, next to the beautiful Cascada Cabellera de la Virgen waterfall, which is the only one directly in town.
The bath has 2 floors and is open in the morning from 5 am, then closes for the early afternoon to open again from 6 to 9 pm. Don’t mix it with the new bath with the same name only one street away!
We went in the afternoon at 6 and it was really nice to watch the setting sun from the hot pool among local bathers. There are 6 pools: 2 hot (1 of them apparently opens only in the morning), 1 very hot (45 degrees), 2 very cold and a tiny cold one. The hot one got crowded soon.
What the locals do is to go quickly from the very cold to the very hot pools (both downstairs). It’s your challenge of the day! I tried it, it’s quite difficult to bear any of them!
The entry price differs from morning to evening, 2 USD and 3 USD respectively. Add 50 cents to rent an obligatory swimming cap.
Visit the charming sanctuary Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Agua Santa in Baños.
Total cost to visit the church: FREE
This is a pretty church with a complicated name: “Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Holy Water“. (Call her Rosie.) It’s right on Parque la Basilica, a few blocks away from the main square. The name refers to the Virgin of Ecuador who blessed the water of the town – she’s the patron saint of Baños.
It was built in a neo-Gothic architectural style of black and red volcanic stones from the area. Make sure you look up at the exquisite wooden roof. There’s an adjacent patio with entrance to the museum of ethno-archaeology of Ecuador and of the Virgin of Baños.
The church interior is decorated with murals depicting the miracles of the Virgin of the Holy Water, especially related to the Tungurahua volcano eruptions. The town survived these events thanks to the protection of the Virgin, according to the religion. Ecuador declared the sanctuary of Baños a National Heritage of Ecuador in 1997.
Hikes in Baños, Ecuador
There are several hiking routes from Baños ranging from easy to hard. On the Southern side of town there’s the Tungurahua volcano and foothills offering a few routes; and on the Northern side there’s a hiking path along the Pastaza river. On the Southern side all but the actual volcano-hike are on the foothills, not on the volcano. All hikes are free without a guide.
Short hikes for a few hours
On the Southern side an easy and short hike leads to La Virgen (“the Virgin”) statue and mirador. Approach this from Calle Juan Leon Mera at the end of the town, passing Casa Amarilla guest house.
The beginning of the way is a dirt road, from which one turns right to a small path towards the statue. It’s easy to miss the entrance of the tiny path separating from the main one, I recommend to follow maps.me. La Virgen stands on an elevated platform. So it’s hard to take a selfie with her but there’s a nice view over Baños on a clear day.
Another short hike leads to Mirador La Cruz Bellavista, the cross that is illuminated at night and is visible from town. The start of the path is at the end of town from Calle Pedro Vicente Maldonado. There are benches along the way and lookouts to rest.
If you fancy a harder extension, on the way back from the cross after about 300m, turn uphill on a small path. This is a hardcore uphill path leading to the top of the hill at the most exquisite thermal bath of Baños called Luna Runtun. This bath offers a beautiful view on the city, especially amazing at night. The entry is pricey though, 20 USD. Nevertheless, you can enjoy the pretty view on the town without entering the bath.
The hike at the river Pastaza is an easy one between 2 bridges: Puente San Francisco, which is just behind the bus terminal, and the one on Via Sauces on the other side of town. This path follows the river in the valley and has a few benches to rest.
Medium half-a-day hike
A medium-length hike is the one up to Casa del árbol through La Virgen statue. After reaching La Virgen, turn uphill on a single path, all the way steep with occasional lookouts. This is where you’ll start sweating.
After regretting choosing this hike through the forest part you’ll arrive to a bigger lookout on a small meadow, and after that to greenhouses used to grow babaco fruit. The path gets easier from here and soon you’ll arrive to the paved road leading to Casa del árbol.
For the way back down you can take the road on the other side, making it a nice round loop. The way continues on the paved road for a long time, then turn to a path at a small lake. From here everything is well signposted.
You can either stop by at Mirador La Cruz Bellavista or make your way down passing the Luna Runtun bath. Maps.me, yet again, has it all well marked. Including swinging time in the Casa del árbol, this is a half-a-day trek.
Hard 1 or 2-day hike
For a more extreme hike and a postcard-perfect photo opportunity, head to the Tungurahua volcano. That is part of the Sangay National Park, sitting at 5022 m. You can hike the path until a refuge (at 3800m) without a guide (around 6 hrs), but since it’s hardcore altitude, make sure you’re acclimatised well. If you come from Quito, or have hiked in the Cajas National Park near Cuenca, that should do the trick.
If you walk all the way up, consider staying a night in the refuge and descend the next day. The trail starts the same way as to Casa del árbol from La Virgen statue side but instead of turning to the paved road, it continues uphill. For those who want to reach the top, bring your crampons and hire a guide. Local tour agencies offer guides for Tungurahua.
The local tourist info on the main square has maps, but the routes are really schematically marked. If you used only that, you would definitely get lost. I recommend (yet again) using the maps.me app as it marks all paths reliably. (I don’t get a commission if you do, I just love that thing!)
Where to stay
There are plenty of accommodation available in Baños suiting all budgets and conditions. Good news for the lazy traveller, in the low season we saw plenty of availability even without booking before arrival.
Downtown is full of all kinds of accommodation: posh hotels, quirky hostels and rundown hostals. Hostal is a term used across South America for a hostel or a cheap hotel type of accommodation. In Baños, as in the rest of Ecuador, you’ll come across many of them.
We stayed in an uncool place called Hostel Charvic. It was very cheap, 5 USD per person for a simple double room. There was a super rundown kitchen and a bare concrete rooftop terrace – I can’t truly recommend it from the bottom of my heart.
How to get to Baños from Quito or from the South of Ecuador
Baños is a mere 3.5 hours bus ride from Quito. There are direct buses from Quito Terminal Quitumbe bus station to Baños. These might stop in Ambato, the nearest big town. You might hear “Baños de Ambato” as Ecuadorians refer to Baños. It’s because of the proximity of Ambato, and to avoid confusion with another place called Baños near Cuenca.
In the unlikely case you would find no direct bus to Baños, the best is to go to Ambato and change there – many buses run that route.
If you travel from the South, direct buses to Baños are scarce. Traveling from Cuenca, we took the direct night bus at 11pm with the only company operating this direct line called Amazonas Cooperativa de Transportes. This company also has daytime buses, if you prefer that. If there’s no direct bus to Baños, make your way to Ambato and change there.
The bus station in Baños is in town, it’s easy to reach the centre on foot.
Where to go in Ecuador after Baños
After Baños one option is to go West towards the exciting Ecuadorian jungle called the Oriente. You’d take the road to Puyo, which is the first town in the jungle. (Baños is in fact dubbed “the gateway to the jungle”.) Buses run frequently every day.
Another option is to go South to Cuenca, the charming colonial town that we heartily recommend. And from there to Loja, another town among hills. Distances are long here, count with a 7-hour ride to Cuenca.
If you are heading North, like we did, visiting the Quilotoa lake would be a good option (another great outdoors adventure at the greenest crater lake of Ecuador!), as it’s on the way to Quito. The bus ride takes only a few hours and it costs 2.5 USD to Latacunga, the “Quilotoa hub”.
Feel free to read our articles about these destinations for inspiration:
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