Set in a verdant, mountainous region in central Ecuador, 80 mi/130 km south of Quito, Banos de Agua Santa (or simply Banos) is a wonderful place to relax—if nearby Tungurahua volcano is not erupting. Banos was evacuated in late 1999 because the volcano was ejecting ash and rocks, damaging surrounding farms and businesses. Scientists say additional eruptions are possible; check current conditions when planning to visit the area.
Among the area's draws are several natural springs, which give the town its name (baths). Several places around town offer a chance for a good, long soak (be forewarned: the water ranges from ice cold to uncomfortably hot). The water looks murky, but this is only due to mineral content. La Piscina de la Virgen has the hottest water, and Piscinas Las Modernas offers toys and waterslides for children.
The lovely scenery around Banos is the area's other main attraction, and there are several ways to enjoy it. Good hiking trails are located in the hills above the town (check locally about the safety of the routes, especially if you're not traveling in a group—some robberies have been reported). Mountain biking and horseback riding are also popular, with the mostly downhill bike ride from Banos to Puyo (45 mi/70 km) being especially popular—take a bus to get back to Banos. If you don't want to stray far from Banos, shorter trips to the scenic bridge, Puente San Francisco, or the nearby waterfall, Cascada Ines Maria, can be made by horseback, taxi or even on foot.
White-water rafting is also possible on several rivers in the area, all tributaries of the Pastaza. There are plenty of tour operators that can help you arrange these excursions. Banos is also a good springboard town for Amazon adventures, with a host of tour operators arranging trips to the rain forest, as well as nearby volcanoes such as El Altar, Sangay or Chimborazo. The active volcano Tungurahua is often off-limits, but some treks might bring you relatively closer for a better view, if clouds and fog don't obscure it.
In Banos itself, stop and try some of the taffy (called melcocha) made in the storefronts along the streets—you can watch as candy makers pull the warm, gooey stuff over large wooden pegs built into the walls of their shops. Famed Ecuadoran guitar-maker Jacinto Guevara practices his craft in Banos. (Another village known for its guitar-makers is San Bartolome, 130 mi/210 km south of Banos, 20 mi/30 km southeast of Cuenca.)
If you get a chance, visit Banos in October and December, when the streets come alive during the town's two religious festivals: The first honors the Virgin of Holy Water (the namesake of the local church, Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Agua Santa); the second celebrates the date the town was appointed seat of its canon. The fiestas are a splash of music, dancing, processions and fireworks. http://www.banosecuador.com.
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