There’s a certain romance attached to the ‘just turn up and see’ style of travel. It upholds the carefree, let-me-roam, Alexander Supertramp way of seeing the world; the travel touted by inspirational posters and idealised Instagram accounts, surfboard in one arm, skinny-limbed woman in the other.
In reality, just ‘turning up and seeing’ doesn’t always work so well. It was on the streets of Baños, Ecuador, that we bumped into a party of five friends with whom we had shared some meals in Cotopaxi. We asked if they were on their way to the hot springs, a set of baths heated by the nearby Tungurahua volcano (Baños translates as ‘baths’).
Anja wrinkled her nose. “No. Someone from our hostel visited yesterday and said the water was filthy.” She glanced around furtively and lowered her voice: “As in yellow filthy.”
Peter and I shared a look. The water in the baths is indeed yellow but not because of filth or waste, but natural minerals in the water (trust us, we checked). When we told them as such, they just nodded politely and began to slooowly back away. I wanted to press a guidebook into their hands but instead we nodded politely back and wished them well with their travels. We found it amusing that this group had travelled to Baños and weren’t going to sample the town’s main attraction because someone in their hostel told them the water was dirty.
A little research would have encouraged them to visit one of the town’s six thermal baths, the most appealing of which is Las Piscinas de la Virgen. Located next to a tumbling waterfall, these baths comprise three separate pools: one warm, one practically searing and one freezing. The idea is to wallow in the warm one and then alternate between the very cold and very hot ones. Peter bravely tried all three while I stuck to the warm ones. Naturally, there was much silliness.
The pools have a happy, convivial atmosphere and are populated mainly by locals. (Presumably, a sizeable proportion of gringos are scared off by the filth…) Aside from the baths, the town of Baños itself is unfortunately rather underwhelming. Filled with prosaic architecture and a glut of tour operators peddling trips to the surrounding area, it feels somewhat soulless. There is lovely surrounding scenery and a number of interesting excursions (mountain biking, hiking and rafting) but our advice is to pass through with no more than a two-night stay. Of course, if you’re not going to sample the baths, there’s barely any reason to come at all.
What: A stay in Baños, Ecuador.
Where: Baños is located in the Andean highlands of Ecuador in the shadow of Tungurahua volcano. We stayed at Santa Cruz Backpackers Hostel but had the worst night’s sleep of the trip thanks to one particularly obnoxious American and a communal area which stays open far past the advertised time. Instead, try Hostel Chimenea which has excellent reviews all round.
When: In the highlands, the dry season runs from June to September and reappears at Christmas.
How: There are frequent connections to Baños from Quito (4 hours, $4), Riobamba (2 hours, $2) and Guayaquil (5.5 hours, $7.00) – check latest timings at Andes Transit. The bus terminal in Baños is within walking distance to the centre and most hostels. A taxi should cost around $1. The town itself can be seen on foot.
It’s useful to be aware of some logistics at Las Piscinas de la Virgen:
- Opt to change into your swimwear upstairs as the cubicles there are cleaner and better equipped.
- You will need to wear a swimming cap. These aren’t included in the $3.50 USD entrance fee but can be hired at the site ($0.50, refunded when you return the cap).
- Try to store everything you have as there is no facility to leave things by the pool. You can store items in crates upstairs which you hand into a counter in exchange for a fee ($1 USD).
- Finally, make sure you shower before and after you get in.
For more information on visiting Baños, get the Lonely Planet Guide to Ecuador.