We found ourselves chatting at one point or another with at least one person from nearly every table in the cafe. The room was sun drenched and the atmosphere was extremely friendly, almost weirdly friendly. The decor was “bohemian backpacker” meets “intellectual hippie”. Subconsciously I was waiting for all of the customers to stand up and start singing a jovial camp song in unison. It was an expat hangout owned and operated by expats, and the name of the cafe was only one word off of another quirky cafe we had eaten in the afternoon before. Later, we discovered that the two cafe owners had once been married and had split their restaurant dreams along with their marriage. Both still sold a decent vegetarian curry.
The service was slow – colossally slow. The drinks however were cheap and quick to arrive. Soon after opening for lunch it seemed that the entire place had a happy buzz on. For over an hour, my husband and I discussed potty training and neuroscience with a lovely British woman while our toddlers played on the floor with books and toys. Her Ecuadorian husband sat a few tables away discussing yoga and attachment parenting with another expat. If you stepped onto the front patio, you could hear the closest waterfall (two blocks off) buzzing with an intensity that never ceased. This was how we ended up seriously debating whether or not to make an unscheduled five day trek into the rainforest with these new friends via a teeny tiny 5-seater airplane and dugout canoe through unspoiled jungle. They were setting off to visit his cousins and spontaneously invited us along for the ride.
Eventually, the practicalities of diapers, malaria, bug spray and no WiFi dampened our excitement. We left the cafe after regretful goodbyes, a few hugs all around, and a feeling like we had just visited a surreal other-world. The next day as we wrestled with an inconsolable two-year old, a pouty eight year old and all of our luggage on our seven hour bus ride to Cuenca, we thanked the heavens we had come to our senses before embarking on an adventure that would surely have tested our sanity.
“What were we thinking?” I asked my husband. We chalked it up to the wine, our growing endurance for family travel and the magic of Baños.
Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador sits in the shadow of the Tungurahua volcano, both physically and psychologically. The volcano became active again in the year 2000 and has had several eruptions since then. In recent years, the town was evacuated and people died. As we were waiting to depart Quito in September (2014) for Baños, the volcano was again threatening to erupt, lending an air of uncertainty and excitement to our quick trip.
Because it sits high in the Andes and perches at the entrance to the Amazon river basin, the town is an oasis of green mountains and low clouds. In a word – beautiful.
There are over 60 waterfalls in the area, some right in the city. There are also several natural mineral hot springs scattered throughout town. Because of all this, this small town is a tourist mecca attracting both international visitors and Ecuadorians in droves. There is a lively expat community made up of mostly Europeans and some Americans. The high tourist season is in June, July and August. We arrived after nearly all of the tourists had left town and the locals were out shaking off the dust and enjoying the relative quiet of their home again.
We are budget travelers, and therefore took the commuter bus from Quito. We had spent almost two months in Quito, and while we were anxious to move on and resume our travels we were quite heartbroken to leave our new favorite city. Reflecting our emotions, it rained tremendously the morning of our departure after several months of drought. After a harried, wet ride to the southern bus terminal crammed in a neighbor’s tiny car…
…we dashed into the station, used the facilities, bought snacks and tickets. We also saw (and heard) our first rooster carrier of the trip.
My husband purchased our bus tickets and then turned back to ask the nice lady how long it would be before our bus left.
“Tres minutos,” she responded calmly, obviously never having traveled with two kids, two suitcases, a stroller, and four backpacks. I was parked with the kids and the gear near the entrance of the station (and one floor down) when I saw my 6’2 husband RUNNING across the terminal at breakneck speed. As he approached (watched by every awestruck person in the station who maybe never saw a huge, bald gringo running this fast) he was shouting “Grab the kids and LETS GO!!!”
We dashed out and eventually caught our bus literally as it was pulling out of the driveway. After four months in Central and South America, boarding moving buses is no problem.
The ride to Baños was stunning. Volcanos and their abundant ash made the area perfect for farming, and the lush gardens and farms extended to nearly impossible heights up the sides of the verdant mountains and hills. We climbed up and down over the Andes, peering through the bus windows onto tiny little villages tucked into valleys and crevices.
After several hours on the bus we pulled into the bus station and paused for a moment letting the kids get their wiggles out running up and down the building. We have learned the hard way that it is almost always better to get a taxi to your first stop in town, and so we did. This proved to be a good idea since our hostel was high on a hill above the town. The views were killer, but later we discovered that the the walk up there could be challenging.
We settled into our tiny, clean and budget-friendly room, and set out to find some food and information about the hot springs.
Lunch was quite good. There are a plethora of great restaurants and bars in Baños, making it easy to see why it’s such a popular spot with the expats. I asked the owner which hot springs he preferred in town, and after walking around and exploring a bit, my daughter and I decided to head over to his recommendation while my husband and son took a nap back at the hostel.
The cafe owner directed us to “La Virgen” hot springs. These municipal mineral baths are fed by the waterfall that looms overhead. There is a stone clothes washing area in front of the waterfall (which we saw local women using on our visit) and stairs that allow you to climb up and get a better view of the city and a close encounter with the falls.
The hot springs were wonderful. The facility cost $2 to enter ($1 for kids), and encompassed three hot pools (of varying heat) and one clear blue, freezing cold pool. The hot springs all contain mineral water which has an opaque, almost muddy color to it. Upon entering, you climb up the stairs and grab a plastic bin for your clothes. There are dressing rooms where you can change and stow your clothes and things in the bin. You walk the bin across the deck to an administrative building and check it in, and receive a wristband with your bin number. Then you are directed to the showers (nice and warm!) before you can enter the pools. I saw a staff member lose her stuffing with someone who tried to enter the pools without showering – so don’t do that. Also, swimming caps are mandatory.
We mostly stuck to the medium hot pool upstairs, but did give the even hotter pool upstairs a try too for a bit (it was too hot for my liking). There is another pool downstairs which is (in my opinion) unbearably, ridiculously hot. There are also pipes along the wall which provide a steady stream of cold water directly from the waterfall in case you want to cool down before getting back into the hot springs or switching to a new pool. I’m personally not into cold water, but my daughter did this and the freezing cold pool a few times, and loved it.
We stayed for a couple of hours, enjoying ourselves immensely. We met some interesting characters. There were almost no gringos at the hot springs on this trip, only Ecuadorians and their families and the mood was very relaxed and laid back. When we left to walk back to our hostel, we discovered that our skin had a lovely, almost silky softness to it.
We ate that night at the “Stray Dog Pub”, which is a legitimate brew pub that does actually have a resident stray dog (he’s not very friendly – so look but don’t touch). We are connoisseurs of brew pubs, and try to visit them in nearly every place we visit. This one surprised us by having both delicious beer and good food. They also had a nice seating area upstairs with some cushy couches where we felt free to sit our kids with electronic devices so we could have a moment of peace. You take it where you can get it when traveling.
The next morning after a simple breakfast at the hostel, we walked around town to find the local park for the kids. It was a nicely equipped and maintained place with (of course) a view of waterfalls. We also did something we NEVER do while traveling – we booked a tour with a guide to see some of the local sites. We justified the cost because we were only in town for a couple of days and didn’t have a car. In the end, we were happy with our decision.
Our guide drove us around to see a few different waterfalls around the outskirts of town and also to view the tunnels built to prevent the local roads from being washed out constantly.
He also took us to the one waterfall we were dying to see – the Devil’s Cauldron. We had seen pictures and read about the steep staircase and suspension bridges to get there, but this was one instance where being there actually beat our expectations. It was awesome.
Before leaving town, we visited the hot springs and the Stray Dog Pub again just to make sure the positive first visits weren’t a fluke (they weren’t). Baños was a fascinating place and I totally get why so many foreigners pick up and move there. The only downsides were the improbable number of stray dogs everywhere in town (and the resulting dog poop that is hard to avoid while walking) and the higher-than-usual for Ecuador food prices.
Our last night in town after my toddler went to sleep and my husband found a show to watch on the computer, I took my daughter back to the hot springs for a special nighttime visit. As we sat in the dark amongst the tourists and locals, stewing in the murky mineral water and watching the steam rise above everyone’s head, I directed her attention to the waterfall overhead.
“Look around you. Remember how this feels and what it looks like. Remember the smells and how magical this feels and what your thoughts are right at this moment. Let’s make a memory of this together”.
And so we held hands in the water and did just that.