For someone raised at sea level, i.e. in the plains, climbing one of the mountains that surround this town, sitting at an elevation of 1,600m, is exhausting. The trail alternates between steep steps (with the occasional cement handrail) and a rough switchback dirt path, beginning near the mausoleums to the southwest to rise far above the city. Like many places in South America, a religious statue caps a high point here — in this case, that of the Virgin Mary. I’m visiting her, like a pilgrim, for the first time, and as I pause for a much-needed rest at a clearing, Baños spreads out before me.
Nestled amid volcanoes and mountains, Baños de Agua Santa, also known as the ‘gateway to the Amazon’, is a small city of roughly 18,000 people. But this isolated town draws tourists because it’s at a confluence of terrains, where visitors can experience hiking, zip lining, canyoning, horseback riding and kayaking in the lush greenery of Ecuador’s interior.
Located on the Paztaza river, roughly three hours east of the capital city Quito, Baños has lanes lined with tourism companies and hostels. On the busier days, visitors roam avenues filled with the sounds of all-terrain vehicles heading out for off-road adventure. Later, the small but popular bar district pounds with the beats of reggaeton as late night party-goers spill on to the street from the dance clubs. But on normal days, like mine, the town’s permanent residents come out, calling out to each other amiably, as they must have done for years, taking back the space that had only just been inundated with visitors.
Onwards and upwards on my path to the Virgin Mary, I catch sight of Tungurahua, or the ‘throat of fire’ volcano. The namesake for the entire province, ‘Mama Tungurahua’, as she is locally known, towers 5,000m high, overshadowing the entire valley. Both a blessing and a curse, she is still active. In 1999, volcanic activity caused massive ashfall, resulting in the evacuation of 25,000 residents from the surrounding areas. In 2006, two violent eruptions killed many people and partially destroyed several small villages. The eruptions continued in 2010 and 2012, and one spectacular explosion in mid-July , 2013. threw up an ash plume visible as far as Quito, 135km away. The rumblings went on in August.
But Mama Tungurahua delivers her largesse, too. It is she who brings fans of ‘volcano tourism’ to Baños. They board ‘chiva’ party buses, loudly coloured and blaring reggaeton, that drive past roads painted with directions for evacuation. On the slopes of the volcano, warmed by canelazo (an Andean alcoholic winter drink) and aguardiente (a popular sugarcane liquor), they hope to see her glow against the night sky.
Earlier in the week, I was invited to a small gathering on the slopes of another mountain with a view of Tungurahua. Here, I met Mercello, a native of Baños who had worked in the construction industry in the United States for a number of years. He had at last come back to his hometown to stay, and was busy building his own pizzeria now. He showed me where he was hewing steps, a kitchen, and the entire restaurant, actually, out of the mountain rock.
As we cooked marinated beef, corn and a potato salad on the hastily assembled homemade grill, Mercello described the arduous climb up Tungurahua. “It takes several days and it’s difficult,” he said. “You have to bring your camping gear. Going all the way up to the top is not actually allowed and you never know when the volcano will erupt.”
On my own, more moderate trek, I had finally reached the top, where families were sprawled on the grass, snacking and enjoying the view, as were an amorous young couple, before the long walk down under the kindly gaze of the Virgin Mary.
Baños’ history has always been intertwined with Catholicism. The second most populous city in the Tungurahua district, Baños, called the ‘baths of sacred water’, arrived on the religious map when claims were made of Virgin Mary visions appearing near the waterfalls that empty into the town’s thermal baths. Tales of miraculous healing and the rejuvenative properties of the baths eventually led to the building of the Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water, a major landmark. It’s a neo-Gothic cathedral constructed with volcanic rocks and contains depictions of the Virgin Mother saving the residents from volcanic calamities.
The church is close to the main walking street, filled with shops selling the town’s well-known melcocha (sugarcane taffy), stretched and re-stretched throughout the day, and restaurants serving up everything from French crêpes to German and Mexican foods. Ecuadorian fare is well-represented, especially in small restaurants specializing in ceviche, which is seafood marinated in lemon juice with the local addition of tomato paste, and empanadas, doughy dumplings stuffed with potatoes or minced beef and deep fried, served with a spicy salsa.
Perhaps the most unusual dish here is the whole roasted cuy or guinea pig, cooked on religious holidays or weekends. Older women sit about, fanning charcoal grills and turning guinea pigs over spits, and serving them whole or halved, complete with heads and curled, almost human-like claws.
Whole pig is also a local favourite and vendors serve it up with gusto at the Sunday farmer’s market, along with hominy, potato pancakes and the ubiquitous Ecuadorian salsa. The market itself is a weekly favourite of locals throughout the region, and you can wander along the rows of stalls selling the nation’s exotic fruits and vegetables, as well as selections of crumbly Ecuadorian queso.
Later in the day, I am at my favourite local pub, the Stray Dog, known for its eclectic pictures of wayward mutts. Jason, the bartender, has been here for years — his father owns La Posada del Arte, one of the high-end hostels in Baños de Agua Santa, and he is also a regular. Teaming up with a German brewer, Jason decided to start a brewpub; the bar serves up pub favourites like fish and chips and a large selection of artisanal sandwiches to complement their homemade seasonal beer.
Over the course of the night, the tourists are displaced by the regulars, a motley mix of foreigners who have finally found a place in Ecuador. The pub chats continue outside as the drinkers step out, and although the details of their conversations are lost, their words carry the knowledge that Baños is not only an adventure capital but a place where the slow rhythms of Ecuadorian life pulse steadily, alongside the rumblings of Mama Tungurahua.
Getting there: KLM, British Airways, American Airlines and United Airlines fly from India through their American and European hubs to Ecuador’s capital Quito. Round trip fares ex-New Delhi cost Rs 1.3 lakh upwards. There are frequent buses running from Quito to Baños de Agua Santa, and the journey takes roughly four hours. Try Transportes Amazonas or Expresos Baños, which leave from Quito’s main bus terminal, Terminal Terrestre. The trip costs about $3.50 each way.
Currency and visa: US dollars are commonly used in Ecuador. Credit cards are rarely welcome in town but there are several banks and ATM machines near the town centre. Ecuador offers tourist visas on arrival free of cost to Indian nationals. You only need to show your valid passport and confirmed return ticket (the embassy can be contacted at 011-46011803 and email@example.com).
Getting around: Baños is a very small town, so walking is the easiest way to go around. Still, cabs will take you anywhere around the city for roughly $1. Spanish is spoken here with a clear accent but English is commonly used.
Where to stay: Samari Spa Resort (Av. de las Amazonas; +593-3-274-1855, samarispa.com) is about as posh as Baños gets and it’s fairly good value for money, although it is a little way out of town and transport after 8pm is a problem. B&Bs also offer atmospheric stay options. Try Hacienda Manteles (Via Las Antenas; +593-2-603-9415, haciendamanteles.com), an elegant and rare retreat, away from the noisy bustle. The La Casa Verde Eco Hostel (Camino Real, Santa Ana; hostelworld.com) is popular and sincerely eco-friendly. Hostels are, in fact, the preferred accommodation in Baños. The La Posada del Arte (Calle Velasco Ibarra y Av. Montalvo; +593-3-2740-083, posadadelarte.com) is another clean and comfortable option.
What to see & do: Go to the Sunday market for a staggering variety of fruits and vegetables, and whole roasted pork. Try the Stray Dog for pub fare, and Casa Hood for a wide variety of international and local dishes. Since Baños is located close to the Equator, the weather is pleasant all year. Several religious festivals occur around Christmas, which makes things lively but also crowded. Just be sure to book lodgings in advance.