If you love adventure and the great outdoors, you will absolutely adore Baños. Whether you’re into hiking, biking, volcano climbing, white water rafting, canyoning or zip lining, this small Ecuadorian town nestled in the valley of a volcano has got you covered.
But guess who would be the last people on earth that want to hear any hint of the words “outdoors” and “adventures” mentioned within the same breath? People who have just hiked the Quilotoa Loop. As we were sitting on our bus from Latacunga trying to discuss the hiking and other activities around Baños, it was admittedly a bit difficult to muster up a great deal of enthusiasm. Not only that, but as with many of the big adventure activities in South America, most of those offered in Baños would more than likely be out of our budget range.
Fortunately though the town has much more to offer than the typical big adventures. Backpackers flock to Baños in droves, and as a result it boasts some top quality hostels as well as loads of cheap eats and bars. We stayed at the lovely Santa Cruz Backpackers Hostel in a cosy little 4 person dorm that, for the majority of our stay, we had to ourselves. The hostel is clean and bright, with a lovely common area beside a roaring fireplace for the chilly nights. For a very small cost you can also get a delicious breakfast every morning, and the hostel staff are extremely friendly – just like all the Ecuadorians we met!
Aside from all the adventure activities, one of the biggest things that attracts travelers to Baños is the Casa Del Arbol. If you know someone who has been to Ecuador, chances are that they have a photograph of them sitting on a somewhat precarious looking wooden swing, flying out over the edge of a cliff – but fortunately, it’s not as terrifying or dangerous an experience as it looks like from these photos! Several companies in town run tours that will take you up to the famous tree house, but you can do it at a fraction of the cost and on your own schedule simply by taking a public bus from the centre of town. We recommend doing it this way, not only to avoid paying extra unnecessarily, but also because you can avoid the crowds and stay at the swing for as long as you want.
We boarded the bus feeling excited and optimistic – but as we trundled up the steep mountainside, ominous looking dark clouds started rolling in over our heads, and by the time we reached the Casa De Arbol 45 minutes later the rain was full on pouring. Not ideal for those iconic photographs! Luckily there is a small bar/restaurant right by where the bus drops you off, so we decided to stop in there for a beer and wait to see if the rain passed (another advantage of not being on a tight tour bus schedule!). Luckily about half an hour later the sun popped back out, and we hurried up the pathway to the infamous swing.
As it turns out there are actually four different swings you can try, and none of them are particularly dangerous – all of them have seat belts, and they are angled in such a way that if you fall off you actually don’t have very far to go before you hit the ground, as they are all sitting on top of gentle grassy slopes rather than sheer drops into nothingness. But of course, if you catch photos at the right angle it looks like you’re swinging out off the top of the canyon – and after much trial and error, Dan, Michelle and I all managed to get good shots (and consequently terrified our mothers when we shared them later on).
Another highly recommended activity when in Baños is cycling the Ruta de las Cascadas, an exhilarating downhill mountain bike ride through the valley that takes you past seven stunning waterfalls. This sounded like a little too much adventure for us in our post-Quilotoa-Loop state, so we decided to do our own mini version of a waterfall tour and visit arguably the most famous waterfall in Baños: Pailon del Diablo, or “Devil’s Cauldron”. It’s a quick, simple bus ride to get out there from Baños and an easy walk to reach the waterfall itself. Make sure to bring waterproof clothes and zip lock pouches or dry bags for your electronics, though – this waterfall is fierce, and if you walk anywhere near it (which you will by default from following the path) you are guaranteed to get soaked. You can also squeeze through a tiny path in the rock face and climb up onto a bridge looking over the top of the waterfall, but claustrophobics be warned – at points you are pretty much crawling on your hands and knees, and if you freak out the tunnel is too tight for you to just turn around and go back!
One final activity that is a must when visiting Baños (which we actually didn’t get around to doing!) is the thermal baths. These are located just on the edge of town next to yet another impressive waterfall, and for a small fee you can go in and enjoy a number of natural hot baths of varying degrees of heat. Most people we spoke to had good things to say about the baths – but on the evening we had set aside to do it we were all feeling particularly lazy, and as it started to rain just as we were about to don our swimsuits, in the end pyjamas and Netflix won!
Finally, if you’re in the mood for some good comfort food and beers while in Baños (something that appealed to us far more than zip lining) you should definitely check out Stray Dog Brewpub – we fell a bit in love with this place and went several times during our stay to enjoy the epic burgers, chips and home brewed beer. The coffee stout was a favourite of Dan’s!
After our pretty relaxing and uneventful stay in the adventure capital of Ecuador, it was time for us to make our way to our final stop in the country: Cuenca.