Banos is a small village with a population of 18,000. The locals call it a little piece of heaven and travelers who come end up staying longer than they intended.
Banos, meaning ‘baths’ in Spanish is famous for it’s thermal spring bathing facilities located in the center of town.
The town used to be a back packers paradise where weary travelers could get a meal and a bed for a buck each and soak away their aches, pains and bad memories in the thermal baths. But then travelers and tourists with money found the place. Hotels are now only $8 – $20 a night and meals can be easily had for $2. While they say the town hasn’t changed in the last 50 years, there are hundreds of hotels and restaurants and the competition keeps prices down.
Perched between the Tungarahua, an active volcano and the Rio Pastaza gorge, Banos enjoys a mild, subtropical climate. At an altitude of 5,460 feet, Banos is in the mountains and it’s cool during the days and nights. Tungarahua means ‘throat of fire’ in the native Kichwa language. It has a crater that is 400 meters in diameter but climbing the volcano is dangerous due to its never ending activity.
The volcano is just 20 miles from Banos and when it erupted suddenly in 1999, the town wasn’t damaged but was covered in ash. The government ordered a complete evacuation. Residents protested and were forcefully removed. When they were allowed to return four months later most of their homes and businesses were looted. The volcano has erupted regularly since – in 2006, 2008 and 2010. But Banos escapes destruction and the violent thermal activity has only drawn more people to the town.
Banos de Agua Santa (Holy Water Baths)
The locals believe the town has escaped the volacano’s wrath because the Virgin Mary saved the town from various disasters and blessed the town with holy water. It is believed the volcanic thermal springs in town contain religious healing properties. Physical and spiritual healing is why the public baths were constructed.
But don’t expect to find a luxury spas at the public thermal baths in South America. These natural spas with thermal waters are rustic and used by people from all walks of life. There’s no pampering or luxury here. The emphasis is on the health benefits the waters offer. Spa visits go back to a time when the whole point of visiting a spa was to cure one’s ailments with the waters and mud. Whether it’s the volcanic mud pools in Arboletes, Colombia or the volcanic thermal baths at Paipa, Ira, Iza or Coconuco, Colombia or Banos in Ecuador, spas are a spiritual and physical experience.
The Cabellara de la Virgin Waterfall can be seen and heard from the city center. At the base of the waterfall lies the Banos facilities. The thermal springs are open from 5 a.m. – 10 p.m. It costs $2 to get in during the day and $3 at night. There are changing rooms where you put your belongings in a basket and check them in at a counter. You must wear a swim cap in the pools but if you don’t have one they sell them for $1.
There are four springs at the Terme.
A couple are warm springs (37 degrees C.) were most of the people gather to soak and talk. Another smaller spring is very hot (45 degrees C.) and they recommend immersion for no more than 5 minutes. Then there’s a large pool filled with mountain spring water – cold (18 degrees C.). Obviously it’s the least crowded and long enough to swim a few swim laps.
A stream of cold mountain water cascades down from the mountains and lands on a shower pad near the pools. One can stand under the waterfall getting pummeled with icy water. The baths are popular with the locals – especially on the weekends. The brownish yellow volcanic waters don’t look appealing but there’s no denying their therapeutic affects after only an hour’s soak. The pools are emptied, cleaned and refilled every day.
After a therapeutic soak it’s the custom here to go get a massage. There are numerous massage parlours to choose from around town with hour long massages going from $25 – $35 an hour. The best one is ‘Chakra’ run by Carmen Sanchez on Louis Martinez and Alfaro Street in the center of town.
There’s a nice central market in town with plenty of food stalls serving up lunch for $2 and a supermarket right across the street. It doesn’t take but a couple hours to wander through the entire town. La Basilica de Nuestra Senor de Agua Santa is on the main plaza and is beautifully lit up at night.
Banos is also known for its adventure sports or extreme sports as they call them. Just outside of town, driving along the Pastaza gorge there are lots of small businesses offering zip lines, bungee jumping, white water rafting and extreme kayaking.
There are two major waterfalls just outside of town, Manta del Novia is the smaller one and Rio Verde is the larger and most impressive with steps leading down the mountain alongside the falls and swinging bridges over the gorge for breathtaking views.
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