We spent 3 nights and two full days in Banos last week, on our way from Quito to Guayaquil. The highlights for us were the thermal baths, hence the name ‘Banos’, and a long walk up the foothills of Volcan Tungurahua (the active volcano). Banos was founded in the mid-16th century by the Spanish invaders and their religious counterparts, who set out to civilise the locals by forcing catholicism on them. Like many cities founded by the Spanish, the location would originally have been a small indigenous settlement in an ideal location – in the case of Banos a fertile river valley.
On the Wednesday morning (29 January) after our arrival, we were up at 6am to visit some thermal baths. Being confirmed non-believers, and holding a very dim view of the Catholic church’s history of oppression & extermination across south America, we took on the challenge of visiting the ‘Termas de la Virgen’, a 10min walk from our hostal. These thermal baths were so named because apparently some catholics believed they saw an image of the Virgin in a nearby waterfall! Legend also has it that in about 1773, and again in 1949, when eruptions in the volcano caused these natural hot springs to stop flowing, a procession of hard-praying believers to the site resulted in the immediate resumption of the water flow! The complex housing these natural baths were rebuilt in 1950.
On the morning we went the baths had a good 50+locals already soaking in the choice of very hot, warm, or cold pools (cold water from the waterfall). After the necessary natural warm shower & wash, we put on our hired plastic bath caps,and jumped in for a soak. At a mere $3 for as long as you want, these natural mineralised thermal baths were a great way to clean up and relax. Much better value we suspect than the alternative health/spa industry that has developed alongside them in Banos.
By mid-morning we had breakfasted and made a packed lunch to take on a walk up into the foothills of Tungurahua, which began where the southern edge Banos ends. There are numerous signed walks leading to viewpoints looking back down over Banos, and we headed first to the ‘Mirador la Cruz Bellavista’, and then up to a small village named Runtun. As well as spectacular views on the steep walk up, we observed lush vegetation and local agriculture practised on almost vertical slopes…and we found the walk hard enough!
Near Runtun, we had ascended about 600m above Banos (which is at about 1800m above sea level), and it was hard work. But we were
tempted by a sign to the ‘Mirador de la Volcan’, a mere 800m further on. Given our tendency to turn simple walks into arduous long ones, we set off on the climb, even though this mirador was not on the tourist maps. We were now over the first hill south of Banos, which we could no longer see, and were ascending past huge ‘Vendanas’, or ‘windows’ in Spanish, which were in fact polytunnels growing fruit trees – mainly a sour fruit sold as ‘tree tomatos’? The path to the mirador was not well maintained, nor well signed, and the higher we went the closer to the clouds covering the top of Tungurahua we got, clouds that were in fact coming down. After a brush with some dogs guarding the houses of farm workers in a small village, we decided to stop for lunch. We’d ascended to about 1000m above Banos, in nearly 4 hours walking, and needed a break! Our walk back down was equally stunning, and much quicker, though hard-going on the knees & ankles. That was one beautiful walk.
On the Thursday, feeling the after-effects of Wednesday, we arose later and had breakfast before walking 2km through Banos to the ‘Thermas del Salado’. These are to the west of Banos, located in a small valley where the Rio Bascun runs, which also serves as a run-off for the lava when the volcano erupts and dumps its load – as it has been threatening to do ever since we visited. Once again the thermal baths were mainly full of locals of all ages, and the atmosphere was very chilled.
After, around noon, we set off on another walk, this time east out of Banos along the valley on fairly level ground as our legs weren’t up to another hilly climb. We passed a variety of housing, and not for the first time in Ecuador we noticed that some of the larger/more expensive houses had their own electric fences as protection! As with the so-called developed western nations, the class differences are very apparent here, as we were to see again in Guayaquil.
Banos is a town worth visiting, for its spectacular location, nature and natural resources. It seems a shame that so many tourists only go there to engage in adventure sports nearby, their over-stimulated senses and need for adrenalin rushes meaning they miss out on the true beauty of the area.
(In Banos we stayed at the Hostal Canalimena, a simple straight-forwards place costing us just $16 per night for a double room with bathroom & small terrace, breakfast a further $3 each. Close to everything).